By Staff Nurse Jamie DeSnyder, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center
Every new nurse worries that they are going to mess up somewhere. Fresh out of nursing school, with a brand new license, the last thing a nurse wants to do is experience their patient “code,” a term used when a patient’s heart stops or they become unresponsive. Well, I can definitely say that I was no different.
Only having my license for four months, the last thing I wanted to hear 10 seconds after I had left the room was my patient’s wife screaming after me, “He’s not breathing!”
Everything that I had learned in orientation and nursing school felt like it just dropped from my brain as I ran back down the hall to make sure that I had heard her correctly. He wasn’t breathing or responding, and even though it was 3 a.m., a time when most patients are asleep, I remember screaming down the hall for my supervisor and expert nurse, Barry.
I fumbled with the phone as I called over the loudspeaker that a code was occurring. I then started CPR on the patient.
Before I knew it, there were about 10 other people in the room barking out orders, administering medications, and then kindly pushing me aside to take over chest compressions.
One of the anesthesiologists asked me to do something and I just stared at her, dazed. I don’t think I even heard what she said. She just looked at me gently and asked, “Is this your first code?”
I replied “Yep” and she just told me, “Stand back and watch.” That was exactly what I did.
The next eight to 10 minutes felt like hours, but the patient’s pulse returned to a normal heart beat and rhythm. There was another nurse across the bed who called out a phone number and I left the room to call in a report to the ICU. I was shaking and felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I felt like the situation was entirely my fault. I kept asking myself, over and over in my head: What did I miss? Why didn’t I catch this and prevent this from happening?
The patient was then rushed over to ICU and I went into the locker room and just started crying. I felt like a failure to my patient. There should have been something more I could do to save his life. I should have read the signs. My fellow nurses kept reassuring me that I did everything right and sometimes situations like this just happen. Needless to say, I wasn’t convinced and had serious doubts about my nursing career.
Thank goodness I had the next five days off work to recuperate. When I came back, though, many staff members came up to me and congratulated me on the wonderful job that I did on my first code.
I was shocked to see how many people had already heard the news and even more shocked that it was being spread around about what a great job I did. I finally was able to calm down a little when my patient’s wife approached me in the hallway that night and gave me a hug and said, “Thank you. If it wasn’t for you and your quick actions, I don’t know if he’d be alive right now.”
The wife, as it turns out, was Karen Goldman, chief nursing officer at Karmanos. It was her husband who had coded while in the hospital after undergoing surgery to treat his own cancer.
“I will forever credit (Jamie) with saving Peter’s life,” she wrote in a recent Chief Nursing Officer newsletter. “When I discovered he had coded, I was useless. I didn’t respond as a nurse but as a grief-stricken wife and I sank to the floor outside his room.
“Jamie and the 9 Webber North hospital floor midnight team never lost their focus. Peter was resuscitated and moved to the ICU within seven to eight minutes.
“A good nurse always wonders what she/he could have done differently. This is part of our nature to strive to be better. Jamie is my hero and she did exactly what she needed to do. She made a big difference in our lives because my husband is now home with me.”
I’ve been an RN for only six short months, but I’ve already learned so much that I didn’t learn in nursing school. I chose this profession because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. But sometimes when I go home after a long night, I think that I haven’t helped a single patient.
After this incident, however, I’m able to think of this patient and the day I helped save his life. Now I know that even if I don’t think that what I’m doing is life-changing, it very well might be.