For emergency workers, sadness follows fatal crashes, as does a sense of doing good
After a workday he could only describe in battle metaphors, John Gavin retreated to a room in his Old Lyme home with his acoustic guitar to sing his favorite Bruce Cockburn song, finding solace in familiar lyrics that gave voice to the pain and anguish he'd just witnessed.
"I just strummed my guitar and prayed until I felt a release, and let it go," said Gavin, 56, a Lawrence + Memorial Hospital paramedic for 25 years. "I believe in God, and I believe it's not up to me who lives and who dies. Sometimes I do the very best I can and they still die."
From "Pacing the Cage," he sang:
Sometimes the best map will not guide you/ You can't see what's around the bend/ Sometimes the road leads through dark places/ Sometimes the darkness is your friend/ Today these eyes scan bleached-out land/ For the coming of the outbound stage.
Gavin and many of his colleagues in the hospital's emergency department can hardly help reflecting back on Oct. 12, the day three accidents involving 16 vehicles on Interstate 95 South left four people dead and 16 injured. For some, driving that 8-mile stretch of highway through Old Lyme, East Lyme and Waterford brings it to mind. For others, reminders appear unexpectedly, like when a young patient comes in wearing the same sneakers as one of the two children killed in the crash.
"I've been to a lot of emergency scenes, and this one just looked like Armageddon," said Dr. Deirdre Cronin Vorih, 46, who started volunteering as an emergency medical technician in high school, spent the first part of her career as a biomedical engineer, went to medical school and began working at L+M 3½ years ago. "When there's chaos going on, there are three kinds of people. There are the people who run away, there are the ones who stand by and watch and rubberneck, and there are the people who go into it and try to fix it."
That day, Vorih had been spending a Sunday afternoon shopping with her three daughters, ages 18, 16 and 11. Driving home to Niantic, they came upon the second accident that day, in Waterford, and immediately Vorih headed to the hospital even though she wasn't scheduled to work that day, telling her oldest daughter to drive herself and her sisters home. Just a glimpse of the hellish mayhem of smashed vehicles, car parts, construction tools thrown from the back of a pickup truck, Jaws of Life equipment and ambulance crews rushing to victims was all it took for her to know she'd be needed. Life Star was trying to land on the highway, she said, but couldn't because of gridlock.
"When I got to the hospital, the two children were already being worked on, so I went and helped with the mother," she recalled. The mother, 25-year-old Baughnita Leary of Meriden, was the sole survivor and driver of the Nissan Sentra that carried her four-member family. Traveling with her were her 9-year-old daughter Sanaa Reynolds, 2-year-old son Dacari Robinson, and the boy's father, 26-year-old Darin Robinson. The children and the elder Robinson were all taken from L+M by Life Star to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where they died. A fourth victim, 33-year-old Saumya Arora of Massachusetts, a passenger in a vehicle involved in the third accident that day, also died at Yale-New Haven.
"When you're taking care of patients in the moment, you just do what you have to do," Vorih said. "The most difficult part of the evening was when the families of the critically injured arrive and you have to give them the news, and you have to tell the mother. We had a whole family that was wiped out. It's hard not to personalize that, especially given the fact that it was children."
The job of emergency room doctors and nurses, she said, doesn't end when a patient dies. The more emotionally challenging part comes in preparing the body and taking the families to the morgue.
"The family becomes the patient," Vorih said.
Like Gavin, Vorih said she copes with the tragedies by accepting the limits of her own power, and by talking to her husband, a volunteer EMT. She also falls back on her engineer's training to look at the situation from the perspective of a scientist, trying to recognize the facts of the victims' extensive injuries without emotion.
"I do the best I can, but some things are not completely in your control," she said.
'It's different for everybody'
For Rachel Pond, charge nurse in the department that night, the support of other ER nurses and the hospital's crisis team, along with the staff from other departments, among them doctors, lab technicians and psychiatric nurses, who pitched in to do whatever they could, helped her cope both in the moment and in the aftermath. Registered nurse Jeanne O'Neill activated the "For Our Team" peer-to-peer trauma response to help medical and support staff deal with the emotional impact of the tragedy. The hospital's on-call chaplain came in to comfort hospital workers and victims' families alike.
"What I've noticed about emergency room personnel is that they do have resilience," said Dean Shapley, manager of pastoral care at L+M. "The ones who stay, they have these methods, support systems. It's different for everybody."
L+M handled 11 of the 20 victims of the three crashes in a five-hour period, along with its normal flow of heart attack patients and victims of other accidents, including one in critical condition from a fourth car crash elsewhere in the region. Other victims of the I-95 crashes were taken to The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich and other local hospitals. Pond said she had been near the end of her shift when the call came in about a bad accident with multiple victims, some of them children.
"We just allocated our resources the best we could, we paired off nurses and worked on a lot of head injuries," said Pond, 30, who lives with her husband in Pawcatuck and has been at L+M for 7½ years. When it was all over, she said, "we all just sat with each other for about 45 minutes. Some of us were really shell-shocked. There was a lot of hugging."
Like Gavin and Vorih, Pond said it was hard going back to work the next day, but ultimately she was glad she did. Staying busy around her co-workers, she said, was itself a kind of healing therapy.
Did the experience cause her to think she'd had enough of working in the emergency room?
"It actually reconfirmed my career choice," she said. "The next day, talking with my friends and co-workers, we were able to think about how we can do better for the next time. I went into ER nursing because I wanted to have a direct impact on people, and I love the challenge of it."
Dangerous stretch of road
Like the others, Cohanzie Fire Chief Todd Branche said the Oct. 12 crashes stand out as some of the worst he's responded to in his more than 30 years as an emergency responder. A stress debriefing two days later gave him and the rest of the volunteer crews a chance to talk about what they saw and felt, as well as to critique their own response.
"In my experience, this was one of the top three or five in severity," he said. On that stretch of highway alone, he's been on the scene of more than a dozen crashes, a manifestation, he believes, of the particularly dangerous conditions there as merging traffic from I-395 funnels onto the busy highway as it crests and narrows.
"So many people are driving distracted, they don't have time to stop" when there are obstructions ahead, he said. "There are guys (in the emergency crews) who won't travel that section of the highway because of all the accidents there."
State police said last week that the accidents are still under investigation, and no charges have been filed against any of the drivers.
Pond said the accidents that day should serve as a reminder to people to "give a wider berth" to tractor-trailer trucks, which were involved in the second and third accidents.
"They cannot maneuver or brake as easily and quickly as a car," she said. "An ounce of prevention may help stop this from happening again."
For Gavin, that day will remain one of a handful that stand out in his career as especially tragic, yet also serve somehow to validate his sense that he's fulfilling a mission. Driving to the scene, he had been directed by dispatchers to go to the truck weigh station, where the 2-year-old boy was in cardiac arrest in an ambulance.
Amid the chaos of the scene, he was unable to get there, so he ended up taking care of the 9-year-old instead. The way she wore her hair reminded him of one of his grown daughters at that age.
"We did everything we could for her on the way in (to L+M), and then I went with two of the victims to Life Star, and saw them off to Yale," he recalled. "What attracted me to being a paramedic was the challenge of staying calm in a chaotic situation, and trying to make order of it. I feel like I'm accomplishing something that's good."
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