What It’s Like to
Lose a Child Patient

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In Short: Memorable.

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I was an ALS medic in rural northern California, and there’s one call I think of often — even though it was 38 years ago. We were dispatched to a possible drowning in the Mad River, which reaches the Pacific just north of the town of Arcata, where we were based.

We arrived just as the bystander who went into the river for the boy found him, pulled him out, and ran him to us. My partner and I got him onto the gurney and got to work. With cardiac arrest, the best chance of survival is to work on them then and there, not take the trip to the hospital and then work on them.

My ambulance then was nowhere near this modern! (Photo: Chiradech on YayImages)

It was one of those times that you do everything at once. Start chest compressions. Get the cardiac monitor going. Breathe for him. Start an I.V., and get your drugs lined up.

Chest compressions are most important. While CPR stands for Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (also supporting breathing), chest compressions also compress lungs, pushing out stale air and sucking in fresh. That’s enough for awhile.

My EMT partner quickly wiped the boy down with a towel and started compressions; I was responsible for the rest. I got the I.V. going and pushed epinephrine (“adrenalin”) to stimulate his heart. To defibrillate (shock) the heart back into action you have to have some sort of heart action. The epi helped: I could see light activity on the cardiac monitor.

In those days we still used paddles (now it’s sticky pads: odds are you’ll need to shock more than once). As the defibrillator charged I looked out the open back doors for the first time, where a small crowd had gathered to watch. They were totally silent: I didn’t even know they were there! “Make sure you’re not touching the ambulance,” I told them, even though it’s almost impossible for them to be shocked.

All but one guy stepped back, and I registered his presence for the first time. It “had to be” the guy who fished the kid out of the water, because he was stark naked. It was surreal, but Paddles charged! Back to work!

My partner moved back and I shocked the kid, but there wasn’t much response: you want strong muscle spasms, which indicates oxygenated tissues. After more rounds of drugs and shocks with no results, his chances were dismal, but I told my driver to get going: it was only 3 miles to the hospital, but winding town streets the whole way. The E.R. doctor went over the same protocols …and pronounced him dead.

From the front page of the Eureka Times-Standard on July 22, 1983, which I was grateful to find online in 2019.

Robert Greer was 12 years old. If he had lived he’d be 50 now — hard to imagine!

The man who pulled him out of the water was Garland Popp, and I never saw him again. I didn’t keep any notes from that day and had forgotten their names until I found this newspaper clipping. It took Popp about 20 minutes to find Greer and pull him out, so his odds were about nil from the start.

While I still sometimes think about that day, I’ve always known I couldn’t have done more to increase his odds. I hope Popp was able to have peace with it too.

Randy Cassingham is WiLt’s head writer and publisher. His flagship publication This is True, established in 1994, is the oldest entertainment feature on the Internet.

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1 thought on “Lose a Child Patient”

  1. As a former medic, been there, done that…one year old bathtub drowning. It’s been over 20 years since that call. But I still think about it too at times. And like you said, there was nothing you could have done differently to change the outcome.

    I had an instructor that paraphrased a scene from a M*A*S*H episode. Rule #1: Sometimes people die. Rule #2: Medics can’t change Rule #1. It’s just something we deal with.

    I remember that episode and those “rules”. One of my instructors put it this way: “ALL of your patients will die …eventually.” (A corollary: “All bleeding stops …eventually.”) I’ve had to counsel young medics on this more than once myself. Thanks for the reminder. -rc

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