24: On Call

24: On Call

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

On Call

Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men.


The phone rings, jarring me out of bed. The digital clock is blinking 2:47 a.m. Already my adrenaline is coursing through my veins. I’m “on call” in the OR so I know who will be on the phone.

We have a gunshot wound of the head, so I need to hurry. I’d laid my clothes beside the bed, ready for just such an event. I pull on my jeans and a sweater, trying to remember where I’ve left my keys. I kiss my husband hurriedly, hoping he will slip easily back to sleep. He is so used to this routine by now, I wonder if he will realize that I’m gone.

Racing thoughts.

Racing heart.

Racing time.

I start my car. In my mind I’m going over what I’ll need to get my team and me through this trauma. I know what instruments are necessary for this case and I mentally go through the list of drugs we will need.

I am capable and ready but my heart beats with tremendous force and speed against my ribs, a rhythm I’ve grown all too accustomed to. It’s the stress factor making me ready for “fight or flight.” The ringing phone scared me awake and I’m now in full “fight mode.”

I change into scrubs and exit the lounge just as the ER people are wheeling my patient down the hall. The anesthesiologist is “bagging” him and the recovery room nurse is pumping blood. I put on my professional armor, dart past the stretcher and its entourage and hurry to the surgical room. We set the case up quickly, my two nurse colleagues and me, saying little because we know the routine.

As we lift the man to the OR table I notice he is young. Blood mats his hair but the wound on his forehead is small. He is currently stable. Maybe we can save him. The neurosurgeon looks over the X-rays on the view box and then comes to help. The forehead wound is small but is no match for the gaping wound at the back of the head.

Who is he?

Why is he here?

Better not to know…

Suddenly his vital signs become erratic. The scrub nurses stay back, close to the sterile instrument table. The surgeon and I assist the anesthesiologist. The Recovery Room nurse has never stopped pumping blood.

We lost him. Before we’ve gotten started. I wonder who he was. We stand quietly to take it all in as if we’re seeing it for the first time. It seems surreal… the room, the equipment, the young man on the table.

The surgeon goes to the scrub sink and brings back a soapy sponge. Reverently, he washes the blood from the young man’s face and hair. He asks for a comb and I bring him one. He combs the young man’s hair and says he doesn’t want the family to see him until he’s ready.

We wrap a fresh, blue towel around his head and I call the medical examiner, as is protocol. I suddenly feel very tired… bone weary… the same sentiment I see reflected in the eyes of my coworkers.

Shortly the young man is on the second leg of his unexpected journey tonight. The OR room is clean… no evidence of the frenzy to save a life. No evidence of the fact that tonight we lost our battle. The room is ready for the next time.

Touched briefly.

A flame burns out.

Will anyone notice?

I drive home more slowly. My husband is sleeping soundly and snoring peacefully. I try to sleep, but can’t. There’s still the adrenaline. I’m “on call” for two more hours and I need to be ready.

I’ve put my clothes on the chair beside the bed, just in case the phone rings again.

~Linda Shuping Smith

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