Strobing lights broke the darkness in the UNC Hospitals conference room: Two dead, one injured in a head-on collision.
Trauma team members responded to find a young female driver, her breathing shallow and her symptoms suggesting shock. They checked her vitals, placing a collar around her neck and moving her to a backboard. They then transferred everything to a stretcher, rolling her to a trauma care room.
The team – a group of student volunteers attending the hospital’s Trauma Day event – checked for other wounds, while keeping an eye on the patient’s heart and breathing. Thomas Jeong, a student at East Chapel Hill High School, struggled at first, before easing the breathing tube down her throat.
“You’re OK. Take a few deep breaths,” coached Tiffany Chesley, program coordinator and UNC Air Care respiratory therapist. Her questions – what now? what else can we do for the patient? – guided the students to find their own solutions.
“Yes, good job,” she said when they hit on the right answer.
The team, after snapping X-rays to check for internal injuries, wheeled her to the CT room for a head scan. The last stop from there was the surgical intensive care unit, where another team waited to prep the patient for sedation, surgery and, eventually, recovery.
“I think y’all did a great job,” Chesley said. “You saved her.”
This is the second year that UNC Hospitals has rewarded its student volunteers with Trauma Day. The event, held four days each year, gives them hands-on experience in a range of hospital roles, Chesley said, but also gives hospital staff a chance to talk about the dangers of distracted driving.
Tuesday’s scenario was taken from the real-life experience of a 16-year-old driver who was texting when he hit an elderly couple’s car head-on, killing them, Chesley said. The young man was in shock when UNC Air Care arrived, she said, repeatedly telling her he only looked away for two seconds.
“You can end a life in two seconds,” she told the student volunteers. “You can also save a life in two seconds.”
It was hard to keep oxygen moving through the tube that Jeong inserted, student volunteer Jessica Fei said. They worked together, one handing the pump to the other when their hands got tired.
Fei, who attends Panther Creek High School in Cary, said the Trauma Day experience was “eye-opening, very real life.” She and classmate Orla Labiche said they have taken an anatomy class at Panther Creek.
“I may be interested in nursing, because I like taking care of people and trying to bring a smile to their faces,” Fei said. “I feel like I was very inspired to work with people in the medical field.”
The competition to be a summer volunteer at UNC Hospitals is fierce, said Jodie Skoff, student volunteer coordinator. Up to 200 students apply for 100 spots each year; 50 of those are reserved for previous volunteers who want to come back, she said.
The students they select tend to be more mature and professional, she said. They serve in multiple roles, from working in the gift shop to helping medical staff in the radiology and ambulatory care clinic.
The students reviewed a video of their performance later. Staff members praised one student who ran a quick airway check, unprompted, when she saw the woman’s chest had stopped moving. They also praised Jeong for his steadfast effort to insert the breathing tube.
“I got frustrated,” Jeong said. “It was a lot of pressure (but) I just went on and did it. I ignored the pressure.”
No matter what happens, emergency room nurse Brad Kinnison advised, always remember that’s a person.
Kinnison spent weeks in the hospital last year after being involved in a wreck. His first thought after waking up in the hospital, he said, was how his mother must have suffered getting the call – 11 years after she got the call about his brother’s fatal motorcycle wreck.
“It’s a person, and they have family. They have their own history and a whole other experience,” he told the students. “You have to take care of more than just that patient. You’re taking care of the whole family, and you don’t know what they’ve experienced and what this experience is like for them.”