It was the 5th of July in the Emergency Department many years ago. A 10-year-old boy was crying, embarrassed, and scared. He was hurt, but in the long run, everything was going to turn out fine. It was a moment I have not forgotten. I suspect he remembers it even better than I do.
At the time, fireworks were still allowed within city limits. Young kids, particularly boys, looked forward to the 4th of July by accumulating paper packs of Black Cat firecrackers. As kids, we would untangle the fuses and pull one of the firecrackers from the package. A friend would light the fuse and we would hold the firecracker as long as we dared. It was, of course, a completely stupid thing to do; occasionally, someone would wait too long and be rewarded with ringing ears and buzzing fingertips. All of our friends would think it was absolutely hilarious. If I had ever caught my own kids doing the same thing, I would have gone crazy.
So, back to our story … On this particular 5th of July, the 10-year-old boy had gone to the park the morning after a group of older kids had set off hundreds of the small firecrackers. The night had been dry and he found a couple of dozen that were intact but had no fuses. For some reason, he decided that it would be really cool to set them off all at once. Even better, he wanted to have them shoot up into the air. He looked around and found the metal pipe the older boys had used the night before to launch bottle rockets. Awesome! The pipe, he believed, would send the explosion high up into the sky.
He carefully jammed a piece of paper in one end of the pipe and then packed in all of the loose firecrackers he could find. He tried to figure out how best to steady the pipe. In his mind, he pictured an amazing, canon-like display of pyrotechnics.
He took a match, lit the paper, and decided which direction he wanted to aim the blast, steadying the pipe BETWEEN HIS LEGS
! The firecrackers, obeying the laws of physics, sent hot gas, smoke, and flaming debris out both ends of the pipe simultaneously. His shorts caught fire. The results were not pretty, but he would eventually recover. He was fortunate.
Since that day, the image of the damage even those little firecrackers can inflict has been joined in my mind by images of the potential consequences of driving intoxicated, riding a motorcycle and smoking cigarettes. Being involved, even peripherally, in the care of patients who have made bad or unfortunate choices has made me risk averse.
It is more than just knowing
that some things are dangerous ... I also have seen and remembered the outcomes. I have worked in the Emergency Department, followed patients in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit, and been present at the hospice bedside. I have watched the families. The lessons sting and they stick. The smell of scorched cotton shorts lingers. St. Teresa of Avila
pointed out: “It is extraordinary what a difference there is between understanding a thing and knowing it by experience
.” Sometimes, the experiences we stumble across in a hospital can shake us to our very bones.
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