More often than not these days, the four walls of a hospital’s emergency room are glorified by popular culture and the media. It never really sinks into the eyes and hearts of viewers what it is like to bear the responsibility of a man’s life in one’s hands. Most people can sit comfortably in front of their televisions and laptops, physically uninvolved with the drama of hospital shows and movies unfolding on a screen, having the assurance that no matter how the story plays out, “no lives were harmed in the making of the production”.
The media make it so easy to live vicariously through the drama, but at the same time blind us to the fact that emergency room (ER) personnel have it tough, and that the very nature of their work demands so much from them, not just physically and mentally, but emotionally as well. So much of what it means to work in one of the most grueling workplaces in the world has been lost in how life there is portrayed in popular culture. It becomes difficult to even begin to imagine the hardships that play out in the mind of a professional health worker in the ER.
Fernando Saul, a surgeon at St. Luke’s in Quezon City, is one such professional who wants to tell the story of an ER worker – to enlighten those who may not know about the nature of life there. He has been working in the ER for eight years, and he has operated on countless people. “Life in the ER is tough,” he says, his eyes sullen, reflecting the sentiment. “In some ways, it’s a horrible job. It’s very high stakes, and the room for error is extremely small. It can also get pretty emotionally draining.”
It takes bravery to enter this line of work, and Saul says that he found this bravery through the example of his father. “My father was also an ER worker. He’s the reason why I chose to do the same thing.”
He reflected on the times he saw his father truly vulnerable because of his job, saying that seeing how he felt about people deepened his respect for him. “I remember that there would be times when he would come home, and cry in my mother’s arms because there was someone he tried so hard to save, but couldn’t. I didn’t understand everything he was talking about sometimes, but I always understood that he was talking about death. He always looked so shaken. I don’t think he thought I saw any of that, but I did.”
“Seeing him there, caring about other people, made me realize how precious life is. He didn’t know most of his patients for long, but he was still so invested in their lives. It astounded me. And it inspired me to want to care for others like he did too.”
Work and tragedy
Years later, he’s now the one working in the ER. He didn’t want to go into the specifics of his work, rather wanting to speak about what working in such a high stakes situation meant to him. “Working in the ER means that you know that there’s every chance your patient will die. And many times, if not every time, you’re what’s standing between them and death. But nothing can change the fact that man can only do so much,” he says with a heavy sigh. “And when a patient does die—like when you stop resuscitation, and you as the one who operated on the patient takes a deep breath, because you know that you have the responsibility to tell a family that the worst possible scenario they could have imagined has just become a reality—there’s not quite a feeling like it. It’s gut-wrenching.”
He looked back on some of these tragic cases, mentioning that he has quite a few memories to look back on. “I’ve lost quite a few people in my time working. I’ve lost mothers, children, many more,” Saul says. “I had a patient once who was suffering from brain tumor and post-operative complications. After 8 months [of] bed bound paralysis, [she] was unable to breathe one day at 3am. I tried everything to save her. But in the end, the worst came to be. Her family, in tears, thanked me, saying things like, ‘At least you tried.’”
Saul stops, having to wipe away a few tears. He then finishes his story, saying, “Hearing that doesn’t make me feel any better.”
He weeps. It takes him a few minutes to compose himself, dabbing a napkin at the corners of his eyes.
“There are countless moments like these in a single career. This will happen hundreds, even thousands of times,” he explains after telling his story, his eyes puffy. He paints what the life of an ER worker is in the long run. “This goes on for months, years. Of course, we do save people—we wouldn’t be very good at our job if we didn’t. But there’s no avoiding death. That’s a harsh reality we as ER personnel have to face. We are constantly being reminded of mortality in our work. And it’s really tough.”
How to save a life
Despite all the tragedy in his line of work, there isn’t anything Saul would rather be doing. He says that he has learned a lot from his time working, and that the lessons he has learned are priceless to him. “The line of work I’m in reminds you of just how fragile life is. The pain of losing someone you’ve known and cared for, no matter how short, whether it be for two hours or two months, leaves a permanent scar. It reminds us of how precious life is, that we should make the most out of it while we can, and how we should never take it for granted,” Saul says, with a smile that is burdened by the countless lives he has had to watch fade away, but is carried by the drive to fight for the side of life in spite of the pain and loss.