by Robert Lanz, LCSW
he ninety-five year-old guy on his battery-powered scooter most likely never thought he would die anywhere but in his own bed. At some point in life when you have endured the risks of the adolescent male, survived a major economic meltdown and a world war and when you have suffered the tribulations of being an aging weekend warrior athlete you naturally look back at all that and think, “Whew. Had a lot of close calls but I’m home safe now. I’ll die of old age in my own bed.”
Bad luck knows no age of course. Maybe that was his last thought as he flew through the air after being struck by a large heavy metal old American car driven by a small American girl heading due west right into what would be the making of a perfect sunset if you were at the beach. But she wasn’t. She was downtown and didn’t realize the other big American car in the next lane wasn’t stopping to make a right turn. It was stopping to let the old guy on the scooter safely cross the street. Hidden behind the other big American car the scooter was in stealth mode, too low to be seen, especially with the sun shining right into her eyes just before it went behind an old palm tree near the curb.
The terrible sound of metal against metal and flesh was probably the worst sound the girl would ever hear. I hoped so. Impossible not to be affected. Impossible to not have that millisecond change her life. Of course, I didn’t know all that when the patient showed up in the trauma center with multiple facial injuries and a head whack that would have killed just about anyone.
I contacted the patient’s daughter and she showed up in the ER in a few minutes. When I introduced myself as the social worker she told me that she was a social worker also. seeming to imply she would be ready for whatever came next. We walked silently up to the ICU where her father was comatose and hooked up to all those requisite machines. I left her alone with her father while I went to read the latest notes in his chart. In the ER everyone was amazed that he was able to be stabilized enough to get up to the ICU alive and it was obvious I would need the latest information on his condition before speaking to his social work daughter again. At some point soon I would be explaining all the medical information to her and later to the trauma team in the ER when I came back down. Everyone wants to know the outcome, no matter what it is. Every experience is a learning experience if you pay attention.
In a few moments, the charge nurse, one of my upstairs friends, pulled me aside.
“The girl who hit that elderly gentleman is out in the waiting room. She’s crying. Wants to know what happened.”
Well, that’s a social work issue for sure. She had no legal right to know anything about the patient but the patient’s daughter, if she wanted, could give permission. I took a look out into the waiting area and caught sight of the distraught teenager and her equally distraught looking mother. Lots of tears all around. Mom trying to be stoic and comfort her daughter. It didn’t work. It would take more than a mom to do that this time.
I went into the patient’s room, pulled the social work daughter aside and explained about hospital rules of medical confidentiality. Of course she already knew about that stuff.
“Oh, she must feel terrible. I’ll go talk to her myself if that’s all right with you.”
“I’ll go with you” I said with a reasonable amount of curiosity and a concern that the social work daughter might go ballistic and attack the distraught girl. Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.
Luckily the social work daughter was a good social worker. A social worker with experience. A social worker with compassion. Even though she knew her dad was going to die at any moment, she knew the only life to save now was the teenager’s.
“My father lived a great and full life and wanted us kids to do the same. I’m sure he would have felt the same way about you. He was a teacher. He cherished his students.”
“I’m taking my SAT’s next week. I’ve been studying for three months, and now I did this.”
She started crying again and the social worker daughter moved over next to her on the couch and gave her a hug. Then she took the girls small hands into her aging ones and looked her straight in the eyes.
“Your life is ahead of you. Live it well. Here’s my card. Call me sometime if you want. Invite me to your graduation.”
Bad luck. Good luck. Forgiveness. Sometimes a social worker saves a life too…..