By Jayne Nachtrab
I was paged to the ED for a tragic situation: A 2-year-old girl had been shot in the head and had died. Unexpected death in an ED can raise all sorts of intense feelings in those who are personally involved and in the medical staff there to provide care. This situation was everyone’s worst nightmare and presented some unique opportunities for me as a chaplain to do conflict mediation and crisis management.
My first step was protecting the father of the girl who died. Many family members and friends had gathered in the ED, and some were looking for someone to blame. The father became the target for the anger and outrage everyone was feeling.
At the time, we did not have all the details. We later learned that the girl’s 6-year-old brother had accidentally fired the shot, but at the time, the father was saying that the girl must have done it herself. Upon hearing of the death of his girl, the father curled up in a ball in the corner, rocking and crying. This was when a family member exploded in anger; she wanted to blame someone, and the father was right there. The father never even acknowledged what was happening. The physical pain she was inflicting was nothing compared to the emotional pain he was experiencing.
I stepped forward and told the security officers that we were going to move the father away from the family. I took both parents into a private room, which I arranged with the nursing manager. A police officer was stationed outside the door. I then asked the parents which family members they wanted to see, and worked with the police to limit visitation to one person at a time.
The family calmed down once the parents were removed. Relatives kept gathering in the ED and were appropriate in their emotional response. They also were mutually supportive of each other and really were in shock. Before the parents left, the family encircled them and prayed over them.
Meanwhile, I learned that the trauma room where the little girl had been treated had become a crime scene. I alerted the staff, and we secured the room. I recognized my own limitations in supporting everyone involved in this situation: a grieving family, a grieving staff, and two police departments, due to jurisdictional issues. I called my manager and we arranged for extra spiritual support. The staff did a marvelous job; they were compassionate and very professional. As the nurses began charting the medical crisis and death, it became a time for some to confront their own feelings. I made sure there was support staff in place to be a listening presence when this happened.
The biggest need of the girl’s parents was to see their deceased daughter. They repeatedly asked permission to do so. Because of the ongoing criminal investigation into this girl’s death, the parents would not be allowed to hold or touch their daughter — another loss for them to endure. The parents were in unconscionable and inconsolable grief. I felt it was extremely important to help them have some time with their daughter before she left the hospital. I talked to medical staff and the police about whether the parents could see their daughter, without touching her, and, to my relief, they were open to the possibility. Once I knew that, we all worked hard to come up with a plan. The girl’s body was moved into another room in the ED that had a glass door from floor to ceiling. Police officers were placed throughout the hallway and near this room. I then escorted the parents up to this glass door and wept with them as they spoke to their daughter of their love, sadness, and regret.
The mother was in shock and didn’t speak, except to sob and ask for her daughter. The father’s strength showed through his tears, grief, and heartache. The only time I saw him lean on his wife was when we were walking down the hallway to view the girl, hand in hand. I remember thinking at the time, “I wonder if this is what it feels like to walk to an electric chair.” The hallway was lined with police officers, and the tension and pain were palpable.
This is an event that will stay with me forever — things that touch us deeply always do. I believe that those who were present that day felt the presence of God in unexpected ways: the peacefulness of the girl’s death as she was receiving loving care from the medical staff; the attending doctor’s compassionate arms as he held the parents as they expressed their pain; the flexibility and understanding of the police officers who allowed the parents to see their daughter.
Before the father was escorted out of the hospital by the police, he asked permission to personally thank me for my presence and support. As he hugged me, I was very grateful that God used me to bring his light, peace, and presence into a terrible situation.
Jayne Nachtrab is a chaplain at Mercy St. Charles Hospital in Oregon, OH.