I was driving on a highway the other day and noticed the two semis ahead of me starting to slow down. I wasn’t too surprised because we were reaching the peak of a mountain (10% grade) and my little Chevy Cavalier wasn’t going any faster than forty miles an hour anyhow, I didn’t imagine they would do any better. One semi had been trying to pass the other, but slowed and changed into the right lane behind the first.
As the semi moved over I saw a truck stopped on the side of the road, and as I peaked the mountain, I saw a crushed car. It had obviously rolled over a number of times just seconds before, and there were people standing around outside it, peering inside the crushed body of the car and thirty yards away, I could see two people huddled over another body. I thought about how just the day before I had refreshed my first aid training. I pulled my car over and grabbed a jacket and towel before jumping out of my car.
As I stood up, the first thing I head was a man standing in front of another woman saying, “Don’t look, don’t look over there.” She was trying to see past him to the body on the ground. At that point, I’m ashamed to say I was afraid.
I’ve dealt with minor injuries before. I’ve helped people who have had seizures, people who have fallen from horses and hurt themselves, and I once bled almost a pint of blood all over myself after a mistake at a plasma donation site. I’ve seen pretty horrible animal injuries and I’ve always thought myself a pretty solid person in an emergency. But the way that man spoke as he blocked the woman’s view and the small size of the body scared me. I avoided it, thinking that the two people kneeling in the mud had whoever it was under control and ran to the other group of people.
I ran up and looked under the car, everyone was safely out. It was a family of five, Mother, Father, and three children. I looked over the two kids, they seemed relatively uninjured, some cuts and scrapes, scared and crying. It was a cold, stormy day, but they were wearing shorts and t-shirts and scattered around, in the path the car had rolled were flip-flops and beach bags. I wrapped one kid up in my jacket and found the mother’s shoe so she would stop walking around in the broken glass covering the ground. I asked her if anyone needed more help. She told me her daughter, her twelve-year old daughter had been thrown from the car. She had been the one forbidden from looking and she answered my question and pointed over at her daughter.
I swallowed and ran over to the body on the ground. The father was kneeling over her, and a woman was pulling a needle out of a bag sitting on the rocky, muddy ground. I blurted out my phrase. The phrase my friends and I have jokingly said to each other dozens of time, when someone stubs a toe, or trips, or is a wimp and complains about some trivial thing. I said it for real and was terrified of what they would say. “I’m trained in CPR and First Aid, can I help?” The woman looked up, said she was an ER nurse and told me to hold up the IV bag.
I’ve never been so relieved in my life. At this point I could stop worrying, she surely had everything under control. Looking back, I realized that she couldn’t do everything. That someone, me, should have known to shout at the bystanders to bring blankets to cover up the girl immediately, to keep her warm. I don’t know how much time went by before I noticed someone on the phone to 911. I had assumed someone else had called and it hadn‘t even crossed my mind to make sure, but I’m sure they assumed the same.
Another man came by and held the IV for me and I ran to my car to get whatever I could to cover up the girl. She was laying in a small running stream of water and wearing shorts. It must have been just barely above forty degrees. I grabbed a t-shirt and a towel and laid it over her bare legs, and other people ran to get blankets from their cars too.
I stepped back. The nurse was shouting at the man on the line to EMT that they needed to send a life flight immediately, and I heard the mother weeping in the background, still staying out of sight.
The father had been doing mouth to mouth on his daughter, but she had started breathing again, and he crouched next to her, his fingers keeping track of her pulse. I want to say there was blood everywhere, but that’s not true. There was blood on the crown of the father’s head, no open scar, just an undefined smear dying his thin blond hair red. He had a clean dribble of blood down the right side of his face, from a cut above his eye, but the left side of his face was clean. There was a thick ¾ inch ring of blood around his mouth. (That’s the snapshot of the event that stays in my mind. That still of him kneeling in the freezing running water, fingers pressed against her pulse, staying calm as he tells the guy on the phone his daughter’s age, how clean his nose and chin and cheeks were, with a perfectly formed ring of blood around his mouth.) His forearms and hands were so thick with wet and clotted blood that I grabbed a clean pillowcase to try and stop the bleeding on his wrists. I pulled back a second before asking him if I could bandage his arms, realizing, horrified, that the blood was all his daughter’s.
She was thin, and had brown hair. If I hadn’t known she was white from her pale dirty legs and her white parents, I wouldn’t have known what race she was, so covered in blood was her face. She was stretched out flat and I couldn’t see her breathing, it was so shallow. I wanted to go back to the mother and tell her good news, but I couldn’t think of anything to tell her.
I don’t know how long we stood there. The other bystanders and I. We had done what we could, wrapped up the injured in warm clothing and blankets, and looked around helplessly when the nurse shouted that she needed a syringe, tubing, anything so that she could suction blood. We didn’t have anything like that in our cars. My first aid kit I had grabbed from my glove box, I didn’t even bother opening. It was full of Band-Aids and one inch antiseptic wipes and two inch gauze pads and disposable Neosporin packets. There was nothing else we could do but wait.
Although we were only a few minutes out of a moderately sized town (15,000), it seemed to take forever for the fist rescue person to arrive. I have no way of saying accurately, but it felt to me like 15 or 20 minutes. It may be been only five, I have no way of knowing. The volunteer rescue guy arrived, put a neck brace on the girl, put her on a backboard and just then the ambulance arrived.
The girl was put in the ambulance with her father, and the children and mother got in the police or volunteer rescue trucks. Those people who had stopped to help stood around confused as to what to do. I gathered from the ground my towel and shirt. When the EMT workers had picked up the girl, they had pushed off the blankets covering her. My things were soaked in mud and sand, but surprisingly little blood and I threw them in the unused pillowcase. I realized later that someone must have returned one of my jackets to my car, and I was selfishly glad that my favorite jacket had been returned while a jacket I didn’t like all that much was the one that I saw the five year old girl clutch around herself as she was placed in the rescue truck.
Later that night I realized that in my frantic search of my car for anything that the nurse could use, I had forgotten about the pens I have in there. The pens I have can be taken apart easily and one piece is a four inch tube. Probably exactly what the nurse could have used to suction blood.
I think now, about how little help I actually was, other than the fact that I was going away for the weekend and happened to have lots of coats and towels in the car. I think about the father stoically asking the nurse if he can flush out his daughter’s wounds with water, while his blood drips off his jaw. I think about how dangerous driving is and how quickly people can die. I also think about how strong a body can be. Just before the girl was loaded onto a backboard, she started moaning. A soft, terrible, weak, pain-filled moan that in any other case would have been the worst sound in the world, but at that point, a noise we all felt hope at hearing.
I wonder if the little girl was buckled in, and if she wasn’t, why not? I wonder if she survived and will recover fully. I want to think she did. I called the highway patrol the next day and asked them if they could just tell me if she was alive or not, and they couldn’t tell me anything until there was a press release. I looked online and couldn’t find anything, but I’m hoping that the girl survived and the newspapers deemed a non-fatal car crash not news worthy enough to write about. I’m hoping that’s why I can’t find any information online.