What Does It Feel Like to Save a Life?

Staff in the trauma unit at the John H. Stroger Jr. Cook County Hospital try to save the life of a man who was hit by a car in 2009 in Chicago.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Lou Davis, emergency nurse, clinical nurse educator:

I can’t be cynical about this.

It really is the most amazing feeling. To be in the position, as I am, to be doing the best job in the world and then to be able to say to a patient’s family that you have managed to “restart” the heart or do another life-saving procedure is the best feeling ever.

A while ago, a young man arrived in our department who was unwell. But he didn’t appear to be desperately unwell.

Within minutes, he was deteriorating, and it became apparent that he had meningococcal septicaemia. He had the good fortune to have been seen by one of the best medics I have ever worked with. And when the shit hit the fan, he was the doctor you wanted on your team. He worked tirelessly, as we all did, to save this lad. He was transferred to the intensive care unit, near to death but still hanging on. I spent the next few hours answering the phone to his family, who were driving many miles to be with him.

Being able to tell them he was still alive when they arrived was one of the best moments of my career. He survived, although in a bitter twist of fate, the doctor who saved him died later that year.

He survived and is now successful. There is no job that can give you that satisfaction.

It isn’t all about defibrillation and heart massage. Some of our patients are “saved” before they arrest. I can see some of their faces in my mind, and I can remember some of their names.

If I’m honest, I occasionally feel rather inadequate when I read how successful other people on Quora are—people who are “something” in Silicon Valley, who have been pivotal in the success of Facebook or Yahoo or even those who have developed Quora.

But I’m lucky, too, I reckon, because there are lots and lots of people who will be able to wake up to a new day because of what we did. And when I’m feeling doubt about my contribution to the bigger picture, because I know it’s not global, I think to myself: It matters to them, and it matters to me.

Saving someone’s life—it’s not a bad way to earn a living.

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Answer by Greta Jo, M.D., anesthesiologist specialized in cardiac anesthesiology:

It’s an incredible feeling that sneaks up on you.

My most memorable epiphany happened when I was working in the ICU. I was walking through the unit when a nurse pulled me aside and said, “That guy isn’t doing so well.” I walk over to his bedside and see that he’s struggling to breathe and his blood pressure is trending downward. His wife was at the bedside, so someone escorted her to a waiting area while I asked a nurse to administer some vasopressive medications to buy me some time while I set up the equipment to intubate the guy. Meanwhile, the respiratory therapist was helping out by bag-mask ventilating the patient. I started to worry about worst-case scenarios and tried to mentally prepare myself for them so that should they occur, then at least everything would go over smoothly. Then one of the surgeons walked by and I said to her, “Find any ICU attending, and tell them to come here now.”

Just as I was intubating the patient, a small crowd gathered at the bedside. Luckily there was minimal drama during this whole situation, and the intubation went smoothly. Then I overheard someone ask, “What happened?” and that surgeon from earlier said, “Greta just saved his life, that’s what happened.”

That was when it hit me. That was when I just realized what happened.

When you’re so used to doing what’s best for the patient, sometimes you don’t realize that not doing something that otherwise seems so obvious will result in him dying. Up until that moment, in my mind, all I was doing was what’s best for the patient: He’s struggling to breathe. Putting in breathing tube will help him breathe. Then he will get better.

But to hear someone actually say you saved a life? That was a wonderful feeling.

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