My Name Is Iden | A Testimony of Sadness
- Published: November 12, 2022
Warning: This column discusses self-harm and includes descriptions that are inappropriate for young readers and may be disturbing for others.
I have many stories. Every paramedic does. “War stories,” we call them. Some we tell over and over to anyone who hasn’t heard them, and anyone who has. These are the fun stories, the exciting stories, the made-for-TV stories.
But there are others. Those stories I keep to myself. Today, if you are willing to hear one, I am willing to tell one.
I worked for a decade in the emergency department of a large urban hospital. Among my many duties there was drawing blood and starting IVs. I could never say how many folks I stuck over those ten years, but it would easily have been in the tens of thousands. As you might imagine, I grew to be fairly proficient at this. So much so that I became the resident go-to for difficult sticks.
When you work in the ED, patients are referred to by their room number. You are no longer Mr. So and So or Ms. Anybody. You are Bed 12. You are Hall A. It’s easier that way, on the mind and on the heart.
It was evening, late evening probably, the busiest time for us, when I got a call from one of my nurses asking me to take a look for an IV in bed 26. She told me she needed a line (IV), labs, and cultures and that she had already struck out. I said it would be no problem while simultaneously rolling my eyes. Cultures were the worst. You needed two separate sites and nearly 20 milliliters of blood. Like I had time for that!
I knew nothing about Bed 26 beyond what I could deduce from the labs ordered. Whoever it was obviously had some sort of infection, or else they wouldn’t have ordered cultures, but that was all the knowledge I had. Even if I had had the entire chart I wouldn’t have been prepared.
Bed 26, little b, was a nonurgent exam room way off in the corner of the department. It didn’t even have a bed in it. Instead, there was a dental chair. I gave the standard quick double knock — we knock to warn folks that we’re coming in, not to ask permission — and charged in.
Bed 26, big B, was a young lady, a teenager. She had the chair in the upright position, and she greeted me with a tragically bright smile. Bed 26 had no legs beyond the mid-thigh, no right arm. Her left arm was her only remaining limb.
These injuries were not new, and they were not the result of an accident. They weren’t accidents at all. Bed 26 was a self-injurer. Back then we called them “cutters.” She would then pick at the injuries compulsively. This would cause them to become infected. The infection would progress until the offending section required amputation.
I didn’t blink an eye. I was shocked. I was repulsed. But I was also a pro, a veteran with hundreds of shifts behind me.
I knelt down beside her and tied the tourniquet around her last remaining extremity. It was terribly scarred. Each one a record of pain and a testimony of sadness. It was hopeless to try the arm. I did get her line and her labs, but it was not easy. I had to use a vein in her breast.
I spent at least 30 minutes with Bed 26. We talked cheerfully, joking back and forth. She told me those little, small talky things about herself. I heard about favorite shows and bands but left without learning the one thing that I wanted to know: why?
Why? She was just a kid. Who hurt her? What broke her mind so badly? I left bed 26, but Bed 26 never left me.
I continued in my career. I treated hundreds upon hundreds of self-injurers besides people who cut themselves. People burning themselves, eating light bulbs, hitting themselves, binge eaters, anorexics, drug addicts, sex addicts. I couldn’t understand and I wanted so badly to. Why would you do this? Then, one night, I finally got my answer.
My first cuts were small, almost cute, just three little lines. Within weeks they had grown longer, deeper and multiplied like termites. I hurt myself every day, many times a day, all the while riding the medic as an EMT. I was bandaging up peoples’ cuts while my uniform hid my own.
Self-injury is a frightening and confusing thing from the outside, a thing nearly impossible to understand. It can take many forms and the motivations behind them are as unique as the person.
If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll never understand. I will never know what broke Bed 26. I only know what broke me. It was realizing that my patients weren’t bed numbers. They weren’t addresses. They weren’t “cutters.” They were people with stories to tell. It was bearing witness to thousands of these stories that broke me. I didn’t know what to do with them. Eventually, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I think about my patient in bed 26 every single day. I remember her scars as I trace my own. I remember her heart-breaking cheerfulness when I laugh and smile. I’m certain that she has long since died. I wish I could have seen her one last time, maybe one last lab draw, and we could have talked about something else, something real. Because now, I understand.
If you or someone you know needs help or information, here are some places to start:
• Suicide prevention dial: 988 or text GO to 741741
• LGBTQ+ youth support: thetrevorproject.org
• Mental health support: nami.org/home
*The author is local artist and writer. You can follow her work at mynameisiden.com.