Alongside the devastating realization that I’ll never hug my son Alex or hear his voice again is the execrable thought that he suffered in his last moments alive.
The idea that my child was in pain and terrified as he died is a nightmare shared and revisited by parents and loved ones of homicide victims the world over.
We think about what happened as they died. Were they alone? Scared? In agony? Did they realize what was happening? If they died at the scene, were the first responders respectful of our child’s body? If our child died in hospital, were the medical staff kind?
We have many questions and get so few answers if any. That’s why information that counters that image of agony and fear, that helps calm my aching heart where nothing else seemingly can, has the power to act as a soothing balm.
But then I realize that if I’m going to speak to the very people who deal in a professional capacity with these awful and devastating events, who are faced with severe trauma patients or victims already deceased in extremely stressful and difficult situations, can’t they also be considered homicide co-victims?
In fact, first responders and medical staff who deal with the horrors of serious injuries, such as gunshot wounds and motor accidents, are known as Second Victims. They’re involved in an ‘unanticipated adverse patient event’.
The term second victim can also include, amongst others, firefighters, for example. Even though these professionals are emotionally and psychologically resilient and frequently have to make rapid decisions in the face of limited knowledge, the shock reaction to these traumatic events can sometimes be extremely difficult. This is because they have a deep, personal commitment to the safety and welfare of others.
So, in honor of The National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, observed on 25th September, Kayser Enneking, MD, Professor of Anesthesiology at the University of Florida, has kindly agreed to be interviewed for this article so she can answer my questions.
The main purpose of this Day of Remembrance is to pay tribute to the memory of homicide victims. It’s a day in which society acknowledges the devastating impact that murder has on families, their communities and the nation.
It’s also an event that allows the collective conscious to recognize the resulting long-term trauma suffered by all those who are touched by homicide. And that includes the very people trying desperately to save our children’s lives.
Dr. Enneking has 30 years’ experience as a doctor and when she looks at me and speaks, I know she’s talking not only as a professional but also as a mother:
“Even if your loved one doesn’t survive, families need to know that they didn’t die because people didn’t care or didn’t try hard enough.” She pauses. “This is a huge effort on the part of the caregivers. They are invested the minute they hear about the injury.”
Dr. Enneking speaks clearly and thoughtfully. I can tell she speaks from the heart. She works as an anesthesiologist and first response co-ordinator at Shands Hospital Florida.
I’ve told her that I want to find out about the people who help our dead and dying children, those who deal with the horrors of serious trauma injuries and are so deserving of our gratitude.
What would she tell parents whose child didn’t make it?
“People do care. Their loved one is important to us not only on a mental level, in terms of working to save the patient, but also on an emotional level. Doctors are passionate about what they do. It’s a privilege to be able to save a life. The downside is that it’s unpredictable and when it doesn’t go as expected or well, it can be devastating.”
The devastation Dr.Enneking describes can be severe. Second Victims can end up feeling personally responsible for the patient outcome and that they failed the patient. It can lead to questioning their professional skills, isolation, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. If unaddressed, these events can lead to suicide.
Dr. Enneking explains that hospitals nowadays have Compassionate Care Team programs for nurses and medical staff. “It’s peer to peer to make sure you’re OK. We’ve come to appreciate that we need to be psychologically prepared. I won’t put myself in the position where I’m not fully available for the next patient.”
This dedication to patient safety and care means so much to loss parents and survivors of homicide. I have often thought of the people who found my son in a pool of blood. He suffered over 50 blows to his head alone, and had injuries all over his body, the prosecutor at the trial later describing it a ‘massacre’.
Were they traumatized by what the saw? Did they move him gently? My son, murdered, alone. The medical team unable to save him. My thoughts haunt me.
So many victims, a domino effect of emotional pain that touched countless lives because of one person’s act of wanton cruelty.
And what about our child suffering pain? Can she calm our fears?
“I have about five minutes from when I meet a patient to deciding what’s going to happen. I’m going to take good care of them, watch out for them, and I’m going to do the best I can to ensure they are comfortable.”
I have come to accept that I’ll never know exactly what happened the night my son was killed and that I must learn to live with the thought that my child suffered. Yet I hope there’s some solace in her words for those parents whose child made it to hospital. I tell her so.
“It’s not easy on anybody if the patient doesn’t survive”, she says. “That’s why when physicians began to speak out about gun violence in America and the NRA tried to push back on it and say ‘stay in your lane’, we said: ‘This IS our lane!’ This is a public health crisis…”
She looks at me earnestly and adds, “The very best outcome for a patient [with gunshot wounds] would have been if there was no gun violence to start with.”
It’s no secret that Dr.Enneking is proud to have been named a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America “Gun Sense Candidate” for her strong stances on gun safety legislation. In the US, firearms are the second leading cause of death for American children and teens and the first leading cause of death for Black children and teens.
“When a patient comes in with gunshot wounds you never know exactly what you’re going to be dealing with. But you know that if you act fast enough, in general, with a low-velocity gunshot wound, you should be able to save that patient. But with high-velocity guns, the bullet will spin and tunnel within the cavity… and you can’t do anything.”
Sometimes it’s Dr. Enneking who informs the family that the patient has died or won’t make it. It’s a tough call, going out to the loved ones and giving them this information.
“They’re scared, so you want to be as reassuring as you can be.” She looks at me: “I can be confident to tell them that the patient isn’t feeling any pain during the procedure and that often brings some degree of comfort. But it’s hard.”
I think back to the young policeman and policewoman who came to the house to inform me that my son had been killed. They were brave. I remember thanking them at the time, saying that I was so sorry that they had to bear witness to such unfathomable pain. No one should ever have to tell a parent their child is dead.
So now I thank Kayser Enneking for her work, for her dedication to patient care. And in so doing, I hope my thanks also reach all the care providers, the first responders, the nursing and medical staff, the pathologists, the advocates for victim support, and those spreading awareness of the impact of homicide loss.
Because today is a day of remembrance, not only for our murdered children and loved ones but also for all those whose lives have been impacted by their violent deaths.
National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims
National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims was designated by Congress as September 25 in 2007. This was as a result of the advocacy work by Robert and Charlotte Hullinger, who founded Parents of Murdered Children following the murder of their 19-year-old daughter, Lisa, in 1978. The day of observance is the date Lisa was murdered.
Published on Still Standing Magazine 25.09.2019