He Cleans Up the Messy Aftereffects of Trauma
One in an ongoing series.
David Powell has a view of violence that few people have: the aftermath. Literally. As an environmental services worker in Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia’s Emergency Department, his job is to clean up after the medical team is done.
The scenes he confronts in the trauma bay are gut-wrenching – rooms spattered with blood and strewn with bodily tissue and blood-soaked clothing. “It’s not like TV,” Powell says.
It’s something he’s seen nearly every day, sometimes more than once a day, in the 12 years he’s been at Einstein.
What does it do to a person?
“It can make you callous and cold — not out of malice, but to protect yourself,” he says.
Some days, he acknowledges, he fights the inclination to shut down. But he doesn’t succumb and says he often refocuses on the other side of what he sees, the joyful outcomes, the relieved families, the grace and heroics of the medical staff. And years of experience have fostered the self-preservation skills that help him cope.
The first time he witnessed the aftermath of a trauma case, Powell says, he was frightened. The patient was a young man whose heart was pierced by a bullet, whose chest was cracked open by doctors trying to save him. He didn’t survive.
“I was standing there with tears falling down my face,” Powell says.
Powell has since learned not to concentrate on the deep philosophical issues of what he sees. “I just go in and do my job,” he says. He does, however, often feel gratitude for the good things in his life because he’s constantly reminded that everything can change in an instant.
He remembers a holiday night when a child was rushed into the ER after having an allergic reaction to medication. One moment the family’s night was festive and the next it was catastrophic.
“We could not save her life,” Powell says. “It was one of the most tragic things I’ve seen. I went home and hugged my children and realized how fragile life can be.”
Most of the patients Powell encounters are respectful and grateful, he says – but not all. He maintains his compassion by remembering that patients are in extremis, struggling with their own situations.
He recalls, for instance, the 17-year-old who was being loud and belligerent, yelling and shouting at the staff. Later, he says, “I walked by his room and I heard him whimpering and crying. I went in and he told me his mother had told him to get out of the house and he had nowhere to go. He said there was no food in his house and he hadn’t eaten in two days.”
“That was a profound day,” Powell says. “It opened my eyes that these people are angry because they’re in a bad situation.”
“I’ve become more patient, socially aware and empathetic,” he says.
Powell, the father of three children, restores himself when he’s not at work by taking long hikes in the woods, and creating homemade soaps and lotions to give away and sell.
He’s quick to note that, while he sees the aftermath of violence and accidental injury all the time, he also witnesses the good side of things: when the medical staff stabilizes someone who had arrived in a perilous state and saves a life.
“I try to look at the good things that happen here every day,” Powell says. “Those are the counterpoint to the bad things I see.”