It was Saturday night, trauma unit 1. A 26-year-old female was brought in by ambulance from an MVC. We gathered in the trauma bay waiting for the paramedics to arrive; as they rolled her in, the beautifully synchronized chaos began — doctors calling out findings on their primary survey, nurses reporting vitals, paramedics giving the handoff to the hospital team. I cut her pants off with my trauma shears and helped turn her so we could examine her posterior. She was writhing and moaning, maybe from pain, or maybe from the ketamine that was given to her en route. As the team moved on to the secondary survey, I was called away to a septic patient in the next bay over, then to a kid who had been hit by a car, and later to a cardiac arrest. I never saw her again during that 10-hour shift. To be honest, I forgot about her.
Sunday morning, I came back to round on some patients I had met during my ED shift; Charlie, a 50-year-old male man in cardiac arrest, whose heart I helped come back to life, whose wife Mary in Indiana I talked to on the phone, and whose son Adam I talked through an anxiety attack. Then Margaret, the 77-year-old lady whose hand I held underneath the sterile drapes while she had a central line placed. I looked up their room numbers in the EMR, and noticed on the list a patient I recognized — 26-year-old, MVC, admitted to the ICU; the patient I had forgotten about. I didn’t recognize her name, because I had never known it in the first place.
I went upstairs and rounded on Charlie in the cardiac ICU, and met his wife Mary; she gave me a big hug, and we chatted for an hour. I rounded on Margaret, who thanked me for holding her hand during the central line placement. Then, I looked down at the last name on my list: the 26-year-old MVC patient was named Jasmine Sanchez. Even though I barely met her in the ED, I decided I might as well make one last stop.
I walked into the ICU and introduced myself to Jasmine’s nurse. She said, “I’m so glad you came. It’s just so sad — no one will come to see her.” I walked into the room and introduced myself. “Hi Jasmine, my name is Reade Tillman; I’m a medical student who met you in the ER last night. How are you feeling?” Just then, the surgeon came in to round on her; he looked at her, said a few sentences, watched the Broncos game for a minute, and walked out. As he left, Jasmine asked me, “Who was that guy?” I told her a little about what happened in the ED last night, and what I had read in her chart about her injuries. She had several vertebral fractures, a grade 3 liver laceration and some rib contusions. She was still in a C-collar, and her hair was matted. When I asked about her family and friends, she began to cry.
Jasmine moved to Colorado from the Midwest a few years ago with her boyfriend, and is estranged from most of her family. She and her boyfriend had been fighting when she was in the accident, and despite her calls, he refused to come see her. I gave her a tissue, and held her hand. She kept crying, and I kept standing there, and we both kept not talking, for 45 minutes. She asked about her car, and her possessions; EMS had not brought her wallet, her purse or her phone. I said I didn’t know, but I could try to find out. I told her she needed a new boyfriend. We made small talk for another 15 minutes or so, about the Broncos, about Colorado, about her new job, about the random events in my week, anything I could think of; I even showed her pictures of my nieces and nephews. All of a sudden, this girl I had forgotten about was Jasmine, my friend.
Over the next couple of days, I worked with Jasmine’s nurse and case manager to get a notarized letter that would allow me to pick up her belongings from her vehicle at the tow truck lot. When I stopped by the hospital early before heading to my regular clinic, Jasmine was in surgery; I left her a note, saying I picked up the letter and would be back soon with her belongings. The letter, stamped and legally notarized, said, “Reade Tillman has permission to pick up my belongings from my car. Reade Tillman is my nurse.”
I drove to the towing company’s property, and they led me to her gold minivan. It was completely totaled, and I had to pry open the driver’s side door to get in. I spent an hour scavenging through her trashed car for her personal belongings; it was an incredibly intimate look into the life of someone I barely knew. I grabbed her clothes, her car insurance documents, anything of value that I could locate. Her phone was completely smashed up, and hidden in one of the side pockets. There were wrappers and trash intermixed with the parts of the engine that had broken off in the crash, covered in oil, and way too heavy for me to lift. I wished I was wearing something other than dress pants and a blouse.
I couldn’t find her wallet, so I kept digging. The central console had a small container of fake urine in it; the price sticker was still on it. Apparently fake pee costs $8.99. I remembered reading in her chart that she had been positive for marijuana and alcohol when she arrived at the ED. I looked in the backseat, and found a piece of paper with various things scribbled in red ink — things like, “He can’t treat you this way,” and, “He takes you for granted.” I doubted she ever imagined that a medical student she met twice, only once worth remembering, would be seeing these scandalously intimate parts of her thoughts, of her life. Should I bring them with me? Would she want them? I brought the paper, but left the fake pee.
I drove back to the hospital and carried in bags of Jasmine’s belongings. I never did find her wallet, so I called the police department and the sheriff’s department, trying to track it down. They asked me what her social security number was, or her drivers license number, or where the accident happened, which law enforcement jurisdiction she was in. “Her name is Jasmine Sanchez, and her date of birth is June 2, 1991. That’s all I know, I’m so sorry,” I had to say, because the truth is, I really don’t know Jasmine. I have no idea what happens when a car crashes and EMS takes the patient; I am the least qualified person to be doing this, I thought. It felt odd for me to carry a stranger’s belongings up the stairs in the hospital, as though I were her emergency contact. She was still in surgery when I walked up to her room. If I stayed any longer I would be late, so I left her things in her room and went to clinic — back to business as usual.
The next day I stopped by again, and found Jasmine in her room. Her C-collar was off, the surgery was successful, and she was grateful to have her belongings. I apologized for not being able to find her wallet and gave her a few numbers to call. The minivan was in bad shape, I told her, probably totaled. Her boyfriend still hadn’t come, five days later. A recent social worker had noted that she was planning on staying with the boyfriend on discharge, and my heart sunk. I reminded her one more time that she deserved a better boyfriend. She thanked me for getting her things, and said no one had ever done anything like that for her before. Jasmine was discharged before I got to visit her again. I’ll never know what happened to the boyfriend, but I hope she dumped his ass before she even left the hospital. I went from forgetting about Jane Doe in the ED, to holding Jasmine’s hand while she cried, to digging through her smashed up minivan for personal belongings, to deciding what to do with her fake pee, to likely never seeing Jasmine again. She and I experienced such extremes of strangerhood and intimacy in only 72 hours. But what a privilege it was, to be there for her when she had no one else, to advocate for her, to go a little (or a lot) above and beyond on her behalf, to see the inter-workings of this stranger’s life: this is why I chose medicine.
Author’s note: All names, dates, and identifying information have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.