david cooper/torstar news service
Christene Winters will never forget the first time she faced death. She was one of six student nurses escorted by their clinical instructor to a room on the oncology floor of a Sudbury hospital where a cancer patient had just died.
“You could smell death in the room,” she recalls.
They were there to learn how to pack a body into a bag.
Winters stamped the man’s name on a white tag and secured it with a twist tie to his big toe. When she was finished, she zipped the bag closed over his face.
“I didn’t cry that day in the room, but when I got home, I cried. I had just put someone in a bag and that was the end. It was so final,” she recalls, tears welling in her eyes.
That day she also learned that a human being and a human body are two separate things.
Today, Winters is an emergency room nurse at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where more than 42,000 trauma patients are treated each year.
In the nursing world, Winters is a newbie, with only about 18 months under her belt, but the intensity of her work and 12-hour shifts has already blurred her days and nights.
Death has taken its toll on the 25-year-old. It takes hold at work and follows her home at night. She spends many evenings soaking in a bath, a glass of wine in hand, tears in her eyes. She knows getting attached to patients is not healthy, but she cares for them and wants to help them. All of them.
Winters stares death in the face sometimes once a week, sometimes a handful of times every few months, but it hasn’t gotten any easier for her. In fact, now she can feel it coming.
“It’s so weird. You just know.
“You’re at the nursing station when someone has died and you will walk around to find out someone really is dead. It’s a gut reaction. Unfortunately, it happens a lot here.”
Toronto paramedic Geoff MacBride never gets a break from death. There are certain scenarios he just can’t forget.
One still stuck in his mind occurred two summers ago when the city was hit with a heat wave. A family, unable to get in contact with their grandmother, called 9-1-1.
When MacBride arrived at the house he discovered the woman had been dead for three days.
“She was naked and bent over on the couch with her asthma inhaler in one hand. I couldn’t even move her, her body was so rigid. The bath water was still running and the place was flooded. She had been there for days and her face was melted. Her facial tissue was actually liquefying. It bothered me because this was my first impolite death,” he says.
MacBride, 31, has been with Toronto Emergency Medical Services for almost two years. It’s his third career. He worked as a chef and later did public relations for St. John Ambulance Canada.
He became a paramedic because he wanted a challenging job where he could physically help people when they need him the most.
The intensity of his work can be overwhelming. At times, he has to remember that it’s just a job, and stop it from taking over his life. “If I’ve had a bad day, if a child has been murdered, then I would go home and have a few drinks. That’s my coping mechanism,” he says.
MacBride can often be found with his nose buried in work-related books. He believes the only way he can continue to help patients is by learning as much as possible. “I sometimes forget that there’s only so much I can do to make a difference. Death is a part of life.”
McBride says many paramedics believe they go through cycles of good and bad luck and he’s been followed by one big black cloud for the past six months.
Even on a recent vacation to England, a woman on his plane had a cardiac arrest. But the job is not all death-related. Paramedics also deliver babies. “You’re there at one of the most beautiful moments in life,” says MacBride. “With the bad always comes the good. It’s kind of like the silver lining.”