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Health Center Today, September 10, 2010

Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cancer Surgery…

By Chris DeFrancesco

Photo of Carol Dumont and Jeannine Childree

Seventh-floor nurses Carol Dumont (left) and Jeannine Childree say they have no regrets after risking their own safety to assist an unresponsive driver who had stopped on the highway.

Photo by Chris DeFrancesco

For many, surgery for cancer is a major life event. For nurse Jeannine Childree, her thyroid cancer surgery July 13 wasn’t even the biggest thing that happened to her that day.

Carol Dumont, fellow seventh-floor nurse and longtime friend, took the day off to support Childree and get her to the hospital. One of her jobs was to try to take Childree’s mind off the stress of what was awaiting her. But what they encountered on the way there not only took care of that, it forced them both into new jobs.

A car was stopped in the westbound center lane near exit 50 off of Interstate 84. A man appeared to be trying to push the car to the side of the highway.

"Carol had her focus; her one and only focus was to get me to the hospital on time and that was pretty much it," Childree says. "So I said, 'Carol, stop! Stop!' and she said, 'Stop? What are we stopping for?'"

"There was no stopping," Dumont says.

But she did stop. The man told them he thinks the driver had a seizure, and he’s trying to get her out of the car.

"Then I see him take a sweatshirt, wrap up his fist, and just punch the window in order to unlock the car," Dumont says.

Instinct took over, transforming cancer patient and friend into a more familiar role.

"We fall out of the car like clowns, yelling, ‘We’re nurses! We’re nurses!'" Childree says.

"We get out of the car like, ‘We’re here,’ as if the 18-wheelers are going to stop," Dumont says.

One of two women who had stopped first already had called 911. The scene now blocked the left and center lanes. Morning rush hour was over, but no police had arrived to redirect traffic. They would have to rely on the drivers behind them to notice what was happening in time to get to the right to avoid them.

"We did not even think that we really could have gotten killed," Dumont says, recalling seeing a giant truck coming toward her and narrowly missing her as it passed in the right lane. "That was the one and only time in my life where I was like, 'This could be it.'"

With the help of the good Samaritan who got the car door open, the nurses were able to get the woman out of her car and lay her down on the pavement.

"I distinctively remember feeling this rush of adrenaline pulling her out of the car, like, 'She’s really heavy, but we have to get her out,'" Dumont says.

"She had a lot of sputum coming out of her mouth, unresponsive, very, very white—blue at one point, because we turned her on her side," Childree says. "We couldn’t open her mouth to clear any secretions, we had no gloves, no equipment. Her pulse was very, very weak."

Childree frantically looked for emergency contact information on the woman’s cell phone. She got a hold of the woman’s aunt, who was able to provide limited medical history.

Eventually came a first-aid kit with gloves, delivered by a construction worker.

"It sort of just popped open in front of us like a gift from heaven," Childree says. "We were able to put gloves on, and then she started to come to, and that’s when she started to become combative—disoriented, thick-tongued, her speech was not understandable."

"She just had a deer-in-the-headlights look, and she could not understand where she was," Dumont says. "She came in and out of consciousness, but she was never oriented, never awake."

They say it was at least 10 minutes before police arrived to redirect traffic and paramedics arrived to take over the care.

Then the focus immediately shifted back to the original task at hand: getting Childree to her surgery.

"It was just odd, because we really didn’t have a chance to even digest it, because boom-boom-boom, we’re in the pre-op area, we’re trying to get her into surgery, and we didn’t even really have time to talk about it," Dumont says.

Dumont says her heart was still racing an hour after they left the scene.

Nurse manager Dawn Tranter, Childree’s and Dumont’s supervisor, hadn’t heard about their adventure on the highway that morning when she called to check on Childree.

"Other than saying she was in a lot of pain, the next thing she talked about was the scenario on the road," Tranter says. "I mean, she went under general anesthesia, she came out, I’m asking ‘How are you feeling?’ and the only thing she could do was debrief us about what had happened."

"I think what it was, was we just saw a need," Childree says. "Once we decided we were going to stop, we were like, ‘It’s all or nothing now.’ There’s no taking a peak and getting back into the truck. We’re there for the long haul and that’s how it’s going to be. And I think that’s just how we are as nurses, or really, as anyone who wants to stop and help."

Childree and Dumont say they never heard back about how the women fared, acknowledging that patient privacy rights prevail. But Dumont says she doesn’t second-guess their actions, as potentially dangerous as they were.

"I don’t even know if it’s because you’re a nurse, I think it’s because of the type of person you are; it’s in you," she says. "I don’t even know how other people drove by. I don’t know if I can explain it. All the nurses on the floor were like, ‘Of course you stopped.’ That was just the response that we got from the nurses here."

Says Tranter, "I know what Jeannine was going through, and to have them stop on the highway—it could have been the easiest thing to say, ‘We need to get to this surgery, they’re going to bump me off the O.R. schedule.’ And for them to stop, I thought that was pretty impressive and it’s indicative of who they are and how they are."