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You'll be okay

Just before I started on the Sheriff's Department I took and passed the Emergency Medical Technicians course. I wanted to be an EMT because I knew that the Police were often the first ones on the scene and I wanted to be able to help people before the ambulance arrived.

This was a double edged sword. On the one hand I was able to help people and I was even able to give the ambulance crew pertinent information before they arrived so that they could better treat the patients when they arrived. The down side was that since everyone on the shift knew I was an EMT I ended up being called to come to most incidents where there was injury or death involved.

I learned the hard way that sometimes having a little bit of knowledge can get you into trouble. I had the book knowledge of an EMT but not the street knowledge that can only come from time spent doing the job.

I got a report of a shooting at a small nightclub. I responded to the scene and was told that there had been a shooting inside the club but that both people had left the area. We were given a description of the suspect and the name of the victim. We were further told that the victim's mother lived just about half a mile away.

I put out the information I had to the other Deputies so that they could be on the lookout for the suspect. I headed for the victim's mother's house. When I got to the mother's house I saw the victim laying on the front porch of the house. I walked up to him and he was screaming about having been shot in the back.

I started to pull up his shirt in the back where I saw a little blood but as I did the victim jumped to his feet and started running around the porch. I grabbed him and told him to calm down. I told him that I was an EMT and I needed to check his wound. He sat down on the porch and I pulled up his shirt. I had him lay back down so I could get a better look.

I found one small hole in his skin in the lower right quadrant of his back just about an inch above and to the left of his kidney. There was very little bleeding. He was still very agitated and screaming. I told him to calm down the wound was minor and he was going to be okay.

I then called my dispatcher and told her to relay to the EMT's who were in route that it appeared to be a minor wound. I did not even bother to take his pulse or blood pressure. I asked him what had happened and was finally able to get most of the story from him.

He had been at the club drinking and another man was there and they got into an argument and the man pulled a small caliber weapon and threatened to shoot the victim. The victim turned and started running away and that is when he was shot in the back.

By this time the EMS unit was on the scene and transported the victim. I headed back to the club to better document the scene and get statements from any witnesses. Before I could even get to the club my dispatcher called and notified me that the victim had died on the way to the hospital.

Now I had a murder on my hands. A Detective as called and took over the case. I went to the hospital to speak to the EMT's. They told me that the victim had arrested (heart stopped) shortly after they left the scene and that they were unable to get him back. They had done an x-ray series on the victim and it appeared that the bullet had traveled up towards his heart and probably nicked his aorta. He had bled out internally.

I felt horrible. I had yelled at the victim to calm down because his wound was minor. I had made a judgment call because of what I thought I saw. It had appeared to me to be just a minor wound to the fleshy part of the back. There was nothing I could do and the EMS personnel told me that even had I realized how serious the wound was, there would have been nothing I or anyone else could have done, short of getting him into the OR in the first 10 minutes and that had been a physical impossibility. That only made me feel a little better. At least I had not been the cause of his death by my negligence and assumptions.

It was a hard and bitter lesson, but one that I did not need to learn twice. In my seven years on the force I saw many accidents which appeared minor but which had killed someone. I also saw many accidents where I was sure no one could survive only to find out that there were only minor injuries. I had also been taught that the seriously injured were usually very quiet and the most noisy patients were usually not very seriously injured. Well that does not always hold true as I found out first hand.

I also found out by experience that being an EMT as well as a Police Officer often had its conflicts. My first instincts were to try to help the victim, but that can be very dangerous for a Police Officer. For example if a Police Officer arrives on the scene of a shooting and he sees a victim it is his responsibility to check the victim and administer life saving first aid if he can. However, his other (just as important) responsibility is to secure the scene or in other words make it safe. It does no good for a Police Officer to save a victim's life, just to have the victim shot again by the suspect, not to mention the Officer himself being shot or other bystanders. I was often pulled between helping a victim and securing the scene so that it was safe.

Ralph L. Dettwiler
(Former) Sergeant
Beaufort County Sheriff's Department
Beaufort, South Carolina

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