“Not again,” we all silently sigh when the page comes through. He arrives under lock and key and stays that way no matter what our plan. Every trauma surgeon and nearly every resident has previously participated in his care over the years.
He has a life sentence.
The abdomen is socked in. There is no more retrieving the foreign bodies piercing his abdominal cavity. We have been there and done that. If something is visible on the outside we can pull it out. Now we just have to hope whatever was injured causes a process that walls itself off and does not cause too much physiologic compromise.
But what about the psychologic compromise? He does not wish to end his life; that much is clear. But he is looking for escape. The lure of the secondary gain is strong. He has admitted to us:
The food here is better.
The nurses are cute.
I don’t want to be near the pedophiles.
With our incarcerated patients, it is not our place to address these cries for help. We can’t imagine the fortitude it must take to clandestinely acquire a sharp object and then meticulously drive it through the abdomen wall into whatever organs lie beneath; but, we must stay focused on the anatomic issues and potential complications.
He is screaming at us now. The guards tell him to calm down. Now it is his words that pierce our ears:
You have to cut me open.
Please put me to sleep.
I am not a bad person.
As trauma surgeons we view all patients as equal. They all deserve the same compassion and high standard of care no matter what the circumstances of the injury, no matter what the personal status of the patient. We never, not ever, inquire as to the circumstances of the crime(s) for which the patient is serving his sentence or how long the sentence is. None of that matters. He is our patient and we provide him the best care possible.
Today the best care possible is to provide minor bedside care with local anesthetic to remove a foreign body. To calm him down I take his hand while the residents work. I lock his eyes so he will stop trying to see their sterile field. I ask him about himself. I am not sure why but it seemed like the natural thing to do.
He tells us where he grew up. He describes his childhood. He takes a sentence to describe his crime and then speaks more in detail about how the next 37 years of his life sentence led to today. He says:
I wasn’t always like this.
I used to be normal.
Now, this is the only way I know how to cope.
The self-inflicted stab wound will be fine. No hospital food needed. No bedside care from nurses needed. But before he goes back to his bunk with the pedophile, I tell him that we are sorry things turned out this way for him. We wish him luck trying to cope better but we fear he won’t be that lucky.