Charlottesville Unrest: The Calm & Fury
The dut dut dut dut of Pegasus, UVA’s medevac helicopter, persisted.
Before leaving for work, I peered out my apartment window, which overlooks the mountains where Carter’s [Mountain Orchard] and Montalto lie, to spy the familiar gleam of UVA Medical Center’s Emergency Department.
Countless nights, through this window, I’ve watched Charlottesville’s twinkle over a 12 a.m. lunch when I wasn’t working nights as an emergency room nurse. I’ve smiled when recognizing familiar figures from this window—a fellow nurse hurrying to clock in, a helmet-clad resident zooming by on his bike, a patient transporter taking a lunch break stroll at the rear of an ambulance—and felt goosebumps rise watching Pegasus gracefully lower her legs to make contact with the helipad.
But on this Saturday morning, the Medical Center’s helipad sat empty, even as I continued to hear the beat of the rotors. Men in highlighter-yellow vests stood in front of orange barricades sprinkled across the road. Like my colleagues, I was prepared for this day, this “community event,” as my manager termed it. As I stepped into the muggy August air, working this time in light rather than in darkness, I finally spied what was making the dut dut dut dut: a police helicopter panning over the Downtown Mall, where residents, outsiders, and onlookers were already clashing in protests that would sweep through this city, and roil our nation and the world.
I took a deep breath, swiped my RN badge, and walked through the sliding doors to the Emergency Department.
Clusters of gray hovered around trauma bays—surgeons, all of them, I realized—while a live feed of the August 12 Unite the Right rally ran on several desk monitors. It was still quiet. Our bays prepped and primed, my colleagues and I went about our business, trying to ignore our rising heart rates and the palpable dread and uncertainty looming thick in the air. Mid-afternoon, the charge nurse reported that “a car ran through the crowd.” The protests had shifted, taking a deadly turn. We quietly discussed our roles, calmly clearing patients out of the way of what we knew would be the coming frenzy.
I grabbed a blue trauma gown, a mask, a hairnet—all of which we would run out of within the hour—taking my cue from the chief trauma surgeon, who set the tone that each of us would follow.
Listen. Speak softly. Don’t interrupt. And stay calm.
So it began. When EMS rolled in with the first patient, we moved methodically, calmly around her. I listened to a colleague, holding her neck stable within a cervical collar, soften her fears with stories of his youngest, spunkiest daughter before whisking her off for a CAT scan.
Nearby, my own heart rate steadied. Moments of compassion, despite the chaos.
That feeling was fleeting, though, because our teams grew larger, and more frenetic. It wasn’t just our trauma bay, but the trauma bay next-door, and the one next to that, filling with frantic patients and their terrified loved ones who streamed in with their own stories that day. The tempo grew as nurses rolled patients upstairs to make room for the next wave of people victim to what we were already calling a “mass casualty incident.” EMS teams repeatedly arrived, adrenaline-pumped, prepared for the unexpected.
The only quieting, I realized later, was the absence of the dut dut dut dut of the state police helicopter that had been watching over our community that day. It had crashed into a nearby forest, killing both its occupants.
I’ll take calm where I can find it, but in this emergent setting, energy is harnessed to protect and stabilize. Here, there is no room for hate, discrimination, or judgement. Listening, attentiveness, cooperation, and unity are the only way forward in times of uncertainty and fear.
Muir, originally from Fairfax, Virginia, works as an emergency nurse in UVA Medical Center’s Emergency Department. A 2016 BSN graduate of the UVA School of Nursing, Muir's essay appears in the fall 2017 issue of Virginia Nursing Legacy.