Getting There: A visit to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center

The message was one that parents in Maryland dread hearing: Your son has been in a car crash and is being taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

As I learned in a very personal way a week ago, the second part of that statement was good news.

I wouldn't wish it on any of my readers, but if you ever do get a call like that, the destination is cause for optimism. If a crash victim gets to Shock Trauma alive, there's a very good chance he or she will remain that way. Spokeswoman Cindy Rivers put the survival rate at 97 percent. The doctors and nurses there are very good at what they do.

My son's injuries turned out to be on the low end of severity for Shock Trauma, but that doesn't mean they weren't extremely painful. The staff there treated his injuries seriously and professionally, and did not minimize their importance to him.

If you ever get such a call, you might find it useful to have some idea of what to expect in addition to first-rate medical care.

First, adjust your expectations about visiting. It's very controlled, but not unreasonably so, considering the gravity of the injuries that Shock Trauma deals with.

Families will be asked to designate a "spokesperson" who will be the main point of contact. Often that will be the first responsible adult to reach the scene and be handed the forms. Maybe that person wouldn't have been your choice. But this is a time to get along — even if you generally don't.

A patient can have no more than two visitors at a time — and if things get crowded, the staff may limit that to one visitor. At certain times, the staff will ask all visitors to leave. Don't fight them on this. They'll let you back in when they can. Do figure on spending some time cooling your heels in the first-floor waiting area.

Generally, visitors under 14 aren't permitted. Nurses can make exceptions, but it would be a mistake to expect one. The center restricts visitors to "immediate family members only" but leaves it to the nurse in charge of the Trauma Resuscitation Unit to determine who qualifies. "Significant others" are OK, but don't call in all the cousins.

Don't expect much privacy — at least on the second floor, where patients are first treated. It's a very open floor arrangement with people bustling around from station to station. Curtains provide what little screening there is. Higher floors may afford more privacy, but the injuries treated there are often more severe.

There are no comfy chairs on the second floor. You may be allowed to stay overnight with your family member, but don't count on sleep. Complaining won't help.

Expect a highly visible police presence. Shock Trauma deals with a highly diverse clientele, including many gunshot victims from Baltimore. But the police aren't just there to keep gang members under control. If family members get out of hand, an officer is prepared to step in. It's not a good place to lose your cool.

The policy reads: "Visitors displaying any type of verbal abuse or violent behavior towards a TRU staff member will be asked to leave the TRU and may be escorted out by security as needed." They mean it.

By all means, advocate for your family member's comfort. Even ask for a supervising doctor to take a look if things don't seem to be working out right. But keep it polite and respectful. You're likely to get better results.

If your family member's injuries are not life-threatening, you might be in for a wait. After the initial assessment, care is not given in order of arrival. The most serious cases go to the operating area first — and the staff isn't there to decide who is the more upstanding citizen. Your honor student might have to wait while the surgeon operates on a prison-tattooed thug. Deal with it or wait downstairs.

Expect thirst. If there's a possibility your family member may be operated on soon, the nurses can't allow liquids because of the danger of vomiting during surgery. They may allow an ice chip, they may not. They were perfectly reasonable about allowing food to be brought in once it was clear an operation was not imminent. Defer to their judgment.

If you're visiting on the floor, you may see some patients in bad condition. Good manners call for averting your eyes from those cases and focusing attention on the patient you're there to comfort.

When my son was there, the nurses were not harsh about enforcing rules for rules' sake. When they did apply — such as restricting cellphones — they did it politely but firmly. Allowing the staff discretion is a benefit, even if it involves some inconsistency. Going lawyer on them would likely force them to be more rigid.

If the person being treated is a young adult and is capable of making decisions, the nurses and doctors deal primarily with the patient — not the parents. Mom and Dad can listen in, but a young person of 21 is treated as an adult. When my son decided he wanted to go home after surgery rather than spend a second night, they respected his decision and expedited his discharge. I liked that about the place.

Shock Trauma is not a place I'm eager to revisit, but I'm glad it's here in Baltimore. Its people make it work, and they deserve our respect, appreciation and cooperation.

One more note: It is not lost on this father that Maryland requires drivers to wear seat belts, which my son was doing at the time of the crash, and that the federal government made sure there was an air bag in his SUV. The vehicle was a complete wreck, but the air bag deployed, possibly sparing him more serious injuries.

Thank you, Big Brother.

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