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The Samaritans

NBC stations highlight nurses saving lives outside clinical settings

Linda AlweissAugust 15, 2014 -- Recent reports on local NBC television news sites illustrate the media's continuing interest in nurses who save lives outside of their usual clinical settings, as well as the media's enduring impulse to reinforce the angel stereotype, even in reports on life-saving skill. On January 10, 2014, the Los Angeles affiliate NBC4 (KNBC) ran a story about a local nurse who had, working with a nurse from Wyoming, reportedly provided successful emergency care to a pilot having a heart attack on a commercial flight from Iowa. Patrick Healy's piece "'Heroic Actions' by SoCal Nurse Save Pilot Mid-Flight," included praise for the nurse's "heroic actions," including a few specifics about her use of health equipment and her "advanced cardiac life support" certification. And it even managed not to call her an "angel." But we can't say that about the stories the Philadelphia affiliate NBC10 (WCAU) ran on August 14 and 15 about a hospice nurse who had reportedly stopped to save a badly injured motorcyclist by the roadside. Maggie Bowers's pieces "Angel on the Highway: Search for Lifesaving Nurse" and "Angels on Highway: Lifesaving Women Found" do include a few specifics about the nurse's work with another female health worker to apply a tourniquet to stop the "river of blood" flowing out of the man's leg. But the headlines of both items insist that the women were "angels." Pieces like these are probably helpful if they simply report on what a nurse has done to save someone in crisis, even though we generally detect a sense of wonder that the nurse was able to do so much without a physician to take over or give commands. Such reports do often consult only physicians for expert health comment, as the Philadelphia item here does. And when the pieces insist on reinforcing stereotypes or include self-defeating quotes from the nurses, such as the common refrain that the nurses' training just "kicked in," we are not sure if they are a net gain. In this case, the Philadelphia piece quotes the heroic nurse as follows: "I don't know why, but I just knew I had to stop the bleeding." Really? Wouldn't almost anyone know why this bleeding had to stop? We thank those at the Los Angeles NBC station for a helpful item, and as for the Philadelphia affiliate, well, thanks for trying.

Heroic actions

I don't know why

Heroic actions

Linda AlweissThe Los Angeles item is headlined, "'Heroic Actions' by SoCal Nurse Save Pilot Mid-Flight:  A nurse gives an ailing pilot life-saving treatment during a cross-country United flight." It reports that Camarillo nurse Linda Alweiss responded to an emergency call from the flight crew while flying home from a holiday visit to Iowa to find the pilot "slumped in his seat."

After years in pediatric intensive care, Alweiss was thankful she had recently recertified her advanced cardiac life support. "He was clearly suffering from a possibly fatal arrhythmia," Alweiss said. Her husband, Alan, and another passenger helped move the captain from the cramped cockpit to the galley floor. Alweiss and another registered nurse, Amy Sorenson, of Wyoming, went to work, hooking up a diagnostic defibrillator and starting an IV.

The piece reports that paramedics met the flight after an emergency landing in Omaha. As Alweiss was flying onward the next day, she found herself sitting next to the copilot from the prior flight, who told her that the pilot had reached a cardiac unit and survived. The piece quotes Alweiss's husband: "Her actions were heroic. She didn't hesitate for a second."

This very short item is helpful for what it does and what it does not do. It does repeatedly state that the nurses volunteered and took quick, expert action. river of bloodAlweiss is qualified in "advanced cardiac life support," she quickly diagnosed a "possibly fatal arrhythmia," she and Sorenson hooked up a defibrillator and started an IV. The "arrhythmia" comment helps Alweiss sound expert to lay people. The part about her being glad she was just recertified does give undue credit to a recent refresher class, rather than her years of education and daily work in critical care--this is her life. The class is nearly irrelevant. But the piece also includes the quote describing her actions as "heroic," and it reports that the pilot survived. The story does not call the nurses angels, nor does it contain anything minimizing their skills or suggesting that just anyone could have done what they did. And it does not consult a physician to see if the nurses actually knew what they were doing.

I don't know why

By contrast, the Philadelphia items are mixed at best, as reflected in the headline of the first one, on August 14: "Angel on the Highway:  Search for Lifesaving Nurse." That piece reports that Larry Miles was riding his motorcycle in New Jersey when he crashed into a car, cutting open his upper thigh and releasing a "river of blood." The main theme is that Miles wants to find and thank "Debbie," the woman who "stepped in and saved his life."

The crash severed Miles' femoral artery -- the most important artery in the leg. Anywhere from five to eight minutes after the artery is cut, a person can die from blood loss, according to Dr. John Chovanes, a surgeon at Cooper University Hospital's Trauma Center in Camden.

At the scene, while Miles was waiting for paramedics to arrive but fearing he would die, a woman reportedly approached and said "My name's Debbie, I'm a nurse."

Debbie acted fast and made a tourniquet with a t-shirt and a stick to try and get the bleeding under control."She was just trying to soothe me and keep me calm," Miles said. "She kind of took control until the paramedics got there." ... Miles said the last thing he remembers is Debbie kissing him on the forehead and telling him he'll be all right.

Paramedics arrived eight minutes later and Miles was airlifted to Cooper Trauma Center, where he is having surgeries and is expected to recover fully. Back to Chovanes, who says it's unlikely Miles would have survived if not for Debbie's quick actions: "You have to know what you're doing to apply a tourniquet properly. If [Debbie] didn't stop and have the courage to get involved in the right way, [Miles] would have been dead." Miles, to his credit, says he wants to "find this woman who saved my life" and thank her. Evidently, she disappeared without a trace.

flying nurse angelBut through the magic of television and Facebook, she did not stay gone long. The NBC station's follow-up story the next day is "Angels on Highway: Lifesaving Women Found; Man thanks the women who saved his life." That piece explains that Miles actually had "two angels" who "worked together to tie a tourniquet around his leg that doctors say prevented him from bleeding out." One "angel" was indeed one Debbie Parisi, a hospice nurse at Samaritan Healthcare, who came upon the scene soon after Miles's accident. 

Parisi pulled over, sat down next to him and asked if anybody had a shirt to make a tourniquet. "I don't know why, but I just knew I had to stop the bleeding," Parisi said. Standing nearby, Maria Lopez offered her husband's jacket. The second woman to come to his aid, Lopez works at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital and has training to deal with emergencies, including first aid and CPR. ... Unable to tie the jacket tightly enough on their own, the two women used a stick to constrict the blood flow as much as possible.

Apparently, both Parisi and Lopez saw the prior NBC story and "reached out to Miles on Facebook." Parisi reportedly visited Miles in the hospital and Lopez planned to do so also. The piece states: "Doctors said they expect Miles to make a full recovery, which would not have been possible without the help of Parisi and Lopez."

physician speaking to reportersThese pieces have good elements. In particular, the intense focus on life-saving is helpful. So are the specifics about how the women applied the tourniquet and the physician's statement that you must "know what you're doing." We like the note that Parisi works at "Samaritan" Healthcare, although the item makes nothing of that echo of the Biblical roadside rescuer. On the downside, the repeated invocation of the angel image is not helpful because it reinforces the stereotype that nurses are low-skilled spiritual beings rather than modern professionals who need resources and respect for their skills. In addition, although the citation of physicians as to the life-saving importance of the nurse's work is helpful in that they will be seen as authoritative, the fact that the piece consults only "doctors" about the work of a nurse is troubling--would a reporter have consulted only trauma nurses about the roadside care of a palliative care physician? Would such care even have been news? The apparent assumption is that physicians are recognized experts. But if nurses show health ability, it's news, so let's consult physicians about it.

confused nursePerhaps the saddest element is the part quoting this heroic nurse as saying that she does not know why she had to stop the bleeding. We're sorry, but it seems to us that almost any adult knows why a "river of blood" flowing out of a person's thigh has to be stopped. Assuming the quote is accurate, it's worth considering what it means. Will reporters be encouraged to consult nurses about health issues when nurses say they "don't know" why they felt they had to stop the bleeding after a person's femoral artery was cut? Will the public realize that nurses get and need college science educations? And does nursing culture still require nurses to disclaim expertise and authority to such an extent that they are not allowed to display health knowledge that even lay people have, perhaps for fear that the nurses will be seen as uppity, or posing a challenge to physician primacy, or failing to conform to the traditional view that nurses are . . . angels?

See the articles:

See "Heroic Actions" by SoCal Nurse Save Pilot Mid-Flight: A nurse gives an ailing pilot life-saving treatment during a cross-country flight," by Patrick Healy, posted on the website of Los Angeles's NBC4 (KNBC) on January 10, 2014. (pdf archive)

See "Angel on the Highway: Search for Lifesaving Nurse: Man searches for the nurse who saved his life," by Maggie Bowers, posted on the website of Philadelphia's NBC10 (WCAU) on August 14, 2014. (pdf archive)

See "Angels on Highway: Lifesaving Women Found: Man thanks the women who saved his life," by Maggie Bowers, posted on the website of Philadelphia's NBC10 (WCAU) on August 15, 2014. (pdf archive)



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