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A Little Fireworks on the Fourth of July

Nurse Springs into Action, Saves Life on the Beach

July 07, 2017

Lori McDonnell-Gozzi was on vacation at the beach with her family when she saved an 8-year-old boy’s life.

She was on vacation, sitting on the beach, digging in the sand with her two year old.

She heard yelling and screaming, and looked up, and someone was dragging a little boy out of the ocean.

Lori McDonnell-Gozzi is an emergency room nurse at Temple University Hospital. Her first reaction — “I’m on vacation. I’m not getting involved.” This lasted a split second. In fact, as she was thinking this, she was out of her beach chair, rushing to the boy, locating her own four children in the process.

It was a beautiful day at Virginia Beach, just about noon on the Fourth of July.

“All these people started crowding around,” she recalled. “It was mayhem. The lifeguards are running in circles and not doing anything. They’re yelling at everyone, `Get back, get back,’ but nobody is touching the boy.

As she played it back in her mind later, she realized these were only 20-year-old kids, these lifeguards. They didn’t see lifeless bodies very often, if at all.

She sees them every day.

“I’m an ER nurse,” she said. “Get out of my way.”

The boy was about 8, she said, and “guppy breathing like six a minute.” This is a term she uses often in the ED to describe shallow gasps, resembling a fish out of water. “You could telling he wasn’t getting anything in.” she said.

His pulse was strong, about 80 or 90. His pupils were dilated, big, but not fixed, suggesting possible brain injury. She could see his belly was full of water.

“I rolled him to his side,” she said. “I was rubbing his back. I kept him on his side and he started puking. He started waking up a little and started breathing a little better. But he was still out.

She sat him up, and his respiration improved slightly. She talked to him like a mother as she rubbed his back.

“You’re okay baby, you’re at the beach. You’re going to be alright.”

An ATV showed up, and she and a lifeguard loaded the little boy. She watched it take him to an ambulance on the street.

The whole thing lasted five, maybe 10 minutes. She realized she was shaking now, the stress of the moment sinking in.

In the emergency room this would have been routine. On the water’s edge, on vacation, in a bathing suit, it was anything but.

She was covered in sand. She just got up and went straight to their cooler with lunches and drinks. “I just grabbed a beer and drank it to calm myself down.”

Her kids, 13, 8, 4, and 2, had watched her in action, in awe.

“Thank God you were here,” said her eight-year-old.

“Mom, did that boy die on the beach?” asked her four-year-old.

“No, he’s just very, very sick,” she replied.

She believed he would likely be intubated, and sick for a long time, but recover. She had no desire to follow up. In the ED, nurses rarely do. Maybe it’s partly self-preservation. You do your best, you move on. There’s always another emergency. Her husband ran up with the ATV to the ambulance. It turned out the little boy was staying with friends, who were sitting a block up the beach. He had been in the water by himself, and drifted down. The family came running when they saw the ambulance.

Most people who witnessed the incident left the beach and went home. She stayed a while, fed her kids lunch, lectured them on water safety.

Later that evening, she posted on Facebook:

“Sometimes I question why I choose such a stressful and nerve-racking career, but days like today make me realized that God chooses us to be certain things and chooses us to be in certain places at certain times. I will be a nurse until the day I die…”

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Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.