On a family outing to Colorado’s high country, tragedy interrupted Sarah Clemmons’ day off. Traffic stopped suddenly, baffling The Medical Center of Aurora (TMCA) nurse and mother of two. But as Clemmons quietly pulled over, a switch flipped inside of her – also known as nursing instinct – and she left the car without uttering a word and walked towards the chaotic scene.

A Chevrolet truck sat crushed, its driver trapped inside. A Jeep lay flipped on its side. Car parts and tires were strewn across the highway from the violent, five-vehicle crash that occurred just moments before.

“I walked through all of the rubble and went to the first car where there was a gentleman standing by the driver’s side,” says Clemmons, a 16-year veteran nurse at TMCA, an HCA Healthcare affiliate hospital in Denver. “He told me he was a physician and he couldn’t find the woman’s pulse. I looked at her, and I knew in my heart she was gone, but I didn’t want it to be.”

This is nursing.

Fleet of strangers come together

Seeing that the 52-year-old woman died on scene and her teenage son, who survived with minor physical injuries, were being attended to, Clemmons moved on through the commotion.

The director of nursing administration at TMCA, part of HealthONE’s network of hospitals in Denver, was one of several people unexpectedly thrown together in what many later described as an heroic effort to comfort and save the victims  ̶  many with serious injuries  ̶  in the I-70 crash near Morrison, Colorado. In addition to a number of civilians scrambling to help, grabbing anything from blankets to towels from their cars, the responding passersby that day included two surgeons, four nurses, including Clemmons, an ICU respiratory therapist and a paramedic.

“There also happened to be two construction workers who had metal cutters and fire extinguishers,” she recalled. “They were cutting off doors and dousing the area with fire retardant, as others pulled victims away from gas-leaking vehicles.”

Meanwhile, Clemmons and other medical professionals assessed victims, rendered first-aid, treated shock, and ensured them they were going to be OK.

“I just went in a circle. I was triaging them and seeing who needed what. The one I stuck with was a 16-year-old boy. He was laying down holding his pelvis and having trouble breathing. His mother was lying nearby, and his father was pacing back and forth between them.”

Yes, this too is nursing.

Nursing provides lifelong mission

Clemmons, who has been first-on-scene in three other fatal or near-fatal accidents and, as a high-schooler, lay with a civilian comforting her after her mother’s car was rear-ended by a cement truck at high speed, can’t explain what caused her to immediately leave her vehicle without a word that day. But she does know why she spent the next hour and a half taking care of accident victims, staying until the last one was transported away.

“It’s the right thing to do,” the nurse, who has served in orthopedics, oncology and trauma units, to name a few, said. “Those are my values. And I know what it feels like to be scared and alone on the side of a road, and I don’t want others to feel that way.”

“As a medical professional, those morals dig even deeper,” she continued. “It’s our mission statement, and I thoroughly believe in it. Above all else, we take care of everyone, no matter what the situation is. That’s why I do what I do every day.”

Leaving the woman who died was the hardest part, Clemmons says, fighting back tears as she recalled the memory. But there were others who needed her, including the seriously-injured teenaged boy and his parents.

“For me, it was largely about providing reassurance and validation that he was safe, that he was going to be OK,” says Clemmons, who ultimately braced the boy’s injured arm, gave him oxygen when the ambulance arrived, and helped load him onto a backboard and a gurney.

The two lives lost in that accident stings deeply, Clemmons says. She says she prays for the families of the victims and for all of the people who took time to help. Those people who rendered aid should take comfort in knowing they made a difference, she says.

“By the time the first ambulance arrived, between the people who were there, we had already prioritized and assessed everyone. We were able to tell the EMTs who needed to go first. There was a great team of strangers working together for a common goal, and we all did the best we could to save lives.”

Because this is nursing.

HCA

Sarah Clemmons, registered nurse at The Medical Center of Aurora

Sarah Clemmons, a registered nurse at HCA-affilate The Medical Center of Aurora, represents one of 81,000 plus nurses across HCA. 

Blog image courtesy of CBS 4 Denver broadcast.