Travel Nurse Across America Nurse Saves Infant's Life in Dramatic Rescue

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Who saved who? A true story of a lifeless infant, a homesick travel nurse and the Mardi Gras coin that changed everything.

If we had been in a thirty-second window either way, earlier or later, that child would not have had a chance.

Jessie Russell RN, 27, was returning with a friend from the Seattle airport on the seasonable evening of April 2, right around sunset, when she saw a car stopped dead in the middle of Canyon Road in little Puyallup, WA. A fender-bender, she thought, as she surveyed the lines of cars backed up in all directions.

But as her friend slowly maneuvered his vehicle past the ‘crash’ site, Russell, a pediatric nurse, noticed a stillness to the scene, and a family huddled behind the car. A bystander stood frozen, his hand covering his mouth as if horrified. Finally, Russell got a better glimpse of the ‘accident,’ and she recognized a peculiar expression of anguish on the mother’s face. It’s a powerful look any pediatric nurse would know says, “Someone save my baby,” and it galvanized Russell into action. “Stop the car!” Russell shouted at her friend. The nurse was out the door even before the vehicle had fully halted.

As she rushed toward the scene, she saw the baby, blue and limp in its mother’s arms. Without even taking time to introduce herself, Russell said, “Mom, give me your baby,” and snatched the unresponsive infant from her parent.

Russell had arrived in Puyallup just four months earlier, on assignment with Travel Nurse across America, to work in the emergency room at a local children’s hospital. A native of the Deep South, Russell wanted to experience something new. Someplace different. When offered an assignment that would take her from North Carolina to the Pacific Northwest, Russell jumped at the chance. There was just one problem: three months in, she found herself feeling profoundly homesick. “I missed my friends,” the young nurse said. “My last travel nursing assignment had been emotionally draining, and now I was three thousand miles away from everyone I know and love. I toughed it out as long as I could, but by the end of March I found myself needing the comfort of family -- of a familiar face.”

Russell’s father, coping with terminal cancer, dropped everything to fly out to be with his daughter. She saw how emaciated he’d become. On April 15, 2009, he’d been given a five-year survival prognosis. The impending anniversary of that date, with all its implications, loomed in her mind as Russell had dropped him off at SeaTac earlier in the day. As she waved goodbye, she wondered if it might be the last time she ever saw him. The visit that was meant to cheer her up instead left her feeling emotionally fragile and conflicted. “It’s one of the pivotal moments of our life, when we’re trying to reconcile the internal struggle of finding personal happiness versus feeling a sense of family obligation,” Russell said. “I felt torn. I felt I should not be in Washington, so far away. I should be back home, with my family.”

But now, she stood in the middle of a street with an unresponsive baby in her arms and bystanders beginning to gather. Pushing aside her emotions, she focused on saving that child.

“I could tell we were dealing with an obstructed airway,” Russell said, “so I immediately flipped that baby face down and began performing heavy back blows to try to dislodge the obstruction.”

During the procedure, Russell heard the woman say, “My son gave her a chip,” which the nurse interpreted to mean “a potato chip.” That would be good news, because a potato chip can be crushed. A potato chip can be softened and pushed aside.

Given this new information, Russell decided to try a blind finger sweep -- a procedure rarely attempted by nursing personnel because of the risk of pushing an object farther down the airway. As she ran her finger across the child’s palate, what Russell felt was not a potato chip. It was the hard edge of a coin. And the nurse felt it slip backwards the moment she touched it, exactly what she didn’t want to happen.

Working feverishly now, Russell held the baby upside-down and again put her index finger into the child’s mouth, determined to dislodge the object. “I couldn’t believe it when the thing popped right into the palm of my hand,” Russell said in a tone of amazement. “It was a Mardi Gras coin, about the size of a half-dollar.” But the baby still wasn’t breathing. Russell used her fingers to pull strings of mucus from the child’s oral cavity. Still, no breath. Russell prepared to start CPR. All at once, the baby shuddered and gasped. Then she gave a thin cry.

Hearing the welcome sound, Russell inhaled deeply too. Throughout the three-minute ordeal, the nurse realized she had been holding her breath. But now she could breathe again. “Oh, I have never heard anything so sweet in my life,” Russell said. “I hugged that baby to me and about squeezed the rest of the life right out of her!”

By now, a few traffic control officers had arrived and asked the crowd to disperse. With pinkness returning to the child’s face, Russell left the scene without thinking to exchange information with the family members. Russell didn’t even know their names.

The story might have ended there. Except the baby wasn’t the only one saved that day. “All the inner conflict I felt vanished after I saved that baby,” Russell says. “This was a life-altering event for me. I truly feel God put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Relax. It’s going to be OK. This is where you need to be.’”

Russell points out the exquisite timing of the incident as proof she was put in the right place at the right time. “If we had been in a thirty-second window either way, earlier or later, that child would not have had a chance,” Russell said. “Just as I was able to give that baby exactly what she needed at that point in time, I also received everything I needed right in that moment. I no longer feel sad about being so far away from home. I understand, deep in myself, I’m exactly where I need to be.”

Coincidentally, the baby’s family took the child to the local children’s hospital -- to the very emergency room where Russell works -- and the baby received a clean bill of health after the choking episode. The family learned Russell was a nurse who worked there, and they have been in touch with her since the incident.

So did Russell save the baby, or did the baby save Russell? The nurse sees it both ways. “After the fact, when I got into my friend’s car and started cleaning my hands, I discovered I was still clutching the Mardi Gras coin. I carry it with me in my wallet now as a reminder that nursing is my calling and my passion. I will go wherever it leads me.”

It seems two lives were saved that day in the middle of a road in Puyallup, Washington.

About Travel Nurse across America
Travel Nurse across America places travel nurse professionals on multi-week assignments in healthcare facilities in all 50 states. Travel Nurse across America was recently named the 2014 Arkansas Business of the Year by Arkansas Business Publishing group, was awarded the HCSS Certification with Distinction by The Joint Commission and is a founding member of the National Association of Travel Healthcare Organizations (NATHO). For more information on Travel Nurse across America, visit http://www.nurse.tv.

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