Sarah Slotnick: Facing Tsarnaev

Sarah-Slotnick-SQDisclaimer from the writer: Identifying details such as descriptions, events, places, times and incidents have been changed to protect the privacy of some individuals. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Today marks the day Dzhokhar Tsarnaev returns to court for the penalty phase of his trial. This is what the case is really about; he is obviously guilty of killing people. The real point to prove is whether or not he deserves to die at the hands of the state for it. Every Wednesday morning, on my way to clinical, I listen to NPR. At 7 a.m. driving up Route 32, after a quick shower, affixing my hair back, vigorously flossing and scrubbing my teeth, it comforts me, easing my mind from the routine nursing student anxiety that comes on like clockwork starting the night before. This morning, I tune in right when they are telling the story of Martin Richard. He was an eight-year-old boy — my nephew’s age — whose body was blown to bits waiting to watch the winner cross the finish line. The NPR host warns me that “the following may be difficult to hear,” and then proceeds to describe just how the bomb left no inch of his body untouched. It severed his spinal cord and abdominal aorta. It ruptured his entire abdomen, shredding his intestines. It tore his little liver, left kidney and adrenal gland, ripped his left arm at the forearm, snapped his right femur in two, fractured several ribs, bruised a lung and burnt his skin (full thickness) on the back, buttocks and both calves. His father watched his son die within minutes.

My memories bring me back to April 2013. I was nursing a different kind of broken heart than that of Martin’s father and had started treating it by running. Like any good runner, I was up before sunrise to run, having slept in my workout clothes to get out the door faster. Bad weather would come, I would run. Sleepless nights, still I would run. I ran to points of exhaustion, where I felt I would never catch my breath again, and then I pushed just a few steps further. Like a good marathon trainer. During that time, I read the articles feverishly, listened to the radio and watched the news each free moment. Every day, anger spread through cells of my body like wildfire. I had been adamantly against the death penalty for years. That was a different thing. Innocent people were slaughtered. There were runners whose minds may have lived, but limbs were lost. They became paralyzed forever. Survivors would spend their lives trapped awake in a nightmare. He was captured hiding in the corner of someone’s boat in a stranger’s backyard, like a scrawny, pathetic mouse in a mouse trap. I wanted Dzhokar Tsarnaev to die.


I take a deep breath in on my way to the hospital, tightening my fist around the badge that will be strapped to my scrubs all day, exposing me to the world as a student nurse. Limited parking forces me to walk further than usual, but the air is crisp, the sun is out. The familiar pre-clinical tension in my own stomach is forced out with the exhale. The relentless, angry winter seems to finally be behind us. As I walk, I think about Jessica Kensky, who will wheel herself into the courtroom today to testify. After running 26.2 miles, both her legs were suddenly blasted right off. As I sense each step of my foot against the pavement, my eyes suddenly feel weak with the weight of tears inside. I let the thought go as I walk through the Emergency Room entrance revolving door. It is time to be another person. I clip my badge to my collar.

My patient is a 55-year-old female with a new diagnosis of colon cancer. I am told in pre-conference she has a history of abuse (as the victim), and later read in the chart it was spousal. As I assess her, she tells me what brought her into the hospital. It had been a generalized weakness for about a year, easily masked by the realities of menopause. There was a sudden onset of severe abdominal pain, and she admitted herself to the hospital just four days ago. An x-ray revealed she had had a tumor of the large intestine and it ruptured. The contents of her bowel leaked out into the peritoneal cavity. I look at the surgical site. My patient is now tolerating clear liquids and even her favorite drink — black tea. Her abdomen is soft and non-distended. The staples holding the surgical incision line together are clean, dry and intact. A J.P. drain steadily sucks internal fluids right out of the region. She has a temporary colostomy, also clean, dry and intact. Intravenous dilaudid delivered every four hours on the dot makes her pain disappear like a magic trick.

She is a sweet woman with large eyes and a small frame. She talks about her new boyfriend and her new life after “escaping 25 years of living hell” in Georgia. He has been attentive, patient and has made her laugh every day. She doesn’t need to say it. I can tell my patient feels she’s met her soul mate. I smile for her.

Back behind the nurse’s station, I research my patient’s blood counts. As I skim the numbers, I find my mind retreating back to what’s happening in a court room somewhere in Boston. I wonder what Tsarnaev is feeling as he faces his victims, one by one. He is forced to listen to story after story of the lives he tore apart and destroyed in a single moment in time. His hands are cuffed, he cannot cover his ears. Most mass-murderers never outlive their own massacre. This rarely happens. It feels righteous to me. The loud ring of the station’s telephone quickly reorients me to where I am now. I am, once again, a nursing student looking at hemoglobin levels. I am one student among many at a busy, short-staffed community hospital. Our medical-surgical floor is overloaded today; surrounded all around me are very sick people, people in pain, some people actively dying, and today may very well be their last day here. Just like last week. The nurses scramble to get everyone their medications. I catch a glimpse of one of my student nurse classmates diligently roll a vital signs machine down the hallway.

In the afternoon, I say goodbye to my patient. Her boyfriend is with her. The man has long hair, is dressed in leather and covered with tattoos. The sight of him evokes memories of the senior motorcyclists I see outside the bars of my hometown in the summer, with their bright ink, bandanas and loud Guns ‘n’ Roses songs blasting from their Harleys. He is sitting at her bedside, holding her hand. I am thanked earnestly by him for working with his “love.” My patient tells me someday, I will find a love for my own, and although it feels natural to hug her, we shake, parting ways. Every patient is different. But every goodbye to them always seems to feel the same — reticent. I wash my hands. The water cools them. After a long day of taking blood pressures, giving sponge baths, putting on tight compression stockings, cleaning wounds and countless other tasks, it feels restorative.

As I walk out of the lobby downstairs, the news displayed on the lobby’s TV does not go unnoticed. Tsarnaev’s face is spread across it. I haven’t seen it for two years, the same image they always use, that mug shot. His hair is floppy and tangled, his eyes are deadpan, his skin tone is pale. He would fit right in with any group of teenagers I saw outside Kingston High School this morning on their way to school. But somehow, this time, it looks different to me. Suddenly, it comes upon me; we have that same, East European-American look. My face looks just like his. I look like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I expect to feel angry; I expect to recall the image of his clothes soaked in blood. It is not in me. For reasons unknown, I instead recall my favorite lines from a play. It is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. “God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge, filthy hand in. He grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp, but he squeezes hard. He insists. He pulls and pulls until all your innards are yanked out. And the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back. Dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.”

It is 2:15 in the afternoon, and I walk back to my car fast. It is time to switch gears again; this afternoon I have an appointment with a math tutor on campus, just to make sure I am getting hypothesis testing and correlation coefficients down right for statistics class. This is life, I think to myself, reaching for my keys in one of two side pockets I possibly stuffed them in. It is a random mess of ups and downs. Horror, sunlight, sickness, newborns, abuse and love. It is what gets yanked out, it is what gets put back, if we’re lucky and stitched up. Then we walk around and go to appointments. NPR automatically goes on again as I turn the ignition and start driving out of Kingston, toward my school campus. I am not concentrating on it. There may be just enough time to stop at home and change out of my scrubs, instead of in a bathroom on campus. I decide I can. Then, I turn the radio off, the jumble of passionate and exacerbated-toned words retreat. Looking out on the free, limitless stretch of road ahead of me, it is comforting enough.

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