About Amy Umble:
Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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On seeing horrific pictures

Last weekend I attended a refresher class for EMTs and saw dozens of horrific pictures of soldiers wounded in the Iraq War. I walked away later thinking that there really is something to the idea of desensitization. You can reduce your fear of something through small, repeated exposures.

As a kid, I was terrible around blood. I remember one embarrassing moment when my brother reached into a dresser drawer in my parents’ bedroom and cut his finger on my father’s razor. He was bleeding all over everything, and I got woozy when I saw it. Soon my dad had two patients, my brother and me.

Years later I was interviewing Dr. Larry Moter who had served as a surgeon in Vietnam. He asked if I wanted to see pictures of some of his patients. Usually I would say yes to a question like that. But I surprised and embarrassed myself when I answered, “No thanks. I’m not sure I can handle it.” 

Compare that to what’s happened in recent months. I’ve seen pictures of a man who had a chainsaw kick back on him and lay open his chest. I saw another of a man who tried to kill himself by placing a shotgun in his mouth. He missed or moved, and the front part of his face was missing.  He was alive, looking straight at the camera, but minus his face.

I’ve seen videos of a pedestrian being hit by a car, and a rescue worker walking into a power line. I’ve seen pictures of a man who lost control of his speeding car and flipped it. The car was upside down, and he was hanging upside down, still held in by his seat belt. After I looked at the picture for a second, I realized that the man had only half a head. Who knows where the other half was.

I’ve seen pictures of people with all sorts of objects sticking out of them. I had to wonder how the one man got a nail in his eye. Did someone shoot him with a nail gun?  Did he shoot the nail into the air and then watch it come down?  I now know that you never remove an object like that. You bandage as best you can and take the person to the hospital. 

Last weekend, we saw pictures of soldiers with blast injuries. One soldier had his hand blown off. Another was missing his face. There were all sorts of bullet holes and gashes from shrapnel. One soldier had lost most of his lower leg yet his boot was still attached.

Our instructor warned us about the pictures ahead of time and told us we could excuse ourselves if we wanted. That led to some anxiety on my part, but afterward I realized that the anticipation was worse than the reality.

Slowly, over time, I’ve gotten used to it. Granted they are pictures and not the real thing. But I’ve learned to look closely, to really study the details, the bones, the flesh, the blood. In that way, the scenes seem to have lost some of their power over me.