Off-duty emergency nurse Maria VanHart pulled over after passing a horrendous accident on a remote Arizona highway. A single vehicle crash between Las Vegas and St. George left 10 passengers in dire need of medical attention.
She had no medical equipment with her.
Adding to the ordeal, the crash victims were of Syrian descent and the adults couldn’t speak English; meanwhile, the desert heat was registering a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). However, VanHart’s expertise took over.
Several motorists had already stopped and were trying to help when VanHart, who works for the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, arrived. But none were medically trained.
“I didn’t panic … just immediately did what needed to be done,” the nurse later told VAntage Point.
She was able to speak to one of the victims, a 10-year-old boy who had sustained only bruises, and learned that the family had traveled to the United States from Syria for a wedding. Others who escaped without life-threatening injuries included the boy’s father (who had been driving), a teenage boy with a broken leg, and an older teenage girl holding a baby.
The 10-year-old became VanHart’s translator throughout the incident.
The nurse knew that time was of the essence.
VanHart noted one fatality, the little boy’s 14-year-old brother, who wasn’t breathing. Their mother lay 10 feet from the wreck and had a severe pelvic injury, while a young girl suffered a head injury and had a blown pupil.
“She and the mother needed to be flown to a hospital immediately,” VanHart told the VA.
VanHart was soon joined by officers from the Moapa Police Department, who were impressed by the ER nurse’s expert action.
“Between attempting to stop traffic, rendering first aid and requesting additional units, it was hectic to say the least,” said Officer Alex Cruz, before commending VanHart for “directing people on what to do while rendering aid herself. She was like an orchestra conductor.”
Cruz called helicopters and ambulances to the scene to evacuate the critical patients. However, the EMTs’ rescue efforts caused a disturbance when the husband flew into a rage when they attempted to partially undress the mother to assess her pelvic injuries.
“I know that as a Muslim, he believed it was inappropriate for men to see his wife without clothing,” VanHart explained.
Drawing on her experience working with doctors from the Middle East, she remembered a greeting: “As-salamu alaykum,” which means “Peace be upon you,” and it had a calming effect on the husband.
As the helicopters and ambulances departed, VanHart was left in the deafening silence of the vast desert. “When the adrenaline goes away, there’s a crash,” she said. “I sat down, drank some water, and called my friends for reassurance.”
VanHart, herself a breast cancer survivor and deeply invested in her chosen career, took stock by drawing on her personal philosophy.
“At the end of the day, there are two things that let me know if I have done my job,” she explained. “One is, ‘What was my patient-to-hug ratio?’ And the other one is, ‘Had my mother been the last person I had cared for, would I have done anything differently?’”
She added, “Everyone out there is someone’s parent or child and they all deserve to be cared for as if they were my own.”
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