Caring for the injured

Volcano victims meant surreal shift for nurse

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

What Sandy Vaughan found awaiting her at work at 10 p.m. defied logic.

“It was a strange, strange feeling,” the Vancouver nurse said. “Whoever thought you would be taking care of a volcano victim?

“I explain it to people, and they don’t get how unreal that is,” she said.

Vaughan was a Longview resident in 1980. She worked as an operating room nurse at St. John Medical Center in Longview. She was on call the weekend Mount St. Helens erupted, but didn’t know about the eruption until her sister told her about it that morning, Vaughan recalled.

“I was talking to my sister at 9:30 a.m. It had already blown, and I didn’t know it had happened. I hadn’t turned on the TV news,” she said.

And even then, Vaughan didn’t realize that eruption victims would wind up in her hospital.

“I don’t think I even thought about taking care of them. I didn’t know at the time people were dead up there,” said Vaughan,.

The first victims

It took awhile for rescuers to find volcano victims, and then get them to the hospital. Vaughan said she was called into work at about 9:30 p.m., because two young men were brought in with serious injuries.

“One man arrived so severely burned that the skin on his hands, knees and feet was peeling back,” Vaughan recalled. “The other man had a fractured hip. Two of their friends were killed.”

Danny Jay Balch was burned when the camp site along the Green River was leveled by a burst of searing volcanic gas, then showered by hot ash. Brian Thomas’ hip was broken by a falling tree.

“We cut off their clothing. It was very rough, totally ashen and felt like cement,” she said.

Balch was unconscious for a week, and when he finally came out of it the following Sunday, he threw a scare into the nursing staff. When he got out of bed, Balch pulled some wires loose. When his monitors flat-lined, a nurse thought Balch was dead.

It was not an unreasonable reaction, given that the volcano claimed 57 lives.

After the eruption, Vaughan said, she actually expected to see more volcano-related injuries in her hospital. But the eruption didn’t leave much middle ground.

Some people near the mountain escaped without harm; among those who were injured, the nurse said, “Most of them died.”

Originally published May 15, 2005