Winston Charles
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

This ICU nurse’s whole life led to talking a patient out of taking his own life

In June, a man walked into Piedmont Henry Hospital holding a knife to his neck. When ICU nurse Winston Charles and his peers initially responded to the code blue call, they were expecting a patient in need of resuscitation, not a man threatening to take his own life.

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"I got to the room and I saw that situation, and the first thing that came to my mind was that this might be this man's last chance to survive,” Charles says. “My goal then was to make him have a good chance. I didn't just want to talk him out of it; I wanted to connect with the core of his needs. My approach was to give him an opportunity to tell me how I could be of assistance to him. At that point, I wanted to describe to him the value of his life.

"When people are in distress they tend to devalue the meaning of their lives. I wanted to bring back to him the value of his existence,” Charles adds.

He was elated when the patient shared the telephone number for his mother. "She was able to remind him of the whole value of what his existence was, and she did that by saying four words: 'Son, I love you.'" That’s when the man handed his weapon over to security.

There are so many "if not for" aspects to this story. Charles could have been off of work that day. He could have been doing a different job entirely.

But it was the right time, right place and everything else worked out. There have been a few times when serendipity and the triumph of hope over fears played a role in Charles' life, too. In fact, that is the theme of his life, from his childhood in Trinidad to a nursing career that has spanned three decades, three countries, two states and 22 years in ICU.

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This was always going to be his path—taking a medical role, soaking up education and earning degrees, helping others. But he faced more obstacles than most, and each step of his education took a level of grit and patience unique even in the nursing field, where everyone makes sacrifices. Charles grew up in Trinidad at a time when there was just one university campus on the island and people paid for their own school after 10th grade. His was not the type of family to produce a scholar; they simply did not have the means. Charles' parents had elementary school educations and were "trying to eke out a living like most of the people around where I lived – they were not even blue-collar," Charles recalls. "My mom looked for odd jobs and my father was like an indentured laborer. Everything centered on the oil industry, there was a refinery up and running and everyone was trying for whatever jobs they could get there."

Still, Charles had this fascination with the workings of the human body. And when he was 13 or 14, his determination to join the medical field gelled when his grandmother suffered a traumatic brain injury after a motor vehicle accident. "I watched her helplessly crying without really being able to do anything," he remembers. "She suffered a severe stroke and she died." Thus began a twisted and laborious path to enter the medical field.

Charles learned there was a West Indies College in Jamaica with a program in nursing. This was 1983—no text messages. "We didn't have flip phones, didn't have computers, now you get the picture," Charles recalls. "There would be a telegram, and you'd send a letter and wait for a response. It was slow. You had to always give yourself a week or two to hear from them. From the time I heard about this nursing school to the time I was accepted took a couple of years."

He remembers taking his acceptance letter to his dad, telling him, "'I've been accepted into college.' I'll never forget the look on his face, he turned with a half-grin on his face and said, 'That's great, who's going to pay for it?' That sent a clear message to me: If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this on my own."

But still, he had no doubts. When he tells tales of those days or any other points along his challenging nurse career, he always interjects the expression, "I don't have to tell you..." before describing how, of course, things worked out. He attributes this success, and all his success, to three things. "I believe in God," he says. "Even at that time, I was a very strong believer in my faith. Second, I had made very good friends during my short lifetime and some of them really looked out for me."

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And third, though he didn't know it at the time, a professor at the school, Dr. Laurel Dovich, had taken an interest in his advancement and would sponsor his education after his second year. "Dr. Dovich made a commitment without even talking with me, thinking, 'This is someone I can invest in and he will do well. I don't know how she could have seen it then. When I found out I had funding, it put a lot of pressure on me – I thought, 'Whoever this angel is that is doing this for me, I cannot let them down. So I made a commitment to exceed every standard that is set before me."

And that he did. He took a job as a hall monitor to help pay his living expenses, then moonlighted at a hospital in Kingston, where he assisted in the operating room.

He earned a bachelor's of science in nursing, graduating at the top of his class. That same year, he married his wife.

The pair moved back to Trinidad, where Charles was a nursing instructor for a community college for four years before returning to the United States to offer a friend some support through a battle with cancer.

The plan was to spend a little time with their friend in Tallahassee, but the days turned to weeks and Charles’ wife began suffering with terrible postpartum depression. When she began recovering, the two moved to south Florida, where Charles would continue his nursing career. He began working in ICU at Florida Medical Center in Ft. Lauderdale, specializing in cardiac IC, then the cardiac cath lab.

Next, when a colleague wanted to start an open-heart program in Hialeah, Charles followed, completing his MBA in health care management.

Around that time, he visited a friend in Georgia and, on a whim, made the unilateral decision to purchase a parcel of land. Charles told his wife, "Honey, we bought a home in Georgia."

"She said, 'We did? I don't know what you're drinking, but you need to stop drinking that.'"

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From there, he started looking for opportunities that gradually drew him to the Grady trauma nurse specialty program, a spot implementing EPIC software, a consultant spot with the EPIC system, and back to ICU as he began his doctorate in public health with a specialty in epidemiology, which he completed in February 2019. His dissertation is published in the Library of Congress, he says.

It's amazing that a moment of this frantic time as an ICU nurse intersected with a man who needed encouragement to continue living. "Fate would have it that I would be there," Charles says.

Charles recently received Piedmont Henry Hospital's Promise 360 award for his heroic efforts that day in June.

The award recognizes employees that go above and beyond to demonstrate the hospital's purpose, promise and values.

If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text the 24-hour hotline at 800-273-8255. For more information, go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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