Message From The Author

Author's Message

The Hard Road to Vengeance

(Or, What It Takes to Be a Forensic Nurse in Real Life and in Fiction)

The heroines of my suspense novels, amazingly enough, have been trauma nurses, like their author. Since I discovered a new subspecialty, they have all been forensic nurses, as in my March suspense novel, WITH A VENGEANCE.

Because I love forensics—and need continuing education to keep up my nursing license—I trained in death investigation and forensic nursing. And it was through the International Association of Forensic Nursing that I discovered another forensic innovation that led to the most adventurous research of my life: the Tactical Medic.

First responders (paramedics, RNs, MDs) are being trained to respond with SWAT or Emergency Response Unit teams. What a logical extension of what I'd been writing about. Through my contacts at IAFN, I was able to get in touch with Todd Burke of the Tactical EMS School and asked to observe its weeklong training at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Well, that wasn't enough for Todd. After vetting my references and experience, he invited me to participate as a member of the course. My 45th birthday present to myself was that not only did I take the course—I survived it.

My big stumbling block was the required physical conditioning. I sit for a living. To take the course, I had to be able to do 10 (guy) pushups, 20 full sit-ups, three pull-ups, and here's the kicker—run an eight-minute mile.
I had to tell Todd that the only time I'd ever run was out of a burning building (I'd done quite enough running during my days in the ER, thanks). He simply asked I be in the best shape possible, because during the course of the five days, my heart rate would probably redline at least a dozen times. Todd's estimate was shy by a few.

During those five days, we were active from pre-dawn to well past dark. We worked on physical conditioning, weapons familiarity, safety, communications, nutrition (think of those snipers at Waco out in 100-degree heat for eight hours; it's the medic's responsibility to make sure they're all right), hostage negotiations (both as negotiator and hostage), legal issues, rescue tactics (I now know how to lasso an injured cop like a yearling steer), safety, self-defense and innumerable other things.

The most important lesson in the course, which shouldn't surprise anyone with SWAT or military experience, was teambuilding. There were 32 students in the school, split up into teams of eight. At no time until stand-down each night were we allowed out of each other's sight (the exception was made that the men could be in sight of the women's bathroom). We did everything as a team until it became ingrained. In fact, the training was so good that the last day we did that trust-building exercise in which you cross your arms and fall backwards, trusting somebody will catch you. Except we all did it off the top of a 10-foot ladder. Without hesitation.

We practiced tracheotomies and chest decompressions under fire, in hostile situations, with all the sensory overload anyone could imagine. We performed rescues in which we had to search a tossed room on our knees wearing gas masks with the eyes taped to simulate smoke (try and yell past a gas mask). We got flash-banged just to know what it would be like—and we got gassed. And we did this during a Minnesota summer near the headwaters of the Mississippi, which meant that in addition to full camouflage attire, jumpboots, a 50-pound medic vest, head covering and gloves, we would slather on full-strength DEET (a lethal ingredient in mosquito repellent), sunscreen camouflage paint and top it with CS crystals (the most common form of tear gas)—which sting even worse when you try to scrub them off.

The best part? The intangibles I took away with me. I can always ask a cop how to unload a shotgun or fire a CS round. I can never copy the smells, the sights, the sounds, the exhilaration of a successful team mission. The extraordinary lengths to which a person will go simply to not let his or her team down.

I can never match the people I met.

I have a huge respect for my paramedic buddies. Tactical medics take that to an entirely different level, because in a good percentage of SWAT teams, the medics are not armed, even though they will go into a live fire zone.
The worst part? There I am, one of two women in a class of 32, with at least 15 instructors, all manly firefighters and sheriffs and Navy corpsmen, and what was my nickname?


The least they could have done, I told them, was to call me Slutmom (of course, Mom's team came in first when we did a timed rescue in the woods at dusk, under hostile fire, thank you).

So, Maggie O'Brien is the character who came out of that camp. I based a lot of her on what I learned, and can only hope I do my friends justice. I wouldn't trade that time for the world. If it weren't for that pesky mile, which I swore I would never run again, I'd go back in a minute. I just might anyway, to see what advances have been made. To revisit those sights and smells and sounds, the chant of teams jogging through the early morning mist, or the blare of AC/DC and running boots and screaming in your ears as you try and assess a downed officer in a strobe-lighted, blacked-out crackhouse. To revisit those people, who are among the finest I've ever known.

Would I go back and try and do it for a living? Heck no. I like sitting too much. And I'm way too afraid of guns.

For more on WITH A VENGEANCE, visit

Read Book Review ›