In a quiet voice, with an offhand manner, no facial hijinks, Jason Hautala tells stories that are scary, sad, disgusting.
Given the nature of his job as an emergency department nurse, Hautala has learned that friends are not eager to hear about his work.
"They don't want to talk about scrotal maggots over a rice dinner," said the Longview native, who now lives and works in the Puget Sound region.
Even Hautala's wife, a former critical care nurse who left nursing to start a photography business, has curtailed his after-work tales. But Hautala has found an audience.
When his hospital solicited poems for an employee newsletter, he dashed off 10 haiku that captured unvarnished ER moments. Friends found them funny, but they were turned down for the publication.
Challenged, Hautala wrote "a couple hundred more" of the spare Japanese verses that pack meaning into three lines and published them in "Haiku STAT!," a book of snippets that can feel like a punch in the stomach.
Only one patient,
Brought by two ambulances.
Bad day for someone.
How did this happen?
Cigarette burns to son's back.
Lucky I am not armed.
Hautala said the hospital where he works wants no association with the book and no mention in publicity.
In a way, it reinforces what he has done. The power of these poems is their irony. He has taken a form normally used to distill the beauty of nature and used its 5-7-5 syllable structure to reveal the side of nature no one wants to see or smell.
"It's geared toward emergency medical folks," said Hautala (pronounced HOW-tuh-la). "It's a niche market. A lot of emergency room people develop a morbid sense of humor."
A 1986 graduate of Mark Morris High School, hautala said he "took the scenic route" to his career. He got a zoology degree at the University if Washington, served in Africa with the Peace Corps, then became an EMT, and finally earned his nursing degree at Lower Columbia College in 1996.
He was a critical care nurse until he realized he was getting bored. In the emergency room, he said, no day is routine.
"If someone is really sick or injured, you work really hard. That's the satisfying part — doing a good job," Hautala said. "I happen to be good at starting IVs on newborn babies. They call me to start heart IVs, because I'm good at (locating a vein) the first time.
"I can find veins in people who don't have any veins left because of heroin abuse."
ER folks know all about patients who show up high as kites and addicts who shop around for narcotic painkillers. In a profession that involves drugs in all their guises, Hautala singles out methamphetamine as the most dangerous.
"Meth is the worst thing that has ever happened to our society," he said quietly. "It makes people crazy and mean and does permanent damage."
He added that nurses in emergency rooms deal more frequently with routine ailments — sore throats, earaches, phantom chest pains and needy malingerers.
Hautala said there are people who fake ailments simply to get a free ride into town. And others who lie about what they've ingested, leading to rounds of unnecessary tests that cost thousands of dollars.
A true story: A shopping mall Santa Claus has a heart attack and dies in the ER. Then there was the person with hepatitis C once who bit Hautala. As with any patient, he said, he responded with compassion.
In a haiku, however, fear and frustration can find a safe outlet.
No food for five days?
I don't believe you.
Don't hit, kick, spit, bite.
These are simple rules for you.
Break rules, get restrained.
It burns! Make it stop!
Not for rectal use.
More dramatic are haiku about the job's risks, the gore, the times it is too late to help. In this first haiku, "heme" refers to blood and the S1 dermatome is the sphincter.
Heme positive stool.
Checking S1 dermatome.
Rip in glove finger.
Vomit on ceiling.
Volume scores only a three;
Placement gets a nine.
Drunk driver hit kid.
Nothing we can do for him.
I really hate that.
Another story-turned-haiku that can be repeated in a newspaper is the time a girl came in who had been raped. Arriving at the same time was her alleged rapist, who reacted to his arrest by claiming to have severe chest pains.
"We had to deal with him, too," Hautala said. "He gets an EKG, a lab draw. We work him up and give him his discharge notes. I'd just as soon have given him the 9-cent cure."
(The 9-cent reference, he says, is from the old-fashioned price of a bullet.)
The intensity of emergency department work creates camaraderie, Hautala said. That, and the pay after you've put a few years in, make it difficult to leave — even though "it tests your patience."
Haiku seems to help.
"Anyone who works in an emergency room understands the pain and suffering," he said. "We see such terrible things. The coping mechanism is to laugh at things you really shouldn't laugh at. It warps your sense of humanity."
ER folks cope well.
Bury it deep down in soul.
With luck, it won't stain.