Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Checking Out

“Suicide was against the law. Johnny had wondered why. It meant that if you
missed, or the gas ran out, or the rope broke, you could get locked up in prison
to show you that life was really very jolly and thoroughly worth living.”
--Terry Pratchett

Christmas Night.
I was just washing up the last of the dishes when my pager went off. "Stand by at your stations; call the center for details." I pulled on my coat as I dialed county dispatch. I really didn't have to call the center for details; I could have just gone down to the station, but I wanted to know what, exactly, was going to mark my first on-duty Christmas. "You've got a drug overdose, with alcohol, the patient is being a little combative so we're getting the state police over there before you go in."
Aces. Just aces.
When I got to the house, the rest of the crew plus ALS and a former member home for the holiday greeted me and we rolled, party of five. I was happy there were so many of us since I didn't know exactly what 'combative' was going to mean. The first thing I saw was a quart bottle of Yukon Jack on the counter, and most of it was gone. Nice little place, dish out for the cat, Christmas tree, and a man in a recliner flanked by two staties who are explaining to him that he needed to get his shoes on. While he was doing this, his daughter asked him if he was planning to leave any kind of a note. "Nope!" he said cheerfully. He pulled on his shoes, tossed an afghan at the cat, and came smiling into the kitchen, where he scooped up his coat and stared in wonder at the number of people in the house. The crew chief made introductions and he greeted us all with a broad smile. "Jeez! All these people!" as if he just walked into a surprise birthday party. We walked him to the ambulance and in the course of questioning I learned that he took two whole bottles--pain medication and sleeping pills. He kept explaining how he just wanted the world to leave him alone and he just wanted to die, and this news is delivered with the same magnanimity as everything else he said. The paramedic drew blood, we monitored his vitals, and he asked each one of us in turn if we are having a good evening.
After assessing the relative happiness of each of our Christmases he demanded of one of the crew "Do you know the true meaning of Christmas?" The crewmember gave him a quick answer of neutral, professional benevolence, something that conveyed "We'll be at the hospital soon, just hang in there."
Our very medicated patient declared "Its when God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners," in a way that made me expect him to recite Luke 2 in its entirety. We got him into the ER, and when I stopped back with paperwork a good while later, the entire group of family, frends, and neighbors who followed us to the hospital were still clustered together, waiting. I looked at the varying expressions on their faces, while they came to terms with what brought them there on a night that is not supposed to be spent in a hard plastic chair in a brightly-lit hallway, and all I could think of was "And Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart". She had an initially fearful but eventually hopeful Christmas to ponder in dark times. I sincerely hope these people will too.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Wednesday night. Second duty section of the week.
I'd hoped to get to the ambulance building, execute my little side job cleaning it, and whip out some tripsheets before any tones dropped. That is, after I had a leisurely supper that I'd pick up on the way in.
What is the saying, man schemes, and God laughs?
As I was making my final approach to town from work at about 17:25, tones. Patient to be transported directly from a Dr.'s office to a hospital 65 miles away. I step on it and get my phone out to call our crew chief, to tell him to wait, that I'm 5 minutes out.
He answers. "Hey! Howya doing!"
I say, "I'm almost there, so wait for me."
He says, "I'm in (town an hour away), and I'm just leaving. And (our other crew member) is just leaving work in (town an hour in the other direction)."
I say. "Okay then, I'll just go and see who comes."
Well, five different departments get paged out. No one is available. I should mention that the roads are borderline crap, its cold, and its snowing. We were supposed to have flurries all day. Its been flurrying with a lot of determination for hours. Finally one of the paramedics from the hospital pops in and offers to drive. We grab the second-line ambulance (the first line ambulance is OOS because of some problem with the air-system-dealie-thing ) and go.
The patient is alright, he isn't super excited about the transfer and he is so reluctant to admit he feels like crap that it takes about 30 minutes of good cop/gooder cop interrogation to get him to say he hasn't been 'quite right' for about a month. (He has some not-good things going on with his heart, he shouldn't feel good.) But he's stable. Away we go, bouncing into the night.
This ambulance isn't exactly a smooth ride. Heck, any ambulance makes you question the structural integrity of your bras, but this one seems especially swingy.
I'm chatting with the patient, and two things happen at the same time. Neither of them are good.
One, the patient starts doing this funny thing with his lips. That funny thing means "Gee, I feel an awful lot like I might throw up. I wonder if I should say something." Or in this man's case, "I feel like I'm going to throw up but damn if I'm going to admit it." I ask him, are you all right? We elevate his head. He is offered the good drugs to make it stop. He refuses them. We scramble for the Magic Barf Cones. We can't find any. I put a towel across his chest and offer him the only thing I could find; a scroungy looking red plastic bag. He looks at it, and looks at me. I smile, apologize, and wait for the wave.
Two, the ambulance starts to smell. Its subtle at first, like maybe we drove by someone's trash burning. Then it gets a little worse. Then it smells like the stretcher is parked on top of a smoldering tire fire. I mouth to the paramedic "What's burning?" He does a quick check, and shrugs, but I can see 'slightly worried' battling 'professional and calm' for real estate on his face. We check on the patient. He's still doing the lip wiggle but still doesn't want drugs. We find a Magic Barf Cone and swap him the red plastic bag.
About 20 minutes from our destination, there is a terrific bang, the ambulance lays down a blanket of smoke about 18 feet wide, and it feels like we're driving over half a cord of firewood.
We stop, the driver and paramedic grab flashlights, and look underneath. All tires are intact, and we haven't hit a rock, a deer, or a toolshed. There is talk of us 'losing our rear end'. Not being a gearhead I have no idea what that means. The patient gives me a slightly exasperated half-smile that clearly conveys the degree to which he believes we are idiots. We ask him if he feels better and he says he's "A damn sight better now that we ain't movin' no more." The Magic Barf Cone stands down.
The paramedic calmly conveys to county that we are dead in the water and another ambulance is called (and comes almost immedately, bless them) to take the patient to his destination. We limp the ambulance, which now creaks and sways like a wagon pulled by a drunken horse, to a well-lit parking lot to await a tow. Our chief comes to collect us and I finally get the dinner I never had and a much-coveted chance to pee. And bonus; no more calls for the rest of the night.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Au Revoir, Les Enfants

My experience is limited. I was licensed in the Spring so its been not quite a year, I'm still having 'first experiences'. Saturday was my first psychiatric emergency. A few months ago I had my first infant arrest. Someday there'll be so many different things that I'll have to give the experiences different names, but for now, that infant arrest is referred to in my house as 'that baby'.
'That baby' presented with severe difficulty breathing. His mother, suspecting something was wrong, didn't put him in his crib that night. She was sitting in a chair holding him, and put her head back, but when she heard him make a little squeaking sound, she looked down to see frightened, staring eyes and purple skin. She did rescue breathing. He settled into a startling purple-yellow and she got going calling EMS.
He was only a few days old, and premature. When she got onto the ambulance with him he looked like a doll the color of an old bruise. They fought for hours to stabilize him, flew him to another hospital, where it was discovered that he was septic. He ended up elsewhere and a liver transplant was considered, but ultimately his little body wore out and he died.
I wanted to write about that baby before. Lots of things came to mind but most of it sounded hollow. Its a hard old world sometimes and not everyone gets a happy ending. There is hope, for sure, but sometimes invoking hope in the face of wordless grief cheapens both.
I'm thinking about him today because the other day I saw his mother. The last time I saw her, she was exhausted. She hugged me before she left the ER and I was hit with a wave of heat from the raging fever that would hospitalize her as well, later that day.
This time, I saw her smile. She didn't recognize me, and I was glad. I was hoping she was having one nice day and a break from the memory. He's just 'that baby' to me and there is an empty place in my heart that I am okay to carry. I hope that what she carries is a burden she can shoulder though I do not pretend to understand how.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Crash last night in town.
Driver was passing in a no passing zone and found themselves in a losing game of chicken with a tractor trailer.
Tractor trailer vs. car with a short front end = nearly six feet of intrusion into the passenger compartment. After the truck was pulled off it took a very long time to remove a very broken (and decidedly deceased) person from the vehicle.
We sat around back at the station speculating about what could have been so pressing that a person was passing multiple cars on a stretch of double yellow. Bad phone call? Fight with a significant other? Just late/tired/preoccupied? We'll never know.
I went home last night thinking about the consequences of our actions. It doesn't get much more lasting than 'permanent'. It doesn't get much more real than 'dead'. For some reason a line from one of those old 12 Step 'handouts' popped into my head:

Just for today I will save myself from two pests: Hurry and indecision.

Turns out, hurry and indecision are real bastards.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


The hospital we normally transport patients to is a great little hospital. Clean, pleasant, smaller than the high school I went to, it only took a few months to acquaint myself with many people who work there, not only because many people I know do work there, but darn, the place is small. You see the same faces over and over. It doesn’t take long to learn where everything is. A nice place to become accustomed to this EMT stuff.

The downside of that is that we don’t have a lot of specialties covered. Orthopedic surgery, neurology, cath labs, all that sort of thing usually buys you one of two things; a ride on a helicopter if the weather is good and your condition is poor, or a transfer.

Transfers are not everyone’s favorite thing. The facilities we travel to most often are between 65-85 miles away. An hour or two in the back of an ambulance is not for the potentially carsick. Spending those 1-2 hours with a patient who might be 1) also potentially carsick, 2) combative or deep in the throes of a really interesting neurological deficit, or 3) radiating funk for one reason or another is the gamble you take when you agree to go. You have one of those moments where you kneel down beside your inner child, take them by the shoulder, and remind them that 1) this is what you signed on for, 2) that person probably doesn’t want to be transferred either, 3) make sure you go potty before you leave, and 4) stop your whining.

Last night the call came from the transfer coordinator and I was asked a question. "Hey, do you want to go to (insert town within spitting distance of Canada)?" I did a rough calculation, decided I could probably function on the number of hours of sleep I’d get once we returned, and agreed.
We arrived at the hospital and gathered up the paperwork that included medical records, our ‘permission slip’ to blow town with the patient, and the usual name/address/SSN stuff. I glance at the form and see the words RECTAL BLEEDING as reason for admission. Uh oh.

Fortunately this is a ‘was happening’ thing and not an ‘is happening as we speak’ thing. The patient is ambulatory and we get him all snugged up on the stretcher. He tells me matter of factly that his colon is ‘about to blow up’ so they are just going to go ahead and ‘take it out’. Suddenly, lost sleep and a couple of bone-jarring hours on the bus don’t seem to be much of an inconvenience.

The trip was uneventful, we even managed to make the patient laugh a few times on the way. (I would venture to say that the soon-to-be-colonless is a tough crowd. So we did okay.) He told us he should be home by Thanksgiving. I hope he is right.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Special Places in Hell

I don't use that phrase often; I hear people say it, "There's a special place in hell for people like that"...

Its very tempting in this case.

But what disturbs me more is that this didn't happen in a vacuum. This house was not situated on 10 acres in the middle of the mountains. It was in a neighborhood. Mail got delivered. Meters got read. People saw, smelled, and suspected, but nothing happened until things were irrevocably bad. This lady died on 25 October and the assault on her dignity doesn't rest solely with her grandson.

If you see things, suspect things, say something.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Whatsoever Ye Do

I was paged out on a call a couple of weeks ago on a 'difficulty breathing' call for a lady in 'the Manor'....a senior-living apartment building in our town. We go there a lot.
I arrived to find a tidy little apartment with the requisite crocheted blankets and pictures of Jesus. A large grey cat stood watch on a bed that seemed enormous in comparison to the tiny woman on it. She was carefully folded and padded with small pillows to protect her nearly translucent arms and legs. A lifetime of battling muscular dystrophy left her fragile and in constant pain. Another medic and I climbed onto the bed with her so we could scoop her up and place her on the stretcher as gently as possible, keeping her pillows intact and joints cushioned. She didn’t weigh much more than the bedclothes. All the way to the hospital her blue eyes were locked on mine. As we carried her out she squeezed my hand and said 'thank you'.
A week ago, Helen shed the broken body that caused her so many years of grief. I can just imagine those kind blue eyes laughing at finally being free.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Baby in the Air

00:30, we're called to assist at the helipad. Its a hot load, which means we go to the hospital first, collect the patient, and take them directly to the helicopter, which does not turn off its engine, and away they go. On the way to the hospital we find out its an OB patient. Haven't had one of those yet.
We get there and the mother-to-be is quiet and smiling. She also looks 1) not all that pregnant, and as we get her situated on the stretcher and I get a close look at her perfect skin, 2) very young. The nurse explains that she is in 'preterm labor', like she was with her first three. Her first THREE. All three times, a helicopter took her to a larger hospital with a NICU, all three times all was well, so her apparent serenity is well founded, at least from a medical perspective.
Once she is transported and in the air, I take a look at the paperwork provided by the ER. Our mother of soon-to-be four is nineteen years old.
This blows my mind. At 37 I can barely tolerate the company of anyone under the age of 12 for one weekend. When I was 19, I was even less inclined. I don't envy her position, but I do admire her willingness to wade into the chaos of motherhood and What May Come. Here's to Number Four....Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Enough Rope

I'd been on a call in the middle of the night, I don't even remember what it was, but we were still at the house doing paperwork.

Earlier in the night another department had been called to 'stand by at your the center for details'. That usually means either 1) There is a situation where someone is possibly dead or 2) There is a situation that is unsafe and the EMTs can't go until the police clear it.

In this case, it was an attempted suicide. A woman had tried to hang herself from a tree. The rope broke, and someone found her. Not dead, but unresponsive. She came to the hospital. They worked on her awhile and decided to fly her to another hospital, so they could have a go.

The helipad is a mile or so from the firehouse. When a helicopter lands we have an engine standing by, in case something happens. When the call came with their ETA we suited up in turnouts and went.

As the truck sped up the hill I looked the dark, still surface of the lake gliding by below. I wondered what it was like to decide to die. And I wondered how this woman will feel when and if she wakes up,to discover that things didn't turn out like she hoped. Will she be angry? Relieved?

It seems strange to me to bear witness to struggles like these. Hours of training and they don't tell you, hey, you'll sit up in the middle of the night staring at the stars waiting and watching for the calvary to come, for an attempt at saving, for someone who didn't want to be saved.

First Arrest

Sunday I had my first full arrest. The call went out as a patient unresponsive. Halfway down the winding dirt road that led us to the house they said 'full arrest'.
When I first started running I would spend my time in the back of the bus just trying to breathe and dissipate the burning in my lungs that came just after the tone-inspired adrenaline dump. My heart would pound in my ears over the simplest call; just being in there banging and swaying was enough. Lately I find myself in nearly a trance. I breathe. I think "what will I need?". I pull bags out of storage bins. Look through them. Get gloves on. Review the order of what will need to be done. Somewhere down inside my old panicked self channels the family's anxiousness.
We arrive and several relatives are standing on the porch. I am sorry to say I don't even remember what they looked like. I was focused on backboard, AED, oxygen, getting stretcher into house. Patient. CPR had been in progress for some time and it was obvious that it was too late. His tiny beeswax-yellow legs peeked out of a plaid blanket. Some well meaning friend was doing chest compressions on the bed, which meant nothing was really happening. (You need to be on a HARD surface or don't bother.) Just the same, we worked on him, worked on him all the way to the hospital. I came off the back step bagging him the whole way just like on TV. And as soon as we got to the curtain area the doctor looked at him and said 'Stop'. Such an odd feeling; even though I knew what the outcome would be I were surprised to realize that I harbored some tiny expectation that our efforts might be doing something. I felt like a dog running across the yard on a run that suddenly comes to the end of the line and stops short.
They got all the wires and tubes out and covered him up to the neck in a soft white blanket. I was still bringing in equipment when the nurse herded the kids and grandkids together and told them it was over. I crept away; I remember the EMTs in my own life; once the crisis was over I didn't want to see them again.
So that was the first one. There will be more.

First Post

Every time I go on a run I think about starting a blog about the things you encounter on a call.
Thanks to all sorts of laws that force us to hand every patient many pages of tiny print concerning their rights--no details on where I am or what-have-you. Its a small town. Word gets around.
Most people around here joined emergency services at 16 after growing up sitting on the bumper of a firetruck with their feet not touching the ground. I started at 36. I don't know why.
Its not my dayjob; that is something I should be doing right this minute instead of blogging. I do it for free. But you can't talk about a call with anyone other than the people on the call. First rule of Fight Club; that sort of thing. So where to talk about it? Here, of course.
Anyone else who would like to jump in and share their own experiences is welcome to do so.