Thursday, June 25, 2009

Small World

At 20 years old I was a volunteer firefighter with little experience and even less confidence, trying to learn on the job. I was taught the basics in EMT school and fire school like turning on a hydrant or putting pressure on someone’s spurting wound but nothing could prepare me for the emotional toll I was about to embark on.
My beeper wailed at 2:30 in the morning and woke me from a sound sleep. An auto accident, the dispatcher said. I leapt from my bed, dressed, and raced to the station. Two other members had arrived, including my older cousin, Greg. They pulled the medic truck out of the bay, I hopped into the back and we were off.
The skies rumbled in the distance with brilliant flashes of light bouncing from cloud to cloud. My adrenaline and nerves were at their peak. In fact, I couldn’t have been more nervous if you put me on stage in front of thousands of people and ordered me to dance.

We rolled up to a curved country road with a steep embankment along its edge. Staring back from the bottom of the hill was a set of upside-down headlights in the mud.

Follow Greg’s lead, I told myself and hurried from the rig.

Our department’s mini rescue arrived on our heels and we all descended the wet, nasty bank. Steam from the drizzle rose from the hot undercarriage of the totaled pick-up truck as my crew flew into action. In my tunnel-vision, I almost missed the 20-something-year-old girl who lay unconscious in the tall grass.

I leaned around one of the guys for a better view. The unconscious girl was face-down and gurgling in a puddle of rainwater. One of the guys, Brian, held her neck in-line with her spine and the whole team (me not included) rolled her to her back while. I could only watch in stunned silence. Her head left a divot in soggy ground.

I should have jumped in but everything I’d learned was gone from my brain. I was more spectator than medically trained professional as I stared at the young girl’s half-missing ear and her blood-soaked blond hair. I was afraid to touch her for fear of further hurting her fragile body. I struggled to come up with something. A blood pressure, a pulse, anything would have been better than the nothing I was doing so well. I was worthless.

Someone, don’t ask me who, said, “Go get a backboard,” and with those orders I had a job I remembered how to do. I climbed up the embankment and gathered the c-collar bag with a backboard and some straps.

Greg ordered a medical helicopter dispatched our way and was given an E.T.A. (estimated time of arrival) of 20 minutes. Silently, I begged them to hurry.

With my successful fetching of the backboard, my brain started again and I jumped into the fray. In hindsight, I probably did little more than lend a set of hands to wherever I was told but I was doing something which was an improvement.

Brian plunged a needle into her arm. Someone else suctioned the loose teeth and blood from her mouth and gave her crucial breaths with a bag-valve-mask.

The helicopter circled above us and lit up the sky like a U.F.O. from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Their crew dragged a stretcher from the rear of the “bird” and rushed to us.

The flight crew told us we did a good job which, for me at the time, was like Michael Jordan saying “Good game,” after a one-on-one basketball contest. After all, these guys and gals are the cat’s meow… and no, I can’t believe I just said cat’s meow.

The crew hopped into the copter and lifted into the sky toward Columbus and the nearest trauma center.

I couldn’t sleep for the rest of that night. I told myself that the excitement had given me temporary insomnia and went about my day as usual. But there was something different. For the next few days I found myself thinking a lot about the poor girl from the wreck. I want to tell you how tough I was and how I brushed her mangled image from my mind but I’d be lying.

About a week later, we heard the news. She had died at the hospital. As a further kick to my gut, we received the details of her death. The doctors had determined she could survive if she had a blood transfusion but here’s the kicker. With her being unable to give her wishes, the decision fell to her parents. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses and though her boyfriend insisted she had left the religion, he could do nothing to help. So just like that, she died.

Now you’re probably wondering about the title of this blog and I’m getting to that. Today it’s about 16 years since the run I consider one of 3 or 4 defining calls of my career. I’m no longer with the volunteers, I live too far away for that, and I am a 10-year veteran of Columbus, Ohio Division of Fire.

Two weeks ago, I sat in my paramedic refresher class, listening to our guest speaker, a Columbus battalion chief and 30-year paramedic as he discussed ethics and morality with our class. Three quarters into his lecture, he began a story from when he worked for a medical helicopter. He described a car accident he was involved with as a part-time flight medic many years ago.

I think at this point you all know where I’m headed but humor me for a minute if you would. I’ve seen more car wrecks and more death than I care to remember at this point and his story wasn’t anything that grabbed my attention. But as I listened, the more he told about the call the more I thought, Hey, wait a second.

He told us of the victim’s fight for her life in the hospital and how she ultimately needed a blood transfusion which her parents’ religion didn’t allow. He explained how important it was to respect people’s wishes even if those wishes are against everything we dedicate our lives to preventing. As paramedics, we don’t care about a person’s race, religion, social status, or the like because none of that matters. If you cut us off in traffic and then wreck your car, we’re still going to help you because that’s our job. That’s what Chief was there to remind us of and that’s what I’ve learned over the years.

I’ll be honest here; I didn’t understand her families’ choice or agree with them. Heck, maybe I still don’t. But that’s not for me to judge. We gave her a chance and I can be happy about that.

Here I am, 16 years later, fifty miles away in a different town and fire department and I’m listening to a chief tell us how he was affected by the very call that affected me so deeply years before.

After class, I chased him down and asked him some of the more mundane details of the wreck and his answers left no doubt. A lot of people came together from different places in life for one common goal, to give someone a chance at living and that is what we did.

I sat back and thought to myself, what a small world.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Columbus Fire Department lost a good man last week. You probably didn’t hear about it because he didn’t die heroically in a fire, or he wasn’t shot by some angry heroin user who had just lost his high while having his life saved. No, Charles died way too young from a different battle, a battle against cancer. His death didn’t make the news or the papers, and the lives he had a hand in saving over the years likely will never know he’s gone but I’d like to say it here. Chuckles, as we called him at 22s, dedicated his life to helping people and the number of lives he touched could never be counted.

If today or tomorrow, God forbid, you have to call 911 because a bolt of lightning sets your house ablaze or you wreck your car, or your chest hurts, there will still be men and women who come to help you. But there is one less of those men and women in the world today and the world suffers because of it.

A Life Saved

It was 3 AM on a Sunday morning in the middle of June, 2005 or 2006, I’m not sure. Chuck and I were manning the medic truck and along with the rest of the guys at 22s, getting a few hours of needed sleep. With 24-hour shifts, you take sleep when you can get it.

The long steady beep of our fire tones jarred us awake and I was on the rig before I realized I was even conscious. Chuck drove that night; I wrote the reports. The report of a house fire was in our first-due district and we were a little excited as we would likely be the first truck on the scene.

We raced through the mostly-empty streets, preparing our minds to what we possibly could find when we arrived. We rounded the corner of a residential neighborhood and instantly saw the billowing smoke.

“Chuck, pull over here!” I shouted. “Leave room for the fire trucks in front of the house!”

He swerved between sleeping cars already parked along the side of the street as our engine and ladder blared past.

“I’m getting dressed,” Chuck shouted, indicating he was going to help the engine with fire attack as long as nobody needed EMS right away. I threw my door open with a different goal in mind. I decided to help the engine crew stretch their hose and hook to the hydrant. Not a very glamorous job but critical work just the same.

I no sooner arrived at the drive-way when I saw the panicked face of a middle-aged man in his boxers. Robe-clad neighbors stood with their arms around him, praying. I felt for the man, since I knew this didn't usually end well. “My mom’s in there,” he shouted between sobs. That’s when I pried my eyes away from my tasks and got my first good look at the house. Black smoke poured from the open front door and from the eaves of the roof. It was a worker, that’s for sure. The engine guys were knelt on the porch, masking up. I tried to comfort the man with words of doing our best as I scrambled past but I hadn’t time to stop. I helped straighten the hoses to remove any kinks.

The ladder crew followed the engine crew through the front door. Within seconds, I heard mask-muffled shouts and overturning furniture clatter. I rushed to the porch and crouched below the choking blackness.

“We got a victim,” one of the engine guys shouted.

I dug into my pockets and stretched my blue latex gloves over my hands. That’s when I saw Chuckles headed my way, head-to-toe in bulky turnout fire gear. “We got a victim!” I shouted.

Chuck stopped in his tracks with a stunned look like his half-asleep mind didn’t comprehend.

“Get your shit off! We got a victim,” I shouted again.

I saw the back of a firefighter emerge from the smoke. I couldn’t tell who it was at the time but later learned it was my buddy Mick. He struggled as he backed his lifeless discovery to the door. I held my breath and reached past him. I grabbed at exposed hot flesh and felt for an armpit or a leg or anything to grab hold of. Chuck shed his cumbersome gear, short of his pants and boots, and helped pull the burnt lady out of her inferno.

I was surprised at the heat radiating from her which was hotter than any feverish baby I’d ever felt. She was unconscious and barely breathing. The driver of the ladder truck ran to the medic truck and met us with our stretcher dragging behind.

Mick went back to the house, firemen counted on him to do what he needed to do in the same way our victim counted on us. We got to the medic, short-handed, as the ladder driver raced back to his tasks as well.

My mind darted straight to Sodium Thiasulphate and the IV needed to administer the drug. In my haste to deliver such needed medication, I forgot the most important treatment. Thank goodness Chuck was there to catch my omission.

“Should we intubate?” he asked and I felt like an idiot.

Chuck shoved a tube past her soot-covered lips and into her windpipe.

As more fire trucks, and more important to our dilemma, manpower arrived, we screamed for a driver. With that driver we left, roaring for the hospital.

That night was a perfect storm of firefighters and paramedics combining with ER nurses, doctors and everyone else who was where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to do that gave someone on the brink of death a shot at life. Chuck was a vital part of that chain.

We don’t usually hear how people turn out after we have our 30 or so life-or-death minutes with them but this time I can report that, after a long battle in the hospital our lady survived and was able to return to her life once again.

She’ll never remember or know what incredible events had to take place for her to live, nor will she likely ever know that one of people who helped her survive has left this world, but that isn’t why we do what we do. That isn’t why Chuck did what he did.

That she can continue living a normal life is the very reason we chose such a life in the fire service. The fire department was a better place having known Charles Robinson.

Goodbye, Chuckles. We all love you and miss you already.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

When is a name not really a word?

For my first blog, I felt it pertinent to discuss the name of my blog. I've chosen Epertase. How did I come up with Epertase you might ask. That's pretty easy. While those who know me, will recognize Epertase as the name of the fantasy novel that I am currently writing. Actually, it is THE LIGHT OF EPERTASE, but that's not really important right now. The real credit for Epertase goes to my now-four-year-old son, Aiden. When he was in the early stages of being able to talk... and talk... and talk, he used to enjoy building towers with his building blocks or whatever he could find to stack on top of each other. For some unknown reason, when we asked him what he was building, he would always say his Epertase.
At the time, I had just begun my epic fantasy novel and even with all of my creative juices flowing, could not come up with a name for the world I was creating. Meanwhile, Aiden was running around screaming "Epertase" all day and I was still stuck. This is the part where I would like to tell you about my genius epiphany, you know, the one where I came up with this wonderful name for my fantasy kingdom, even if it would have been a lift from my son's new-found vocabulary, but that wasn't so. No, instead it took my beautiful wife to explain to me the awesomeness (not sure she used that exact phrase) of Aiden's word.
Then it clicked. I ran to my computer and logged onto the google website and typed in "Epertase". That's right, I googled. You know what? Not a single entry for "Epertase". Google thought that I wanted to see a definition for expertise. That's as close as they could get to my kid's brilliant word. Pertuse, which means Punched; pierced with, or having, holes. Actually, that's a pretty cool word too.
So there you have it. My son named my book, my kingdom, and now my blog. But if anyone asks, I'm telling them it was all my idea. Heck, he's only four.