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.