Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Emergency!


by Annette Dashofy

Back in the 1970’s there was a TV show called Emergency! about a fire/rescue squad. I loved that show. And much the way the CSI franchise has spawned an interest in forensic science in the college-bound youth of today, I was drawn into the emergency medical services.

I worked as an EMT on our local ambulance for five years.
During that time, I witnessed all aspects of life and death. Unlike my favorite TV show where excitement abounded, most of our on-duty hours consisted of playing cards (I became a euchre wiz), washing the ambulances, and watching TV. Often the high point of our day was deciding which of the local diners to order lunch from. Fridays, there was no decision to be made. Friday was spaghetti day at Peppy’s.


But when the phone rang and our dispatcher grabbed her pen and started asking certain questions of the caller, we knew it was time to get serious. If you’re looking for an adrenalin rush, nothing beats riding in an ambulance, emergency lights cutting swatches through the night, sirens screaming as you respond to an automobile accident with injuries. We never knew what we were going to find until we got there. A number of times we would roll up to a scene and I’d think, there’s no way anyone could have survived this. And yet there were people alive in those vehicles, depending on us to keep them that way.

I’ve tried to think of the one worst incident that I was on and I can’t quite nail it down. There was the guy working on a garbage truck who climbed up on top of the vehicle while it was moving. He was looking back, grabbing apples from trees when the truck passed under a train trestle low enough that it caught him on the back of his head and flipped him off the truck. And he was alive at the scene, even though his skull was fractured. The EMT holding traction on his neck was cradling brains in his hands. No, the victim did not survive. But he lived to make it to the hospital.

Some of the hardest runs were the ones involving people I knew. A neighbor went into cardiac arrest when I was on duty and got the call. Being a lowly EMT, I could do CPR, but not administer drugs or use the defibrillator. Back then, only a paramedic was qualified to do such things. Thankfully, that day I was partnered with my buddy Bruce, who happened to be a paramedic. That neighbor survived that heart attack.

The most gruesome calls often involve motorcycles. I’ve seen more than my fair share of motorcycle accidents. You will never get me on one of those death traps. One gal who was a passenger on a bike that wiped out had injured her leg. We cut off her boot only to find an ankle and foot so badly damaged that her sock seemed to be the only thing holding it all together. She survived. Others weren’t so lucky.

But hands down, the most heartbreaking and scariest calls are those involving kids. A teenage boy was riding his bicycle one night on a dark stretch of well traveled road. The driver of the car never saw him until it was too late. I have one very vivid memory of being in the emergency room working frantically with the doctors to save the kid, bearing down on the boy’s femoral artery with all my strength to try to stop the blood loss from that leg.

You’re going to ask if the boy made it. Honestly, I don’t remember. Often we never learned how things turned out in the end. Once we left the patient in the ER, unless a family member contacts us to thank us for our help, we never knew what became of the patient. If they didn’t make it, we read about it in the obits just like everyone else. It feels like turning the TV off fifteen minutes before the show is over.

There were two other calls I remember involving kids. One was an adorable little girl who went from having difficulty breathing when we received the call to NOT breathing when we rolled up. She responded to pulmonary resuscitation. That one was a save. That one felt great. Times like that, I remembered why I was there in the first place. It wasn’t because of my crush on Johnny Gage any longer.

And I delivered a baby once. The mom waddled out to the ambulance as we pulled into her driveway and screamed that her baby was in the house. I was partnered with Bruce again. He grabbed the over-sized tackle box we used to carry our supplies and ran for the door. However, I was looking at the head shaped bulge in the woman’s sweatpants between her legs. I let out a yelp to Bruce to come back. Seems she had a toddler in the house. The real baby was in the process of delivering itself in her pants. We grabbed the gurney out of the ambulance, laid her down on it and hoisted it back in. I slammed the back doors while Bruce cut away the sweat pants. They were the only thing holding the infant in place and she slid out into my hands.

After that, any time Bruce or I saw the mom pushing the baby in a stroller through town we’d report back that we’d seen “our” baby.

Those five years were an incredible run. I started that job as a naïve teenager and left it wiser and more cautious, having seen what can happen to the human body in a split second. I also left it with a deep appreciation for the men and women who work all aspects of the emergency services be it fire, rescue, or police. You have to have a special mind set.

And honestly, I think you have to be just a little nuts. I know I was.

18 comments:

Rob Carr said...

Good post -- brings back memories.

In 11+ years, I only delivered one, too. Every one else I knew got 3 or 4 a year. Mine came the last week I was working.

Tory said...

They say that about therapists, too - you have to be a little nuts. (Or maybe not just "a little.")

Great "Working Stiffs" sort of post, Annette!

Joyce said...

Great post, Annette!

When my nephew was little, he used to love the show, Emergency. He used to run around with his little medical bag and defribrillate everyone. You haven't lived until you've heard a five year old yell, "Clear!" He just bought the show on DVD for his kids to watch.

Annette said...

It's on DVD?!?!?! Be back later, folks. Gotta run to Blockbuster.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Christa M. Miller said...

Great post, Annette. Six months after the fact, I'm still in touch with the paramedic who caught my son. It was her first birth in her entire career. Another EMT in the rig that night had waited 25 years to deliver a baby!

I got certified as an EMT-B in college, but I never did anything with it. I was really sheltered as a kid so when it came time to do my required 10 hours in the ER, I was shocked - blood doesn't bother me, but the human emotion did. I felt I just couldn't handle it. It took this birth to make me realize that almost no one can "handle it" the way they think they should. Duh!

Maybe someday I might get recertified, as I'm older and wiser ;) but it will have to be when the kids are older so I can handle the crazy hours!

Nancy said...

Wow, Annette. I can see why you turned to yoga---some relaxation techniques after a lifetime of adrenaline!

Annette said...

Christa,

You're absolutely right. The emotions are definitely more powerful than the blood.

One thing that always gave me emotional whiplash was going on one call for someone who was battling to survive some horrendous accident or illness and then going on another for an attempted suicide. That always got to me.

Annette said...

Nancy, it didn't take me a lifetime to wear out from the adrenaline. It only took five years. By then I was so burnt out I would visualize traffic accidents as I was driving down the road. I didn't need an expert like Tory to tell me it was time to get out.

I think I was just too young to handle the stress of life and death day after day after day.

By the way, that is me in the group picture on the far right. I was a mere baby.

Kristine said...

Wow, Annette. Great post!

I've always said that the true witnesses to what happens at accidents and/or crime scenes are the EMTs. I find it interesting that even with this background, you still turned to writing crime fiction. Did your work influence your choice at all?

Lee Lofland said...

You summed it up nicely, Annette. I was an EMT for several years on an all volunteer rescue squad. It does take a certain kind of mindset to see people in pain each and every day.

I don't know how things work in your areas (Joyce, help me out here), but many police academies require new officers to be certified as First Responders, which is a notch just below an EMT certification. They're also required to be certified in CPR and they have to be proficient in the use of a defibrillator, which many officers now carry in the trunks of their patrol vehicles.

All I can say is that my hat is off to the folks who work in the EMS field day-in and day-out. It's not a glamorous job. I once performed CPR (I've done this a couple of times; once on my own step-father) on a drug overdose victim. He lived for a year until he took another overdose and died. Even though I wasn't around for the second overdose, I still felt a twinge of guilt. I guess you can't save them all, but the EMS people sure try.

By the way, Annette your blog today is ironic. My wife was taken to the hospital just last night( she's fine) by a Boston ambulance. She became ill and passed out during a really fancy book launch party for a pretty famous author. Things have not changed. Those guys were top-notch professionals.

Great blog, Annette!

Joyce said...

Lee, we have to be certified in CPR and the AED yearly. Our dept. just won an award for saving the most lives with the AED in past year.

Glad your wife is okay! That must have been scary!

Annette said...

Kristine, I've never really thought about what influence my background as an EMT had on my decision to write crime fiction. Hmm. Maybe so. Writing crime fiction allows me to experience the rush, but from a safe distance. And I can control the outcome now!

Lee, gosh, I'm sorry to hear that your wife got some first hand experience with an ambulance, but glad she's okay.

Kind of a funny twist on first responders and the defibrillater...back when I was an EMT, I was not qualified to use a defribrillator and never learned how. Needed to be at least a paramedic to use one. Watched it done numerous times. But never did it myself. Now, my husband is the first aid officer at his plant and HE has been trained to use one! Gotta admit, it kinda ticks me off!

Lee Lofland said...

I was paddling the same boat, Annette. I never was trained to use the defibrillators either, and they weren't available when I was a police officer. They're quite a bit easier to use these days.

The machines used by police officers tell the operator what to do, step by step. Instead of coming with written instructions they talk just like a GPS system. I guess the inventor took into account that unless the instructions read, plain, iced, or glazed, cops wouldn't be able to figure out how to use the equipment.

Nancy said...

Okay, I did CPR on an old guy who had keeled over at a refreshment stand with a heart attack. Not breathing, no pulse. I had to take out his dentures first before planting my mouth on his stinky one and start blowing. He woke up and wanted to know where his teeth were. For an 18 year old lifeguard, it was more of a shock dealing with the dentures than the whole saving-his-life thing. And I do have a thing about keeping my teeth brushed.

Joyce said...

Yuck, Nancy! That story made me cringe.

Lee Lofland said...

There's one part of the CPR procedure they don't teach you. The spitting part. Instead of give a breath, chest compressions; breath, compressions...It's a breath, spit, chest compressions; breath, spit, compressions because whatever is in the victim's mouth will always find it's way into yours!

Talk about yuck, Joyce! Just thinking about it makes me want to brush my teeth right now.

Annette said...

Oh, yeah!!! And you're lucky if you just spit. Sometimes the response to the "back wash" is involuntary and more...shall we say...gut wrenching.

Yep, where's my toothbrush???

Donnell said...

Annette, wonderful post; no wonder you're a writer. There's no way you keep all of those memories locked inside.