Somewhere in between the mundane task of dislodging a howling patient from between the tub and toilet to the adrenaline-laced rush of watching someone ride the lightning of a defibrillator shock lies a curious state of being known as observation. One of the first things that they teach you in EMT school is that people are going to die, they’re going to die right in front of you, and try as you might, there are times when that’s just reality. Once in a blue moon, you’re gonna step into a pile of fortuitous awesome and actually make a life save, but don’t hold your breath.
In my opinion, though, worse than working a patient and losing is being told that there’s nothing to do as you get there, that they’re already gone from this world. All you can do is observe, respectfully, the situation surrounding the call and hope you don’t say something stupid.
That’s exactly what we found in the middle of the wee hours of our last shift. Two cars involved, lots of downed light poles, high speed and bad decisions made the entire scene an eerie, awkward mess. Three people refusing medical care and one who would never again make a decision on his own, dead upon arrival.
For practical reasons, we were called to extricate the victim from the wreckage so that the assessment could be made official by the supervising medic. While the boys from the Engine worked to control vehicle fluids meandering down the road and dealt with some errant smoke coming from the engine compartment, the Ladder Truck crew worked the victim. He was knotted up in a curious contortion, and as we worked, it crossed everyone’s mind that a utilized seat belt may well have made a crucial difference here. There is no grace nor beauty in death by car wreck. It is messy, bloody and an affront to the senses. Your cognitive mind doesn’t like to witness this, and you have to shut off your emotions to deal with the task at hand with any sort of sanity. Laid out on the asphalt, among shattered glass and bathed in the strobes of all the emergency vehicles, he takes on a vaguely human form and you begin to sort the pieces out. There is no Hollywood moment where David Caruso is gonna whip off his shades and say “looks like we have……a murder.” There is a quiet acceptance that you’re not going to shove someone’s brains back in their skull, they’re not going to sit up, or walk or ever breathe again. You notice, because his clothes got shredded and torn in the accident, that he has curious and curiously placed tattoos and you wonder what was going on in his life when he made the decision to get those. You wonder what was going through his mind, 12 minutes ago, when they came careening through the intersection, while he was still among the living. He is a nameless young victim, maybe a med school student (probably not, not in our ‘hood), maybe a reprobate skirting along the fringes of the law. None of that matters anymore.
I look up into the ambulance where the driver of the car and front seat passenger are busy refusing medical care, their eyes as big as dinner plates. I wonder if they know that their friend is dead, that their lives changed irrevocably at 1:23am. I hope that his mother doesn’t have to see him like this. I’ve never MET the guy, and I don’t like seeing him like this. It’s such a helpless feeling to just stand there and accept that Death beat you to the punch, again. I feel like he, Death, continually invites us to be pallbearers at the parties he throws. There are times when there’s nothing we can do, except to observe the aftermath, and especially at 2am, when we’re all back in quarters, it’s a lonely feeling. The other boys at the station later confess to restless times in their racks, and though none will say that the death has had an effect on them, I can’t help but wonder if their minds are furiously grinding away like mine. In the morning, some of us will gather at a coffee shop and collectively bash one another over runny eggs and crappy coffee, trying to transition back to our civilian lives. We’ll shelve what we saw in the storerooms of our minds, and as I’m driving home rehearsing the unearned lecture I’m about to give my boys about seat belt usage, Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat” song comes on the air. “Daylight comes/ and me wanna go home”, Harry croons, lamenting his night shift tallying bananas. Leaving the City limits and my job behind for two days, I couldn’t agree more.