Like most emergencies, this one came as a surprise. I was trying to enjoy a cup of cold coffee while sitting out in the sun, unremarkably bitching about the heat to Chris & Kristen. The patio of this particular coffee establishment faces a busy road, one that delivers people to strip malls of every stripe in our fair city. We’re casually casting glances when I see motorcycle parts scattered all over the road and two people in helmets on their backs and chaos begins to rain down.
This is where it gets tricky.
Off duty from the fire department. Accident in front of your eyes. No gear, no medical gloves and lots of blood. No reason to not help. No way to ignore what’s right in front of you. No way to finish the cup of coffee in peace.
People, being basically good and decent, begin to offer help to the motorcycle riders. Someone has the presence of mind to demand that their helmets be left on, in case of spinal injuries. Some people mill about the scene, as though staring at it might help it go away. The little old lady who turned in front of the bike, the one responsible for all of it, is off and looking dazed and worried and this reinforces my stance that drivers licenses for seniors in a town as crowded as ours are a dicey proposition. Twice yesterday, while on my own motorcycle, I had elderly drivers pull out in front of me, causing a lockup of the brakes and a steady stream of freaky loud cursing.
But back to the matter at hand.
The driver of the bike is now starting to thrash about, somewhat violently, and before I reach him, he jerks his helmet right off his head, causing panic-prone bystanders to collectively, and loudly, register their disappointment in his actions. His passenger, wearing short shorts and flip flops, is feeling the effects of her legs sliding across hot asphalt at high speeds but is not causing much of a ruckus. Not like the driver.
No gloves. This sucks. One of the first rules in EMT school is “if it’s wet and it’s not yours, don’t touch”. The bridge of his nose and other points on his face are slathered in blood, and a lot of it. All right. Fine. And down go the hands to his head and cervical-spine precautions have begun. He doesn’t like this and want to fight it a little. This is totally normal, and I tell people around me to hold his limbs down as it is explained that what we need right now is cooperation. He’s mostly concerned with the state of his bike, which is mostly shredded and leaking enough fluids to qualify for Superfund status. Someone in the crowd decides to lie to him and tell him the bike is fine.
Some minutes pass; Engine 9 and Truck 6 arrive, take over patient care, give me a ribbing about working off-duty and help me shed the blood from my hands. Despite being on a different shift on a different side of town, the rules of the job remains the same. While it’s a dance of orchestrated chaos, there are roles we all play and everyone knows them. Mostly I’m concerned about the status of my coffee. I say this not out of a sense of callousness, but rather, a function of my addiction to the bean. The patients need care, and once that is established, we can focus on other, more pressing matters. Coffee is a pressing matter.
I return to the curb to find Chris & Kristen looking at me as though they’d just witnessed me working as a rodeo clown. In many ways, that’s an accurate descriptor. Since our friendship is based on factors outside of the world of the fire department, I guess it was somewhat odd for them to see my work environment. Ten years after climbing onto a ladder truck as a professional firefighter for the first time, you see these events not as cataclysmic life changers, which is how the patients will view them, but rather, as a typical job duty. To quote both retired engineer Mike Abbey and my psychotic Aunt Viper “This is what we do.”
What we do is take for granted that we’re the helpers. We help those who need it. No more, no less. The Wife sees someone who needs their hair whipped into shape and that’s what she does. My brother Buns finds those who need second hand computer parts at deep discount, and he helps them get said parts. The Dirtbag sees an empty lot and the need for a well-built home, and he gets down with his tools and his anger and builds the damn thing. When some 20 year old fool in a tee shirt wrecks his street bike into the hood of an old lady’s car at high speed, I hold his neck in place and avoid blood spatter.
And, in the back of my mind, while taking all of this moment, this role and this career for granted, there’s one thought that plays on an endless loop, keeping time like a locomotive in my consciousness: man, that coffee is going to taste good when I finally get it back in my hands.