Funny how it’s all intertwined, how it all works.
Two days ago, I was driving my oldest to the doctors office to deal with an ear infection/strep throat. As I looked in the mirror while he was wailing and crying, I found myself fighting back my own tears. Say what you will, when it’s my own child, one of the very few people on this earth that I love unconditionally, and he’s hurting and there’s nothing I can do about it? It claws at my soul. His pain is mine. I can’t make it better, despite the pleading look in his eyes, begging me to make it better for him, tears rolling freely down his cheeks. He wants his Dad to make it stop; I’m hauling ass down the highway furious at no one in particular, holding his hand while my heart is breaking.
One day ago, we had the fire department awards ceremony; at the event, the unfortunate tragedy involving three children perishing in a house fire was mentioned, which triggered another cascade of memories for those involved, directly or otherwise. The issue came up later at a post-ceremony watering hole, and when asked about if I’d ever dealt with that kind of situation, it reminded me of my worst shift in 11 years here, one in which a child died in a house fire; I’d located him and had to bring him downstairs past the grieving family members. The Wife was pregnant at the time, and it hit me in a way that has never left. People die, accidents happen, but when it’s the young, the innocent among us, the tragedy is exponential in its damage emotionally. It never gets better, no matter the years on the job. Kids affect us all, from green rookies to the toughest old grouchy bastards.
So this morning, when we’d already worked one car wreck within minutes of coming on-duty, and the tones rang out for another accident, I shrugged on the gear and told the boys it looked to be another one of those days. Our captain is off-shift, putting me in his seat, which means more paperwork, less shenanigans. The comments came through that it was a vehicle versus bicycle, with the victim being the ten year old cyclist. Instantly, the situation turns far more serious. Less chatter in the cab, more mental focus, as we learn that police are on scene, which does not bode well; unlike hysterical-but-well-intentioned citizens, when the cops are on scene and roads are blocked, it can’t be good.
We arrive to lots of people yelling, chaos, mass pandelerium, as it were. We find our patient, a ten year old boy, in the ditch, the rear of his bike folded up, and he’s screaming and crying, thrashing in pain. An off-duty medic is there giving us her assessment, and the edge in her voice indicates her worry. More people arrive, the ambulance, finally. We’re trying to stabilize this child, who was riding to school when hit by a van. Our emotions are all over the map, but now is not the time. I’m mad at the grandmother in the muumuu, who, while declaring she’s the legal guardian, didn’t force the kid to wear a helmet. I’m mad at the van driver, although I don’t know who’s fault it is. I’m mad at the kid for not wearing a helmet, as the damage to his head is leaving blood on our gloved hands. But most of all, we’re focused. Now is not the time. Later, I keep telling myself. Now, he needs our help. He’s crying, his pain transmitting loud and clear, and radiating through all of us around him.
One of the firemen and I load up in the ambulance to assist the medic for the seemingly endless journey to the hospital. Muffled radio traffic and wailing sirens permeate the background as we focus on our little man. One moment he’s screaming, and when his eyes crack open, as I hold the oxygen to his face, they plead with me. He wants me, us, someone, anyone, to take away the pain. C’mon, kid, scream your lungs out. It’s ok, I’m here. We’re here. I’ll take screaming, because screaming means you’re still with us.
And then he isn’t. His vitals are there, still solid, he’s getting oxygen, but he goes out cold, unresponsive. No tell-tale fogging of the O2 mask. This is terror. I can’t take this. C’mon, kid. We’re almost there. A little pressure here, some steady murmuring, and in an instant, he’s screaming again, clutching my hand, begging me with those eyes. The medic is working her best, my crew-mate is holding his hands to the sides to keep the thrashing to a minimum as the tangled mass of wires, intravenous lines, blood and asphalt envelop his body that is not built to be hit by a van. This kid is only slightly older than my oldest. This could be him on this cot, with God-knows-what happening in the skull at this very moment. C’mon, kid. I need you to pull through this. I don’t know you, I don’t know your family nor your situation. Maybe you’re a bully, maybe you steal from little old ladies. That’s not the point. You’re young. You’re not some strung out tweaker that we’ve run on a thousand times, driven to kill yourself in a meth-fueled frenzy. You’re ten, for fuck’s sake. My heart won’t take this lightly.
And he’s out again. Something’s going on in that head, there’s damage, and I don’t know what it is. I’m shouting his name out now. C’mon kid. Open that eye again, let me see your eyes. A muffled moan, and he cracks it open. He hears me. He screams again. Ok, keep screaming, keep thrashing, I’ve got you. Grab my hand, tear the thing off for all I care at this point. You’re someone’s kid, you’re my kid, you’re our kid, even if for only a couple of minutes. You need to hang on, little man. I need you to.
Eventually, we get to the hospital. Screaming as we wheeled him into a waiting ER room, I finally let go of that hand, let go of the oxygen mask. A team of seemingly 30 people were waiting in there to take over, the true professionals. I gotta let you go here. His eye looks at me one more time, and he doesn’t break contact. We did what we could, kiddo. Tomorrow morning, I’ll leave this firehouse and hurry home, and crush my kids in a hug, never wanting to let go. Emotionally drained and taxed from the adrenaline surge, we head out of the room to wait for a ride back to the station, strangers in dirty bunker gear, intruding on a world of hospital scrubs and salvation. I’ll learn later on that the boys on the Engine worked a heart attack victim who didn’t make it. We’ll fight some fire at a car crushing plant, go to a house fire that doesn’t amount to much. But all day long, I’ll think of you. When I see those eyes in my mind, you’re right there. And I’m right there with you. I hope you pull through kid, cause I’m pulling for you. We all are.