It feels weird to wear pants. Not in the “I’ve been quarantined since March and have worn little but sweat pants” kind of way: it feels weird to wear pants because I just finished a 108 hour work week, preceded by a couple of 96 hour work weeks and I’ve worn almost nothing since March 8th, the last time that I went to a Mass in a real church, except the uniforms for my ambulance service.
Today I am in a pair of old blue jeans and a Dory t-shirt that accurately proclaims that I suffer from short term memory loss. I do. It looks weird to look down and not see my uniform and black boots, and I keep asking myself, does this look right? Do these go together?
When I got into EMS back in 2001, I was 21, a newly baptized Catholic and looking for a way to help others. During my first few days of EMT school, the World Trade Center was attacked and fell. For better or for worse, that moment changed the way we looked at police, fire, and EMS. For a moment, it changed how we all looked at each other, too. Instead of factions, divided into a million sub-groups, we pulled together for a while. We cared for each other. Tragedies can sometimes do that. We realized for just a moment in 2001 that we weren’t all that different.
Over the years, I’ve run somewhere around 15,000 calls. I’ve been invited into thousands of homes, asked to care for thousands of injured, sick or dying. I’ve worked hundreds of cardiac arrests and I’ve delivered 11 babies. And no, none were named after me; you can’t win ‘em all.
I’ve learned a few things. Like, the human body is really weird, and often gross. But I’ve also learned that back in 2001, our gut was right: we really aren’t all that different. It doesn’t matter if you are living in the suburbs in a million dollar home, an apartment in the middle of town or if you are sleeping on a bench not sure of where your next meal is going to come from. We are all wired in pretty much the same way. Sure, we need food, shelter and clothing, but we all have other needs, just as real, to be known, seen and loved. When those needs aren’t met the result isn’t malnutrition or broken bones, it is broken people, lives and families, and we build a broken society.
I had a cashier ask me yesterday what the worst thing I’ve ever seen was. But I didn’t tell her. The worst thing that I have ever seen was a baby shot in the crib by her own mother.
That’s horrific. And the injuries were catastrophic. But somehow she lived. Sometimes, you don’t even know where to start. Stop the bleeding, secure an airway, support respirations, vitals, IV, cardiac monitor, medications, transport. We ended up transporting the mother as well. Wracked with depression, debt, addiction and living in an abusive home, she was looking up at the world from the bottom of a well. She didn’t have a way out and she didn’t know who or how to ask for help. Sometimes you don’t even know where to start. The injuries were catastrophic, but somehow she lived. “I don’t know”, I told the cashier. “We see a lot of crazy stuff”.
Not everyone needs bandaids or long back boards. There is a large number of calls that I run where what the patient needs isn’t something that I can quantify on a Patient Care Report.
After her husband’s suicide, I was checking the blood pressure on a newly widowed woman. Her family was on the way but they were a still few hours away. We started talking about her family. Her sister was coming. They had grown up together on the family farm in a house so old that it didn’t originally have electricity. They were the youngest and last surviving of nine brothers and sisters. We talked about her family for a while longer, made sure that she was physically okay and got ready to go back in service. That was when the dam broke for her. She began to tell us about her husband. How he would bring her flowers for no other reason than because he thought she was beautiful. My partner sat down with her again at the kitchen table while I stepped outside and put my truck out of service.
Her husband had built the house that we were sitting in, by hand. He loved to sing her songs while she cooked dinner. He made her feel like the most beautiful person in the world. She told us about how he would also fall into deep despair and she would lay with him just holding onto him because she didn’t know what else to do. She told us about how he had planned his funeral about a year before. He wanted Long as I Can See the Light to be played. When her sister arrived a couple of hours later, she found the three of us singing that song with tear streaked faces and throaty voices. I had no idea my partner could play guitar.
Ambulance work is unpredictable. Sometimes it is unpredictable and you have a patient’s brother throw a chair at the closed doors of the truck. Sometimes it is unpredictable and you find yourself quickly retreating out of a house because a patient pulled a knife on your partner.
I was called to an assault with injuries at a house across the street from an elementary school. My partner and I busily stabilized a man with a screwdriver handle sticking out just below the eye and angled down passing through is airway at a couple of points. I was focused in on the problem at hand and didn’t notice that a new person had come into the room.
While my partner worked to get a patent airway on the patient, I was talking to our dispatchers, requesting air evacuation for our critical patient. I was cut off, mid-sentence, when I was grabbed by the collar by a sheriffs deputy and pulled out of the room while a second deputy tackled the family member who had come up behind me and pulled out a hand gun. I have never met a more selfless group of men and women in a more thankless job than the police officers and deputies that routinely clear hostile scenes for us and on several occasions stepped between me and an attacker. They are brothers who have been my keeper at crucial moments.
These are important stories but here’s my point: we need to become our brother’s keeper in more ways than is convenient. We were becoming more and more isolated long before COVID-19 drove us into quarantine. Social media gave us our masks long before Walmart started requiring them for entry. We’ve gotten to be really good at talking about our wants while ignoring our needs. It is hard to talk about the wounds that we carry, and harder still to reach out to others that we see hurting. But we need to become our brother’s keeper and reach out to a hurting world to say both, “I need help,” and “how can I help you.”
I am lonely. I’m tired. I haven’t worn normal clothes regularly in so long that I’m not even sure that I’m dressed right anymore.
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