April 5, 1999 | Rescuing Again
I walked through the dark parking lot toward the open bays of the rescue squad building. Every ambulance and rescue truck was slick with bright reflections of the blinding white phosphorescent lights overhead. I had no idea what the evening might offer, but I was more preoccupied with the people inside that building than the scary scenes I might see. I've been in emergency services before, and been suitably exposed to blood and bone to anticipate their effects on me. But people, in their own way, are more mysterious and disturbing than trauma.
Less than thirty minutes later, I performed my first act of service: I cleaned the upstairs men's bathroom.
It seems that these rescue crews don't just get to hole up and watch reruns of Emergency! while waiting for their fellow citizens to drive into lamp posts or choke on chicken bones. Rather, there is some sort of ethic that demands that each crew maintains the building and trains themselves from 7-11 pm. As the new guy, I drew the uncoveted "men's upheads" assignment. (One wonders: in what situation would someone have to designate this location with such speed that "upstairs men's bathroom" would waste too much time with extraneous syllables?)
My head-cleaning partner, another relative new guy with only two months at the squad, went out on a call, so I was left alone with my sinks and a well-equipped janitor's closet. This was fine. I was glad to have some time just to be in the building, in this stiff and strange uniform, listening to the ever-present chatter of the emergency-band radio through ubiquitous speakers. I was happy just to be there, in the men's upheads, waiting to be called upon.
My fellow crewmates are mostly young, with a wide variety of experience levels. They are evenly divided between male and female. This is a good sign, since past experience suggests that predominantly male crews are more subject to annoying trauma-jockey posturing. Most folks seemed relieved to hear that I was once a full-time paid Emergency Medical Technician -- this should substantially cut down on their need to walk and watch me through calls.
Having cleaned the upheads, I began picking through one of the ambulances to refamiliarize myself with where everything is. Little is different from what I remember, but I can't just instinctively reach for something as I once could. The other relative new guy, Zack, helped me out by going through each compartment on the ambulance with me. Zack got his EMT certification two months ago and is so eager to see what the world of emergency medicine has to offer that he practically radiates an electrical field of crackling anticipation. Our ambulance tour was interrupted by our first call: the characteristic warble of the tone-out for our squad, followed by a brief description of the nature of the emergency.
Here I reach a fork in the road. I must find some means of talking about this experience while respecting the privacy of the patients I treat. Those people shouldn't have to sacrifice their anonymity merely because they had the misfortune to suffer an illness or injury when I happened to be on duty. It's a tough question, because I know enough to anticipate that some calls will have a profound effect on me, and writing about them would offer a chance to quiet their power. I'll just do the best I can.
One thing I know: it felt very, very familiar to be in the back of a fast-moving ambulance, with the siren going off just above my head and red lights flashing out onto the passing landscape. My hands wormed their way back into those latex gloves with little resistance. I was less excited or nervous than I thought I'd be. It felt like I had last done this a few weeks ago, not seven years past.
I went on three runs during the night and scored maybe three hours of sleep. After 11 PM, the crew is allowed to bed down in a large "bunk room" full of double-decker beds. The room is completely dark, and I had to use a penlight from one of the ambulances to find my way through the grid of bunk beds to my designated spot. It's a bit like being at camp, except there's a fire pole in one corner. I had a hard time taking this device seriously, but when the alarm went off and the lights in the bunk room automatically came up, some folks actually slid down it to get down to the ambulance bay. I feel about the fire pole the way I feel about the stiff official uniform: both intrigued and slightly wary. They're like dreams that I'm afraid I will eventually mistake for reality. So I took the nearby stairs. Thus did I maintain my perspective, for the moment.