Lights And Sirens
by D.C. Logan
I'd been baptized that morning. That's what they call it when the guy whose life you're trying to save pukes all over you. They tell me that you eventually get a sense of when to duck or move aside, but everyone gets hits at least once. That made it my turn to mop out the back of the van when we finished this run.
I started my month's worth of precepting seven days ago. I'd passed all my exams last month, and was slowly moving up the ladder to become a basic EMT. If I manage to survive this test run without killing anyone or screwing up in front of my preceptor, I'll graduate to paramedic status. But first I have to make it through the next 23 days.
Your partner is the most important thing about your job. You spend more time with your partner than your wife, than you spend sleeping, than you do any of the small mundane functions of your life. If you and your partner can't communicate or don't get along, the front seat of the ambulance might as well be a dentist's chair—when they're fresh out of Novocain.
The long hours of waiting for a call drive me insane. It's gotten to the point where I feel desperate for someone, anyone, somewhere, to screw up. To not swerve in time, to step wrong, to taunt the fates to our favor. Anything for a call. And a real call—one where I can do something, make a difference in someone's life. So I can point to that guy at some unspecified date in the future and say, "Him, I saved his life. I did that."
We each had our own coping strategy for dealing with the slack hours. I'm perpetually tense, and I look at Yuy, completely relaxed in his seat, quietly nodding off to sleep amid the ruckus of the busy intersection. I envy him his skill, and wish desperately to attain it at some point in the future. Right now I'm so starved for sleep that I can feel the effects of its lack like a drug. It carefully steals my edge and my wits away from me. But returns them back tenfold in an amplified cacophony when the radio dispatcher hails us—drawing me out of my idling brain (due to lack of sleep and food coma) directly into overdrive with the rush of someplace to be, a need to fill. I feel that empty hollow sensation that comes with an adrenaline high after a sleepless 24 hours.
It's a "lights and sirens" call. My stomach lurches in reaction to the wild swings of the heavy truck through traffic. Yuy is driving this shift, and he manages to fit the van through gaps in traffic I didn't even see coming. He makes me flinch, but he gets us to the address in record time.
And it's a domestic disturbance. A man in his mid thirties, pushed through a glass door by his brother in law. We're supposed to wait for the police to secure the scene before we get to work, but they're tied up with a traffic accident six blocks north. Lucky us, we could have been called there as well. Instead I have my first bleeder on my hands. He's still responsive, but going down fast. I can trace his path down the sidewalk from the bright pools of dark arterial blood. The spray marks tell the story from the original cut with three-meter arcs, down to the dark pool under him that soaks through my coveralls as I kneel next to him. I'm amazed he's still conscious. If he makes it, he'll owe Yuy his life for getting us there so quickly.
I reach into his open chest with a gloved hand and feel for the source of the bleeding. I pinch the vein closed with three fingers while checking him over with my other hand for more damage. Yuy runs to get the crash kit. The man's relatives crowd around, too close for me to work properly, but I don't want to take my attention from my patient. His blood pressure is dropping rapidly, and he slips from consciousness.
Yuy helps me run the three wire leads for the EKG unit, white lead on upper right chest, black on upper left, red on lower left. The two-inch monitor doesn't tell me anything I want to know.
I thought about him for days. Wondering if I would have liked him. Wondering if his friends mourned his passing. What he would have done with his life if he'd lived. By the time I saw him down in the morgue, he didn't match his driver's license photo any longer. I remembered his face as I performed CPR, each compression trying to restore life, but bringing him closer to death instead. Then watching his face as the death whirled inside of him, and he left from under my hands.
I read his obituary entry four times the next morning.
Yuy brought me a cup of sweetened coffee and a danish when I turned up for our shift. And spoke of the call. He doesn't usually talk much, and I appreciated the effort.
It's not that he makes me feel better by talking. But he keeps the anguish from overtaking me. The simple sound of his voice keeps me from feeling completely alone. That's what makes a good partner. Twelve-hour shift after twelve-hour shift. He's been there, and he understands.
The month passes slowly with alternating sensations of fear and letdown, of anxiety and relief, adrenaline and monotony-induced stupor. Under it all is a sensation that there's so much that I don't know. That I'll never be ready to do this on my own. But the month is spiked with moments when I feel oddly uncoordinated with my mental rush. And I cry out inside, "I can do this."
Then the day comes when Yuy stops me as our shift ends. I have blood in my hair, and it sheds red rain when I move. "Maxwell, you're ready." The fear I feel is unwelcome, the faith I have in my teacher, enormous.
The next day I am a paramedic, and my basic EMT meets me with two cups of coffee in hand. I have graduated. I belong to the ranks now.