I was 18, sitting in the back of a fire engine at the corner of two quiet neighborhood streets on a spring day. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and whenever you took a step water came out of the ground with a sharp squelch. I had completed my recruit firefighter course just two weeks earlier and was ripe with the smell of over-eagerness and desire to prove myself. Captain Rand was poised in the officer’s seat of the Engine and told us we were standing by for a police stand-off with a threat of multiple bombs in a house. Somewhere in my brain it registered that this was going to be an unusual situation that they hadn’t taught us about in Basic Fire Training.
From nearby I heard a pop, like a car back firing.
The radio exploded with the voice of dispatch ordering us in to the scene.
Code Red. Man Down. CPR in Progress.
We screamed into the yard of this little house with a neatly mown lawn - sirens blaring. The ambulance crew was there already, pounding on the chest of a blatantly dead man with his grey matter scattered across the yard.
I don’t actually know how long we were on scene before they loaded the dead man into the ambulance and rushed him to the hospital, but I remember climbing back into the truck afterward utterly confused and horrified at what I had just seen. The other firefighters in the truck laughed at the look on my face and told me about their first times doing CPR or picking up mutilated bodies. They just said “Call me if you need to talk… You’ll get used to it.'
They were right.
I’ve seen some horrific things in my line of work, but after a while they all blend together. I won’t describe it. The public at large pays their taxes so that people like me will spare them the details. After a while, seeing bad things happen to good people can really wear on a responder. There is a reason I go back to work shift after shift and it’s not just because driving fast and playing with lights and sirens is fun, although that is a contributing factor. I’m not here to tell you about the lifeless bodies of babies or how hard it is to come home from work some days, Chicago Fire and Ladder 49 do a good enough job of making us look like heroes. The thing that draws me to this line of work is every once in a while I get a glimpse of beauty that shines through in people’s most tragic moments.
I was transporting a woman home from the hospital once with end-stage COPD — one of those people who survives on bottled oxygen piped up their nose and yet still manages to have a cigarette in their hand 24/7. She was a sassy old lady with pink cheeks and her false teeth tinged yellow from cigarette smoke. She was the type of woman who would let you know exactly how life was and if it hurt your feelings, too bad. I was doing a routine assessment for a stable return-to-residence and went to listen to her lungs. I was shocked at the crackles I heard through my stethoscope, and without thinking remarked “Wow! You do have COPD.'
“Yeah, honey. I’m going home to die,' she replied with a matter-of-fact tone punctuated by the occasional wheeze.
Those words hung awkwardly in the air for a moment while I processed what this woman had just said to me. All I could manage was a quiet apology.
If that woman had held slightly less restraint she would have cuffed me upside the head. Instead she gave me a solid verbal lashing and with a “Listen up!' she read me the riot act on living my life to the fullest. In twenty minutes she gave me the best life advice I have ever received. She told me her only regret was letting her head get in the way of her heart one too many times. She said she wasn’t ready to die, she was afraid, and she was sad that she was not going to have more time with her family, but she was determined to go out with dignity. If she hadn’t been tethered to an oxygen tank, I suspect that geriatric spitfire would have gone out to the woods and let nature take its course. Instead, I took her up to her third floor apartment, helped her into her bed, and left her there in the company of her friends and family. I don’t remember her name, but I remember she was one of the only patient’s I’ve ever hugged before saying good-bye to. Rather than my typical, “Sorry to have met you this way' or “Hope you have a better day' sign-off, I wished her luck and had to fight back tears as I thanked her for her words.
There’s an over-used adage that instructors spout off when they’re telling you about customer service that goes something like, “people won’t remember what you said but they will remember the way you made them feel.“ What they leave out of that is you will also remember the way they made you feel. I still think back on the way that woman looked me in the eye and told me to be “unapologetically bad-ass.' Years later I quote her when I’m talking to young women who want to try something intimidating. I’ve said it to my three-year-old in simpler terms: be amazing and don’t say you’re sorry.
I’ve done CPR on more people than I can count, most of which are old people who have no chance of surviving. Hollywood seems to have driven this idea into the minds of Americans that death is unnatural and if you lightly compress the chest of a corpse they will wake up and thank you. As a result, I have spent much of my career crushing the lifeless bodies of fragile old women in an attempt to satisfy their families. On one such occasion, we were called to a modest home with small bedrooms and a tidy living room. As we walked into the house, we noted a frail old man sitting in his beat-up recliner. We worked the cardiac arrest to the fullest extent of our ability as he wandered about the kitchen and put a kettle on the stove. As expected, we did not save his wife and it was my duty to inform him of such. As I used the phrases taught to me in medic school “I’m sorry to have to tell you but your loved one has died,' the man looked me in the eye, sipped his tea, and with confusion in his voice whispered, “I was supposed to go first.'
Periodically, the universe delivers a sucker punch. This comment took me so off-guard I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I had absolutely no way to help this man, but offered to call any family that he may have to come and be with him. He told me it was early, he would wait until his children had eaten breakfast then would call them to let them know what had happened. He would stay here with his wife, brush her hair, and get her dressed. The built-in consideration of that man will forever be imprinted on my memory. He didn’t want to bother anyone, he just wanted these last moments to take care of his wife. I realized in that moment, that I was witnessing a successful marriage. That despite their small home, these two people had built a happy, caring life together and that was a beautiful thing.
The man died a few weeks after his wife, quietly in bed. He was found the next day by his children.
I have a thousand stories, some are hilarious, inappropriate, and others heart breaking. At the end of the day, emergency services is more than blood, guts, and glory. Most of the time, I connect with very real people when they are just having bad days. I’ve transported more suicidal people to protect them from themselves than I have adrenaline-pumping traumas with bones sticking out. Occasionally, I get to do Hollywood-worthy rescues and once in a blue moon I save someone’s life. Honestly though, those memories fade to the back of my mind. What sticks with me and comes up when I’m sitting around a fire drinking beer with other medics and firemen is the moments that truly left me in awe of those around me. The woman who I knew for 20 minutes and couldn’t pick out of a crowd, but gave me the manifesto for my life. The man who thought nothing of himself and brushed his dead wife’s hair, just as he probably had for years. The stranger who held and sang to a little girl as her mom was cut out of a car. The obese woman who thanked me for speaking to her like a real person.
After a while, the moments all blend together and the job becomes less about the thrill. Now, it’s the humanity that keeps me coming back day after day. Glimpses of sunshine on the gloomiest days. Shards of beauty amongst the broken pieces of tragedy.