To become a better writer, I became an EMT.
Think about it: a call comes in over the pager or your cell phone. Doesn’t say much. Maybe it says “altered mental status.” Maybe that means someone has taken a bunch of drugs. Maybe that means someone’s blood sugar is low. Maybe that means someone has taken a nose-dive down a flight of stairs and smacked their head into the wall.
Maybe they were pushed.
You pull up to the house and it’s a nice house, middle-class, geraniums on the stoop, a newish Corrolla in the driveway, a sign that says “Nana’s House, Nana’s Rules!” stuck in a flowerbed. The patient seems okay, a guy in his 80s sitting on a brown leather couch in the living room, wearing swim trunks and a t-shirt, smiles at you when you walk in, you’re pretty sure you see him at the bagel place sometimes. Wife says that he was a little “out of it” before (you always use the quotations in EMT land, you always want to capture exactly what the patient or the family said, you want to paint the picture as clearly as possible), but he seems better now. Meanwhile, the patient is complaining of a headache, complaining that he’s weak. Even that word, that medical word, complaining…for a non-EMT, complaining is something pathetic. It’s whining. It’s missing the point. In the medical world the complaint IS the point. Complain, from the 14th century, meaning to lament, to bewail. To make a mournful sound. From the Latin, meaning to “beat the breast.”
Then, suddenly, while you’re asking about allergies, and getting a list of medications from the patient’s wife—blood pressure stuff, cholesterol stuff, Flomax for his prostate—the patient’s eyes roll back in his head.
There is a pause. You stare at the patient. The wife stares at the patient. Silence. Your thoughts are suddenly slow, painfully slow, like the beginning of a dream. Your thoughts are, This. Is. Not. Good.
Then the patient begins to seize. His body shakes, small sharp movements, he tips sideways on the couch with the force of them. Your partner, a middle-aged guy with a bum knee who doesn’t know shit about medical stuff but can drive an ambulance like it’s a Formula One racecar, races over and holds him in a bear hug, lowering him to the floor, and looks at you.
What the fuck?
Someone bursts into the room—a neighbor, a son? Someone with glasses, balding, but young in the face. For some reason he only wears one shoe. He has a tattoo of a shamrock on his forearm. Why are you noticing all of this? You shouldn’t notice all of this. Pay attention to the patient for Christ’s sake—and he says, Wait a minute, the patient fell down before, like two hours ago, he hit his head but he was okay, could that possibly have anything to do with this?
And then the wife says, Oh my God, I gave him a bunch of aspirin before because I was worried this might be a heart attack and I read online that heart attacks need aspirin—is that important?
And then you look down and the seizing has stopped but the man’s arms go straight out, and his wrists curl out from his body, a pose you recognize as decerebrate posturing, something that only occurs in the case of severe brain damage, and you understand that whatever is happening is much, much more serious than you thought.
You missed something. You fucked up.
Will that haunt you?
Meanwhile the wife is crying, now, screaming, backing away from you even as she reaches out toward you and your partner, and she’s yelling, “what happened, help him, no, no, no,” over and over, and the neighbor or cousin or son stands between her and you, trying to console her, trying to comfort her—
You notice she isn’t wearing a wedding ring. What does that mean?
And your partner has manhandled the patient onto the stretcher, somehow, basically by himself, and is strapping him in, and asking you, even as he does it, Should we call for a helicopter? And you notice he is shaking as he buckles the straps, his hand is trembling like he needs a drink, and you know for a fact that he probably does, it’s nearly that time, for him, and you wonder whether he is going to be alright to drive—
And you hear yourself saying, No, let’s just book it, and you pick up the radio and start calling in to the hospital to be ready for a traumatic brain injury, possibly a hemorrhage, and you know this is the last time the wife will see him alive, and she will blame herself for giving him that aspirin, a blood thinner, and God willing you will never have to see her again—
And in your head you’re thinking, Don’t die, Don’t die, Don’t die.
And you’re also thinking, I can use this, this is a story. This is a story. This is a story.