Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A child dies

Late one night I listened as the ambulance at our station on the other side of town was dispatched to a head-on collision on a rural stretch of two lane highway, almost 12 miles away. Experience tickles your antennae on certain calls and this car wreck had a lot of potential for a bad outcome.

The volunteer fire department from the nearest town arrived first and they reported two vehicles involved and extrication was being started to cut the car away from trapped passengers. Moments later the radio reported two fatalities.

Reportedly, an older model sedan crossed the center of the road and collided head-on with a mini van carrying a family of five on vacation. Police reported that two men were seen exiting the sedan, then running into the surrounding sagebrush fields. This stretch of road was void of any houses. The nearest civilization was a 10 minute drive from the crash site.

A second ambulance from our town was sent to the scene and a total of three patients were taken to the hospital, suffering mostly minor wounds. The third ambulance toned out was my station. Proceed code one (no lights and sirens, aka, no hurry) to transport victims' bodies from the scene.

My partner drove and we hardly spoke during the 15 minute drive. Two county sheriffs raced up behind and screamed past us, lights and sirens. "K9 unit" was written on the bumpers of both cars. On the radio, the incident commander was asking how soon the bloodhounds would arrive. A rural manhunt was underway for the two occupants of the sedan, reportedly at fault for the collision.

A sweeping left-hand turn in the highway opened up upon the scene. The night was an insane emergency disco; red and blue lights whirling and strobe lights chaotically stabbing into the darkness. Straddling the dashed yellow lines, center stage on the asphalt, were the two vehicles that had crashed, surrounded by erratically-placed fire trucks and police cars. The two ambulances that had carried away the survivors were long gone.

The sedan was almost unblemished except for two flat front tires and a broken windshield. The driver's door was open and the headlights were still on. The van was obliterated. The engine was pushed into the front seats. Rescue crews had cut the roof and the driver's door off. Both lay on the road atop a red and blue kaleidoscope of the van's shattered windows.

We grimly approached the van and with the help of volunteer firefighters still on the scene, cut away the front passenger door, carefully removing a dead mother, who just an hour earlier had been making good time through the summer night, while her children slept to the hum of tires on the road.

Laying in the very back seat was a sleeping boy. There was no visible trauma. No blood. No problem. Just a sleeping boy. As I awkwardly stooped in the cramped interior I carefully lifted him; so carefully, to be sure not to wake him. He was about five years old, I guessed. With every little step as I carefully backed out to the sliding door, I kept expecting him to stir; to fuss. He never did.

As we turned around and headed back into town with two shiny black body bags zipped up in the back of our ambulance, flashlight beams bounced about in the sagebrush fields on either side of the highway. The manhunt for the sedan's two occupants would carry on for months.

Much later I learned that the two men were extradited from Mexico on charges of vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving. They might have got a few years at most. I'll remember that boy forever.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Beautiful Night

Friday night I attended my first Relay for Life, a fundraiser to help find a cure for cancer. Donors support relay teams for lapping a running track and the donations go the American Cancer Society. It's a great party! It's a celebration of survivors and also of those that have succumbed.

The Relay starts as cancer survivors take the first lap of the evening. All sorts of people made their way around the track. The youngest, a 3-1/2 year old brain cancer survivor, took it all in from atop her aunt's shoulders. One elderly woman sat on a walker with a seat in it, pushed along by friends as she faced backwards, waving and talking to other survivors coming up behind her.

I'd guess approximately 75 survivors circled the track in their distinctive purple survivor t-shirts. One survivor was missing Friday night. My friend Shawn Hauenstein lay in his hospital bed in Salt Lake City, enduring aggressive treatment to battle his second bout with leukemia.

We texted photos of the night to Shawn, including one of the luminaria that we made for him. Luminarias are white paper lunch sacks that are decorated and placed around the perimeter of the track. As darkness falls, a candle is placed inside, illuminating the decorated bag for everyone to admire as they walk past. It is a silent and emotional testimony to family and friends that have and haven't beaten cancer. There must have been several hundred flickering memorials rimming the edges of the track.

Shawn has beaten cancer once and he's going to beat it again. Stay strong Shawn! We love you, buddy! I wish you could have been there with us Friday night.

The American Cancer Society is making exciting advances towards defeating cancer! Their website, www.cancer.org, can direct you on how to get involved with the fight in your community.

I'd really like it if you'd drop Shawn a note. He is a great guy! Today, via text message, he told my daughter that he hasn't been able to keep any food down for 10 days. He's pretty down right now so any encouraging words could brighten his day.

His email is: zaptoday@aol.com and we've established a Facebook group for him and you can leave a note there too: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=8591023207

Last night at the Relay I spoke with a middle-aged woman named Patti. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma, she had just received her first "clean" blood scan. "I just want to live," she replied, when asked what her future plans are now that she's in remission. "A lot of people live in fear. But I can't dwell on that."

She looked down in her lap at her folded hands, patiently regarding them, as if her next words would be found inside their clasp. Then, raising her head, she gazed across the track, looking past the flickering luminarias, over the shadowy tree tops surrounding the track and beyond into the darkening night sky.

"I just want to live. What else is there?"

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?

Legendary baseball pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige took the mound for the last time in the summer of 1965, pitching three shutout innings before walking off the mound and right into sports history.

Throwing three scoreless innings isn't necessarily remarkable for a major league pitcher, unless you're 60 years old at the time! His pitching feats earned induction into baseball's hall of fame in 1971, but his legendary personality is what history remembers most about the man whose extraordinarily large feet, resemblant of a briefcase, garnered his famous nickname.

"Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter," he once said. Always evasive about his real age, his athletic accomplishments overshadowed his age. Reportedly born in 1905, Paige befuddled batters for over five decades, beginning in the negro leagues and finishing his career in 1968, as a coach for the Atlanta Braves.

Now, you're probably asking what baseball has to do with firefighting? Today is my birthday and as I celebrate the start of my 48th year, I'm reminded of Satchel Paige and his carefree attitude about age and the perception of aging.

Parts of this job are a young man's game. Without notice a firefighter can be thrust into a very physically demanding situation under extreme conditions of lethal heat and toxic atmospheres. Never knowing what the bell might serve up at any moment, physical readiness is essential to job performance as well as survival.

The number one killer of firefighters isn't fire, smoke, or building collapse. In 2007, 54 of the reported 115 firefighter deaths across the United States were attributed to cardiac arrest and stroke, according to the United States Fire Administration, a branch of FEMA.

Translated to 47 percent of all firefighter fatalities that year, the grim statistics emphasize the need for firefighters to stay in shape.

As I age, the daily challenge to maintain my physical readiness is a battle against an aging body and a weakening spirit, so I draw inspiration from the ageless words of the great Satchel Paige, "You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them."

I promised my wife that I would always come home after my shift was done. So, today, tomorrow and for every day after, I'll dress; I'll show up and work out to keep myself ready for the rigors of my job. If I can avoid dying under a building collapse, I can avoid dying of a heart attack on the fireground.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Tale of Two Trails

Twice in one shift I scurried up a popular local hiking trail to help someone. Each trip had very different outcomes.

A middle-aged man fell more than 50 feet, according to eyewitnesses, when the parasail glider he was flying in, collapsed during an afternoon flight. Our ambulance responded to assist the man and after a 15-minute ascent, arrived to find our patient, exhibiting an open leg fracture and complaining of back and hip pain.

Additional rescuers arrived on an ATV and transported the man to the base of the trail. His pelvic x-ray later that day revealed a severe separation of the base of the pelvis. He wouldn't be flying for a while, but he survived.

That night a 20-year-old woman, a student at a local university, called 911 from high on the same trail, claiming that she wanted to kill herself. Again, my partner and I arrived at the base of the trail and began a fast-paced hike up the hill. Dispatch advised that a police officer was already heading up the trail, just a few minutes ahead of us.

Switching my radio to the police channel, I periodically heard brief exchanges between the dispatcher and the obviously winded officer. The young woman was still on the phone and told dispatch that she had crawled out to the edge of an outcropping of rocks just below the eighth switchback and although she wanted to crawl back to safety, she was afraid.

Twenty years my junior, my partner was pulling away from me as we rounded the fifth switchback. Suddenly, the officer reported that he could see the caller and was attempting to make contact with her. Thirty yards ahead, my partner rounded the sixth switchback when the officer reported that the caller had slipped and was clinging to the side of a 30-foot sheer rock wall.

If it had been daylight, I could have seen her. She was just a few dozen vertical feet above us, but the steep grade required the trail to traverse for a few hundred yards before we would arrive to her location.

Mercifully, the darkness obscured her fall. Seconds after reporting her slip, the officer quietly, but tersely, reported that she had lost her grip and had fallen approximately 40 feet to the hillside below. My partner arrived first and dived off the trail into the scrub oak, in search of the victim.

I arrived a few minutes later and worked my way through the thick brush towards his flashlight. She was breathing but not conscious. Our initial examination revealed classic symptoms of a brain injury consistent with blunt trauma to the head. Undoubtedly, she had struck her head on a rock during the fall. Time was working against her - and us - now.

What seemed to be an eternity later, the same ATV that had so successfully removed our parasailer from the trail earlier that day, slowly transported our young patient off the mountain. It slowly crawled down the steep trail, almost like a hearse.

Sitting at the head of the patient, I assisted her failing respiratory drive with a breathing device. Her brain was dying from the certain internal bleeding and we all agreed that good oxygenation might allow doctors to save her, or at least preserve her organs for possible harvest.

As we passed a group of college-aged hikers, a young woman in the group stepped forward and timidly reached out towards our unmoving, unconscious patient. "C'mon, you can make it." she said. Her words were almost more a pleading than an encouragement. "Just keep fighting. You can do it."

After transferring our patient into the waiting ambulance we were told that reportedly police had found a suicide note in her dorm room explaining the circumstances that had led her up the trail that night. I couldn't believe when I heard that her remorse for sleeping with a boy had driven her to this fatal ending.

This morning I hiked that same trail and hurried past that same switchback and glanced at that same rock cliff. I don't like to look at it but it's always there every time I go up the mountain. I'll always think of that night and of that poor girl's desperate decision.

Monday, June 2, 2008


How do we foresee our older years? We so easily become caught up in our daily grind - paying bills, raising kids, look at the price of gas! Saturday the ambulance responded to a man down, unknown breathing or pulse. We arrived to find an elderly man face down in his garage, pulseless and not breathing. His wife had returned from grocery shopping, found her husband there and called 911.

Quickly examining our patient, it was obvious there was nothing we could do to resuscitate him, so we turned our supportive care to our second patient. Death of an elderly partner must open a swirling void of grief, fear, and anxiety, and we were ready to provide whatever comfort we could for this man's elderly wife.

But before anything could be said, this frail, white-haired woman struggled to kneel beside her dead husband's body and began to speak to him. Holding his hand, she thanked him for his faithful dedication as a father and husband. She quietly expressed her deep love for him and asked him to be patient until they could become reunited. Then, shakily, she bent down and gently kissed his forehead one last time.

She was spent, and after one feeble attempt to rise, I stepped forward and helped her stand. Although she needed my help, I felt that I was intruding on a reverent moment that shouldn't have been witnessed.

This old couple was in love right up until the end. That kind of love is a garden that requires diligent care to keep it lush and fruitful. Do we see the end of our years as we rush through our days? Do we tend to our gardens that are growing around us, or do we trample upon and step over the weeds, cursing ourselves for not making time to tend them?