Friday, April 4, 2008

The Little Ones


            When I remember the street now, I always remember it at night, as if that were the only time there ever was on the street. The only time when things would happen to people, and I would have to pick up the pieces. But not just night, but middle of the night, that 3 in morning time when only the cops, the drunks and us are left to prowl around in some kind of three way dance, the kind of dance that leaves people lying in the gutter bleeding. My partner and I are heading back to the station after the 20th call since we had come on duty at 8 am the morning before. Not one of the calls serious, just another long shift filled with sick lame and lazy. The kind of shift that makes you question why you are a paramedic. Where are the people that need the saving, the world seems to be made up drunks and squirrels who think that calling the fire department will solve almost any real or imagined medical or personal problem.

            Just another night on Rescue 1 where your life seems to shift into fast-forward the moment you step on the truck in the morning. The experiences move by so fast, as you race from run to run, you could almost put your hand out the window let it surf through the them as they rush past. Like you did when you were a kid and used to stick your hand out of the window of the car as your parents drove home at night.

With the first run of the morning to the last run you just finished you get the same adrenaline shot each time. So by 3 in the morning the twenty or so adrenaline rushes leaves you exhausted and used up. You lean against the door of the Rescue, feeling as if you did lean against something to prop yourself up, you would fall over and go to sleep. It is as if someone presses the button on your life and the fast forward drops into standard play.

Suddenly in the Florida heat your uniform is damp and sticks you from the constant sweat of driving the streets of a Central Florida town with no air conditioning. Add to the mix lots of left over stress, that combines into this tired buzz, and you have truly unique physical feeling.  Your head is fuzzy and aches, your stomach trying to eats it’s way out after the 20 hours on duty and  adrenaline rushes have emptied your tank of anything you ate today or yesterday. The only lights are the bronze halogen streetlights that cast an eerie light that is somehow depressing. Your eyes feel as if someone has put a whole sand box under them each time you blink. All you want to do in the world is to lie down and go to sleep for just an uninterrupted hour. Just one silent quite hour.  Then through all of the fatigue, physical discomfort and just plain I don’t want to do this the radio in the truck blares.

            “Rescue 1 can you take another call.”

            You want to run screaming away from that radio to get away from another run, but you pick up the mike and say “Check”.

            “Unknown illness to a child. 1492 Paramore.”

            “Rescue 1 responding.”

            Through all the fatigue you flip on the lights and turn on the siren and head for the address. The box lights reflect off the windows of the stores and buildings of downtown as you head for the wrong side of things. Where you are the doctor to those that do not have the money or insurance for real doctors. It almost seems too melodramatic, red lights flashing on this night as the truck rushes through the empty streets.

When we turned on Amelia and went under the Interstate it was as if we had entered another reality one where you could almost taste the hopelessness, the anger and the frustration of these people who were so close to the money yet so far away. If any sense could capture the feeling of the poverty it was the sense of smell.  It is the reek of garbage in all the dimly lit hallways and outside on the dirt yards or the stench of urine in all back upped toilets. Poverty stinks and it can get in your nostrils and under your skin so even when you go home in the morning it ground into your so won’t come out.

            We find the address in front of a small two story apartment building. No lights are on, and everything seems locked up tight.  We cross the grey dirt strewn with beer cans and trash and walk up to the second story of the apartment on the concrete stairs. When we reach the apartment we each stand on either side of the door. You never stand in front of a door, you never know who is on the other side.

            “Fire Department. Did someone call?” I yell as I knock on the door.

            A girl immediately opens the door. She is somewhere in her late teens. She is holding a crying baby in her arms. A look of real concern is on her face.

            “What seems to be the problem?” I asked.

            “He’s running fever and coughing. I..”

            She handed me the baby and I looked down at him, I was immediately reminded of my own son at home. He felt exactly the same in my arms. The baby was hot to the touch, but not anymore than my own son the last time he ran a fever. We examined him and it looked as if the worst thing he had was a cold.

            “He’s fine. Looks like he has a cold. Do you have any Tylenol? It would make him sleep better tonight and you could take him to the doctor tomorrow?”

            “I don’t have any Tylenol?” her voice and the look on her face showed real fear.

            The concern and fear in her face let me know that what was really happening as much as anything. Here was a young girl all-alone with her first child and no one to go the drug store to get the Tylenol. She was out on a limb doing the best she could taking care of the baby by herself and had run out of energy dealing with the baby and herself. She needed some help. The apartment was clean and well furnished. It was obvious she was doing a good job no matter what her support system was day to day.

            “Look he is going to be fine he just need some Tylenol and some antibiotics. Do you want to go to the hospital with him?”

            “What do you think?”

            “Yes, I think that would be a good idea. We have an ambulance on the way do you want to go by ambulance?”

            “Yes. Yes I do.” the relief on her face was enormous. She just needed someone to help her solve a problem that had gotten too big for her to solve alone.

            As I stood there with the crying baby I could feel the relief in her as she gathered things for her diaper bag she would take to the hospital. She had the support she needed, it did not matter that it had came in a red rescue truck, she had someone to ask what to do and then they had the means to solve her problem. Not a big problem in scheme of things, but it was everything to her. When the ambulance arrived we walked her out to the rig and helped her into the back. It was not the type of problem the system was designed to handle, but it was the type of problem we faced daily. I resented these calls back then, because they took so much from you when you so little left in your tank. I was so tired and so ground down I would miss the meaning of them much of the time. But not this time, this time it stuck. No great skill needed or some show off medical decision-making, it took no special training just a willingness to help. It strange because now those are the ones that come to mind first when I think of the street now twenty-six years later.

The little ones that I thought I would forget as the big one piled on top, but its the little ones that come back. Only through years on the Street did I realize that maybe these have as lasting impression as the big ones. There were a lot more of these than the big ones, maybe why this one and the other little one stuck in the memory is the genuine appreciation for the help that was so apparent. With so many of the others the scenes were filled with anger at the system, resentment the of authority you represented, or frightening abdication of personal responsibility for even the most basic human survival skills, it was hard to glean out the fact that they did needed your help. So when these pure crystal clear moments happened they stand out through it all. The street does give back to you, but it buries them under the bad ones, the drunks, and the crazies, so if you are not paying close attention you loose them in all of the bullshit calls.


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