Norm Rooker’s piece on Ghosts got me thinking about the two EMS ghosts I’ve been carrying with me for a long while and whether or not it might be time to share their stories.
They are both old ghosts of young men who died many years ago long before their time.
One them died anonymously as the police still hadn’t confirmed his identity before he bled out before my eyes. The other was someone I knew by first name and who I talked to on the long ride to the ER where he later surrendered to the massive trauma his body had incurred.
In the course of my long career as a paramedic, I never collected souvenirs. I wasn’t a patch collector. I didn’t hold onto all the t-shirts accumulated over the years, services and stations I called temporary homes.
And yet, I’ve got tangible reminders to remember both of my ghosts.
There’s the stethoscope from the ICU at the long-since-shuttered Reddy Memorial Hospital and there’s the copy of my Bethany College yearbook from 1985.
There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent the deaths of my ghosts. They were probably doomed from the start of the moment that stretched into a life-but-mainly-death struggle that came in the midst of what were likely happy and exciting times in their respective lives.
There was no reversing the kind of trauma each of their bodies experienced and nothing we could do as paramedics would have changed the ultimate outcome of our encounters with one another.
The kid who died in the ER at the Reddy Memorial Hospital was in his late teens or early 20s. He wasn’t even our patient. It was early in 1980. We had rolled into the Reddy with a minor medical patient and were cleaning up and completing paperwork.
The Reddy was a throwback to another time when hospitals were smaller and ERs had both regular patients and staff. The Reddy was the go-to ER for many of the poorest neighbourhoods in the southwest part of Montreal. We were Reddy Regulars. We got along well with the docs, the nurses, the orderlies and the registration staff. The Reddy handled more ETOH and drug OD patients than many of the other ERs in the city – and they had their sh*t together on an OD. There were some great docs and nurses who called The Reddy home.
That afternoon we were cleaning up in the ER and getting ready to get back on our rig when a car pulled up. The back door opened and the first thing I noticed was all the blood. There was a fine mist of blood sprayed on the seat, the windows, and the ceiling. There was a kid in the backseat and he seemed to be the source for all the blood.
We got him onto a gurney and hauled him into the resusc room. He was as pale as the fresh-from-the-laundry sheets stacked on the shelves. Every time he took an agonizing breath, the blood would spray out of a hole in his chest like some surreal whale coming up for air inside his gut. Turns out he’d taken a steel-jacketed military round to the chest and while his friends were hauling him up the road to the much-better-equipped trauma center at the Montreal General Hospital, they saw our ambulances and made a spur of the fucked-up moment detour to The Reddy Memorial.
We helped them code him. We called for back-up. In a surreal scene, another one of our rigs responded to The Reddy’s ER.
Of course, it didn’t matter what we did. That round had come from an M-16 and had already ripped through his lung and out his back leaving a rather ragged reminder of why it’s so damned important to make weapons safe before posing combat-style with them. The young man bled out while his sucking chest wound played a symphony of wheezing and gurgling sounds until they became lost in the cacaphony of the sideways splish-and-splosh of uniform boots in blood on a linoleum floor, beeping alarms and overhead pages going out on the hospital’s PA system.
He died. He was probably dead when he arrived but his brain had forgot to shut down his heart and lungs so they continued the charade for a while until they, too became exhausted with keeping up appearances and called it a day.
My other ghost was named David although I knew him as Mac.
I was in my Senior year at Bethany College. A friend was visiting me from back home in Montreal. We worked as rescue-medics in Montreal together and Mike had come out to West Virginia to spend a bit of time with me.
We were at a party up at one of the residences when a page came in for a car wreck. I remember asking around for a car so I could get down to the fire station. I think we took my friend Matt’s car. Mike came with me and we rolled down the hill into the hollow that led down into town.
We never made it to the fire station.
It was a scene straight out of hell. A Jeep Cherokee with four or five students aboard had crashed violently. I seem to remember that the vehicle somehow surfed the guardrail for a long distance before rolling over. In the intervening years my brain has done me the favour of erasing many of the details but I believe Mac was ejected from the wreckage headfirst.
I don’t remember what happened to my friend Mike. One moment I was on my way to the fire hall. The next I was up to my elbows in really bad shit and whatever it was would leave a stain on my consciousness forever.
I ended up being part of the EMS crew caring for Mac. I remember talking to him. I don’t remember if he ever replied. It’s a long-ago increasingly foggy nightmarish memory now. I remember telling his fraternity brothers that it didn’t look good in a brutal understatement of the gravity of the situation.
There wasn’t anything we could have done that would have changed the outcome. Once that SUV began to defy the law of gravity it was pretty much a done deal. Mac died forever young. I seem to remember – not really sure but I think so – his parents chose to donate his organs so there may yet be a bit of Mac roaming around out there somewhere.
Those are my EMS ghosts. They are quite courteous and don’t visit me unless I beckon them first, as I did this afternoon. It will be a long while before I call on them again.
Be well. Practice big medicine.
PS. If you have EMS ghosts of your own and would like to share, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need to talk with someone who knows what a burden carrying ghosts can be, please visit the Tema Conter Memorial Trust website. There are excellent resources available and Executive Director Vince Savoia always has time to help an emergency services provider in need of support.
A typical night
Enrico Colantoni and TEMA