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The calls that matter the most

EMS1.com News

February 03, 2013


Behind the Patient: Street Portraits
by Michael Morse

The calls that matter the most

The calls that matter most are the ones that change the way I act

By Michael Morse

It's a long shift, lots of time for reflection. Funny what runs through your mind when you least expect it. Though I love winter, the evidence of our mortality is everywhere, and it sinks into my subconscious mind leaving plenty of open space for melancholy. Autumn's dying is done, spring's re-birth is months away and the cold is relentless.

But there is always hope. Time's relentless march, and the memory of people I have lost long before I should have makes me appreciate what I have here and now, and puts some urgency in the way I handle my relationships with those who mean the world to me.

The people who enter my world through the 911 system are constant reminders of what could have been, and what needs to be.

The old lady on the stretcher slipped in and out of consciousness as we rode toward the hospital. Her daughter leaned over from the bench seat, stroked her mother's forehead and held her hand. I felt like an intruder, sitting behind them in the Captain's seat, filling out the report, but they didn't seem to mind my presence. Their bond was far stronger than anything I had experienced with either of my parents.

Being present during such moments is truly a gift, one that we can open, and embrace, and learn from, and be better for, or leave closed and lose ourselves in the minutia of paperwork or daydreams that often serve as a handy distraction. I mechanically filled in the spaces on the sheet; I could do so in my sleep, and watched.

The lady in the stretcher had lived her life, and now it was nearly done. She is 81 years old and not in the best of health. This is her third trip to the hospital this month; she had been passing out and falling for no reason. Her daughter looked intently into her mother's eyes as we rode, and her mother looked back.

No words needed to be spoken, they knew. They just knew. It was obvious, and beautiful. Letting a parent go is never easy. My own mother suffered a major stroke at 56 and lingered for another nine years in a nursing home, never regaining her sense of self.

As the ride neared its end, I watched the two interact more closely. It occurred to me that the 25 or so years that were stolen from my mother and me, and all of us, could have been used to heal old wounds, get to know each other and enter into a more adult relationship.

I envied the opportunity these two had but was happy for them as well. Watching them, and feeling their closeness, and being given the opportunity to be present as time for them ran out, gracefully but relentlessly, made my own loss easier to bear.

An hour earlier I had taken another elderly person from his home, also accompanied by a daughter. They too had that special bond. She helped him walk to the rescue; he insisted on walking, even though his weakened legs barely held him up. The daughter was able to take care of the father now, and he let her, grateful for the assistance.

My own father died when I was 28. I had barely grown up, tried to be there for him during his year-long battle with cancer, and did the best I could.

But I now know that at 28 the best I could do wasn't nearly as good as it could be, now that I've lived and experienced life for 20 more years. Father and daughter rode together in my truck, comfortable in each other's presence as I sat alone behind them.

I said goodbye to my patients, wished them well and got ready for the next one. Then I called home.

A little later, Zack, from Rescue 4 called; somebody got murdered in front of Crossroads. Nothing he could do this time, just declare the man dead and move on to the next one. The city had been quiet for an hour or two, and then something happened. I swear a pulse or something unseen permeates the atmosphere and drives people to do insane things.

We keep in touch during the long shifts, phone calls between runs, catching up at the emergency room loading docks, blowing off steam, sharing news, talking about the latest emergencies.

The "good" calls with the mother and daughter and father and daughter brought me back to the present, got my head out of automatic pilot, and put things back into perspective.

I need people in my life. Without those relationships, this nuthouse I call work will take over and leave a bitter, resentful person where an engaged, healthy man should be.

As Zack transported a man who had his head split open with a machete' to Rhode Island Hospital, I sat in the back of Rescue 1 on the way to Miriam ER with a man who had just tried to kill himself with a knife and Theresa and John at Rescue 5 were tied up with another suicidal knife-wielding patient.

Six hours to go. Except for a few hours, I've been here since Friday, dozens of calls, a few emergencies, little sleep. Some calls are memorable, some just get lost in the flow of things and some stay with you long past shifts end.

It's those calls that matter most, the ones with the ability to change the way I act, and compel me to talk to people, both the ones still with me, and the ones long gone. 

About the author

Michael Morse is a rescue captain with the Providence Fire Department and the author of Rescuing Providence and Responding. He has worked on engine, ladder and rescue companies during his 21-year career. His current assignment is Rescue Company 5. Michael blogs at RescuingProvidence.com.
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