Unexpected salute during a well-being check

Often the person we’re dispatched to assist is beyond assistance, but the elderly are also full of surprises

One of the more difficult calls to respond to is to check the well-being of an elderly person living alone. The 911 call usually comes from a son or daughter who is concerned about their elderly parent who they haven’t heard from in a while. Usually the caller is from out of state. More often than not, the person we’re dispatched to assist is beyond assistance. We just never know what to expect.

“Rescue 1 and Engine 10, Respond to 911 Seventh Street to check the well-being of an elderly male.”

I keyed the mic, Ryan hit the lights and sirens and we were on our way. The engine company arrived on scene a few moments before we did; we exchanged pleasantries and did a quick inspection. A car was in the driveway, and a few lights were on inside the house. The yard was well kept and the house appeared to be inhabited. We forced open a storm door and entered the home through the rear.

"Fire department!" I shouted, piercing the quiet.

A low moan came from somewhere and the search was on. The guys from Engine 10 went one way, Ryan and I the other. Something that never changes, be it a fire, inspection or rescue run, companies stick together. We found him first, lying at the bottom of the stairs.

"What are you doing down there?" I asked the man, a gray haired fellow with ashen skin.

"I went to get a drink and my legs gave out. Damndest thing."

His place was full of things that helped define him. American flags. Books and newspapers. A U.S. Navy cap perched on a hook near the front door. A Vietnam Veterans tribute. Walking sticks, canes and a walker, folded, sitting in a corner gathering dust.

"We're going to get you up and take you to the hospital, you don't look so hot," I said.

"I was afraid this day was coming,” he said. "Make sure you lock the place up."

We checked for trauma, put him on oxygen, sat him in a stair chair and carried him outside, into the cold.

"Do you want me to turn out the lights?"

He looked at me like my father would have. I smiled and flicked off the switch.


Just as his possessions gave me an indication of who he was, his vital signs helped me know how he was feeling. His answers didn't match the way he looked. His signs sealed it. 110/70. Not bad for an old guy who just got taken out of his house in a rescue. EKG was irregular, normal sinus with some runs of a-fib. The kicker was the pulsox: 72 percent.

"We're going to give you some more oxygen and start an IV."

"Good idea," he said. "I'm having some chest pain too."

"Why didn't you say so?"

"You didn't ask."

"Scale of 1-10."

"Two or three."

"Get out of here!" Guys like this are the kings of understatement.


"That's better. One nitro coming up."

"My lungs are shot," he said. "Spent a lot of time in the boiler room of an oiler in the Pacific Asbestos. The Japs and submarines couldn't get me but the damn asbestos did."

"Took it 80 years."

"It's been a heck of a ride," he said with a grin. It was a relatively short trip to the ER, and we rode in comfortable silence. We went straight to critical care room, where a medical team went to work. Victoria, one of the techs was ready.

"I'm going to help you get out of your clothes," she said.

He sat there and smiled, surrendering to whatever fate his body had in store.

"Been a while since you heard that," I said to him before heading out. His grin was one of the things that makes this job so special.

"Are you a captain?" he asked, spotting my bars.

"I am."

He gave a crisp salute and held it until I returned the gesture.

I'm glad I shined my bars, I thought, as Victoria pulled his shirt over his head.

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