Why the ghost of a little girl now comforts instead of haunts
I realize that maybe she kept coming back because she had felt the love in my hands as I tried to save her
By Tami Bulik, Lakota Ambulance, EMT-A, 30+ years in EMS
This story reveals how piece by piece I learned to deal with the ghosts that follow me around … how I was finally helped by a friend to look at my ghosts differently ...
I anxiously watched the clock’s second hand slowly ticking off the seconds until this shift was over and my ears strained to hear the sound of my replacement driving in the gravel driveway. Thinking “to Hell with the call gods,” I packed up my duffel bag that had become strewed around the on-call bedroom during the 48-hour shift and silently dared the call gods to page me out for another call in these last 15 minutes.
It’s common knowledge after all that if you pack up your duty bag before your shift is over, you are practically guaranteeing yourself another call. But not this time. This time the call gods must have sensed the looming breakdown. They must have known what I did not know. Whatever it was, they waited until 11 minutes after I punched out to drop the tones and page the rig out to an assault on the other side of the reservation.
As EMS6 lumbered out of the driveway with lights and sirens blaring I tossed my duty bag into the backseat of my car and slid exhaustedly into the driver’s seat. If this hadn’t been a “shift from hell,” I may have even felt a little bit of guilt about not even offering to assist the EMT on call. But I didn’t. Not this time. This time all I could think about was getting home. Home to a few hours of solitude and the possibility of sleep until it was time to pick up my son from daycare.
Shifting the car into gear I followed the rig’s tracks down the snow-covered driveway and turned in the opposite direction it had taken and began the long journey home. Four hours of traveling time that I usually enjoyed and used to clear my mind of the events of my shift. Four hours of “me time,” time to think about what I wanted to think about or daydream about anything. Sometimes I cranked the radio up and popped in my favorite CD, but this time I wanted solitude. There was a fresh layer of sparkling snow covering the trash and thrown out garbage that littered the sides of the road here and everything was glittering with the sun’s reflection on the pure snow. I didn’t want to ruin the fresh beauty of the day so I left the radio off and in the silence I admired what a beautiful job God had done creating this land.
Driving along the road and listening to the muffled sound my tires made as they hummed along on the freshly fallen snow, I was slowly decompressing and transitioning myself from EMT to mom. I was closing all the doors and lowering all the walls that kept my EMS life, and all the horror and tragedy that I see in it, away from my real life. I could feel the tension leaving my shoulders as I caught a glimpse of a bald eagle soaring through the crisp spring air over the pastures and rolling hills surrounding me. Just as a former partner of mine had taught me, I tossed a cigarette fresh from my pack out the window as an offering to the spirit of the eagle and whispered a quick prayer and began to feel a peaceful blanket cover me in warmth and chase away the chill of the last 48 hours.
I decided that if I got home early enough this afternoon I would pick my son up from daycare and take him to Wylie Park for the day instead of going home to sleep. I smiled thinking about how he loved going there and seeing all the animals and playing in the fairy tale worlds they had so skillfully created. The sun was warming the air enough now to create a beautiful effect that made the snow sparkle and glitter like ice crystals and light up everything around it. Today was going to be a wonderful day.
And then I came to the curve. The curve where 22 hours ago there had been a tragic accident. The curve where we had scooped up the tiny body of a 3-year-old girl who had been thrown from the back window of the car her drunk mother had rolled while trying to negotiate the curve at a high rate of speed. I tried not to look at it. I tried not to let my anger at the mother and the pain of losing the child fill me with sorrow. I tried to keep those feelings on the other side of the wall I had built in my soul. Tried to keep them where they belonged and contained to a different part of me.
But my eyes were drawn to a tiny little pink cross with white flowers on it standing there, like a brave little soldier surrounded by busted car pieces and empty beer cans and random pieces of paper. Silently standing guard in the middle of the ditch and daring me not to care. Daring me to drive by without letting the walls come down and reliving the entire call in my mind. Daring me to not shed a tear, to not to feel the anger I had felt earlier towards the mother. And the wall in my soul crumpled and buckled under the weight of the memory of those beautiful brown eyes of the child glazing over as the life drained from her body beneath my hands.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road and dissolved into a ball of sobbing tears and gasping breaths for air. The sadness and the futility of the fight to save the little girl’s life filled my entire being and I cried for at least an hour. I let the tears flow and the emotions take over as I sat in my parked car and stared at that tiny little cross so bravely marking the spot where a beautiful little girl had lain just hours before all crumpled and broken.
I ran the entire call through my mind again and again, critiquing everything I had done, everything I hadn’t done. I questioned myself if there was anything I missed, anything I could have done differently. I knew that I had done everything I could and had given her every chance I could to live, but I still couldn’t make a difference. I cried as I remembered seeing the mother’s expressionless face as she lay on the long spine board secured to the bench seat beside her dying little girl. Uncaring, unaware, or maybe just unable to feel the pain, or understand that she had just killed her baby. Maybe her life was so miserable that she didn’t expect anything less than to lose a precious little girl that she had given life to. My mind replayed how she had screamed at me to give her something for the pain in her leg while I was trying to intubate her little girl. How she had called me a “white bitch who didn’t give a damn about her” when I was doing compressions on a tiny little chest that was crumpled and broken inside. I once again felt the cold grip of her hand as she grabbed my arm while her daughter took her last breath and demanded that I call her ex-boyfriend and tell him his “baby girl” was dead.
I felt the empty hollowness in the pit of my stomach that I had when my partner and I had walked past the trauma room that held that tiny little body on the cold metal steel bed, covered with a white blanket and lying all alone while her mother cursed out the hospital staff across the hallway from her.
I worried about my partner and recalled the hollowness in her voice when I asked her in the rig on the way home if she was okay and she shrugged her shoulders and said “yeah.” I told her I was going to call a CISM (critical incident stress management) team in and she shrugged her shoulders again and said “I won’t come anyway,” and I tried to talk to her knowing full well that she wouldn’t talk about it until she was ready. I knew she would just go home and call up her buddies and they’d go out and get drunk and there wasn’t anything I could do about. I looked over at her and I told her, “You know you’re like a little sister to me right?” and she shrugged and nodded her head. I knew she would be calling in “sick” to work for our shift next weekend and I probably wouldn’t see her again until she had dealt with this in her own way. “You know I love you right?” another nod, but this time without the shrug to her shoulders. A small victory. A small acknowledgment that she knew how much I cared about her and wanted to help her whenever she was ready. And we rode the rest of the trip back to the bay in silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts as the headlights of the rig guided us through the dark cold night back home.
I wiped the tears from my eyes and began to close the memories and feelings back up behind the wall in my soul, and I stared at that little pink cross in the middle of the glittering snow and prayed that whoever had placed it there had shown the little girl some measure of love. I prayed that in her short life there had been someone there to give her some measure of happiness. And I told her that I was sorry that I couldn’t keep her alive and that she will always be loved by me and that her memory will be carried in my heart. And finally, I asked her to forgive me and I wished her a safe journey to a place where I knew she would be happy and feel a glorious love. Then I put my car back into gear and continued my journey home.
The cross is probably gone by now, but I have carried her memory in my heart since that day. Several years and many calls later, I have finally become friends with her spirit that has visited me many times since that tragic night. She always seemed to come in the dead of the night, or in moments of great stress when I felt like I was all alone and couldn’t do this job anymore. At first it would make me sad and make me question why I even kept putting the uniform on and why I was going out to do this job over and over again until I finally talked to a friend about her.
I told him how I felt she was pleading with me and asking me why I let her die. I told her how she always seemed to show up when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore and he asked me if maybe I was looking at it the wrong way. He helped me to look at in a different way and realize that maybe she kept coming back because she had felt the love in my hands as I tried to save her. Maybe she kept coming back because I was the only one here that had shown her true and selfless love, helping her with no thoughts of any reward in return. Maybe she was coming back to tell me it was okay. That she knew I could not have saved her. Maybe she was telling me thank you. And now she comforts me instead of haunts me. She helps me to be a better provider and reminds me that this is the job I love, this is where I was meant to be.
She is piece of me, she comforts me, and I will carry her forever in my heart.