Book Excerpt: 'Emergency Laughter: Stories of Humor Inside Ambulances and Operating Rooms'

Mike Cyra shares a humorous look at language barriers on an emergency response for "Chicken Breath"

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Emergency Laughter: Stories of Humor Inside Ambulances and Operating Rooms." The author, Mike Cyra, shares lighter moments from his long career as an EMT and operating room technician.

The dispatcher didn’t know what the hell was happening on the other end of the phone. So, as an experienced dispatcher, she put the call out as a, “Person in Distress.”

She told us over the radio, that someone was screaming at her in a foreign language, and she didn’t know what the hell was going on.

That’s not unusual in emergency medicine. Nine times out of ten you don’t know exactly what you’re going to face until you get out of the ambulance.

We get to the address, get out of the ambulance, grab our equipment and start walking toward the house. A wild-eyed Latino man bursts out the front door and runs up to us screaming, “Chicken Breath, chicken breath!”

My partner looks at me and shrugs his shoulders. He turns to the man and yells, “Calm down! Slow down! What’s wrong?”  

The frantic man begins beating his chest with open hands and continues screaming, “Chicken breath, chicken breath!”

I squint at my partner and mouth, “Chicken breath?” The mental wheels begin turning as we attempt a mind-meld between us to try and figure out what the man means. My partner telepathically mouths to me, “Chicken breath?” I, in turn, telepathically mouth back, “Chicken breath?”

Our eyes lock in total concentration as we both tune out the screaming man. We look like two dogs that don’t understand what’s being said to them. Our heads tip to one side and then the other as we stare at each other with confused puppy dog expressions.

Chicken breath?

We banter back and forth for a second. “Chicken breast?”

“Chicken on his breath?”

“Could it be some new type of southern diabetes symptom?”

“You mean like Diabetic Chicken Acidosis?”

“Maybe he should try pork?”

“He’s got bad breath?”

“Breath mint?”

“Brush his teeth?”

“Chicken bone in his throat?”


We begin an unintentional game of charades: pulling at our ears (sounds like), touching our noses, holding up one and two fingers (first word-second word);


Finally the man grabs me by my arms and we face each other. He slows his speech down for me. “Chi…ken…breath!” I stare at his lips and my mouth forms the words with him. “Chee…kan… bre..ath…shee…can…bree…ath…she…can’t…bre…athe. She can’t breathe?”

I yell at the man, “Holy shit, she can’t breathe? Where? Where is she?” The man throws his hands toward the sky and shakes his head in relief. He yells out a string of Spanish words filled with Madre and Jesus and stupido Gringo chinga’s.

We get what he’s saying-- “Thank God, finally, you stupid no-habla- Espanola idiot turds, my wife can’t breathe!”

The three of us bum-rush the house like the Three Stooges. The only thing missing is the “Woo-woo-woo-woo” sound Curley makes.

In the kitchen I slide to a stop in front of an elderly woman with brown leathery skin who’s puffing on a cigarette. She’s breathing just fine.

She looks surprised to see me for a moment, but quickly returns to smoking her cigarette and ignoring me as if I had disappeared in a puff of smoke.

My partner skids up to me and I tell him, “This can’t be who he meant, she’s fine.” So we start a frantic search of the house, popping in and out of doors and going in circles from the kitchen to the living room, down a hallway and back into the kitchen where the woman is smoking and ignoring us.

I face the man and shake my hands in the air. “Where’s Chicken Breath?” He points at the cloud of smoke sitting at the kitchen table and shrugs, “Ees her! She no can breathe too well.”

My hand disappears into a cloud of smoke as I point at the woman. “This is who you called us for? There’s nobody else in the house that can’t breathe?”

He nods and smiles, “Si, Chicken Breath.”

“Yea, yea, I know, chicken breath.” I point at the old woman, “She can chicken breath just fine.”

Fearing I may have missed something in my haste, I wave my hands back and forth until I can see the old woman clearly through the smoke. I feel my partner lean into me and say out of the side of his mouth, “I think she no can breathe too well just fine!”

The man steps forward and shakes his finger at us, “She no can breathe too well when you not here. When she have smoke, she breathe, finish smoke, she no breathe. She smoke, she breathe, she no smoke, she no breathe.”

I force myself to stop and settle down and take a deep breath of second-hand smoke. I feel better now that we’ve ruled out any other people in the house who might be turning blue, so I turn my full attention on the smoldering old woman.  

I move across the table from her. I smile and she scowls back. I don’t need a stethoscope to hear her lungs.  When she breathes in, it sounds like little children on a swing set screaming “weeeeeee.”  When she breathes out, it sounds like the winds of hurricane Katrina from under water.

I reach for her cigarette and say, “Can we just put this out for a minute, por favor?”

The cigarette is in her right hand, and she pulls it away from me. Her upper lip pulls up slightly exposing her teeth and she slowly shakes her head back and forth at me.

I notice her left hand inching toward a large metal serving fork that’s on the table in front of her.

I have to admit, the old woman is intimidating. I get her message: “Touch my cigarette and I’ll put this fork through your forehead.”

I back off and say, “OK let’s not touch your cigarette.”

Making sure to not lose sight of her through the haze of smoke, I turn my head slightly, and ask my partner if he’d like to do the physical exam and get some vitals.

I’ve never seen him move that fast. He lurches backward and says, “Oh hell no! She likes you. You already got a rapport going with her. You’re like a grandson or something to her. Listen, if she stabs you, I’ll drag your body out of here before she can put cigarette burns all over your face, I promise. But I’m not touching her. I have a wife and newborn baby to think about.”

“You’ve been divorced for five years and your mutt just had a litter of puppies. Don’t give me that!”

He keeps his eyes locked on the woman’s hand near the fork.

“Whatever, same thing. You’re on your own dude, work your magic.”

I wait while the woman lights a new cigarette with the glowing ember of her last one. I decide on a hands-off approach. “Can you take a deep breath for me?”

She shrugs a “sure” and puts the cigarette to her mouth. She hits it so hard her cheeks dimple in and then balloon out as she fills her mouth with smoke. I can feel the heat on my face from the bright orange cherry.

Then she inhales the smoke so deeply into her lungs, I feel like I’m looking down into the Grand Canyon. She holds it…holds it… and then exhales a huge geyser of smoke into my face.

I smoked for years and I know this insult well. There are many variations of this snub but the meaning is pretty universal, “Get the hell outta my face and leave me alone, asshole. Unless, of course, you wanna get forked.”

Temporarily blinded, I decide to wander off and see if another room has breathable air in it.

As I wait for the dizziness to go away, I start picking up empty and expired pill bottles scattered around the room. Medications for the heart, lungs, diabetes, blood pressure, you name it. All the bottles have the Chimney’s name on them.

Every ounce of frustration flows out of me. Her husband comes into the room and gives me a look that stabs my heart and he says, “She not chicken breath so well sometime.”

I look into his eyes and I smile at him. I understand now.

My voice softens, “OK, you know what? I think we need to take her to the hospital and get her checked out. Get her medications refilled. Maybe get her hypnotized for a couple of days or see if the electro-shock-therapy guys are doing anything. Sound like a plan?”

His eyes well up and he nods his head. He takes a big deep breath of second-hand smoke and exhales loudly. I can tell it’s a sigh of relief.

I get it. This is a man who loves his woman deeply, and maybe sees her, and his world, dying in front of his eyes.

He doesn’t have the means to get her the help she needs and maybe this is the only way he can get her to go see a doctor - by duping some guy like me with an ambulance into risking life and lungs on the hope that the old woman might not have the strength or eyesight to stab, beat or severely burn the next person who makes the mistake of telling her what to do.

She was a stubborn old mule, but she was his stubborn old mule and he loved her just enough to throw this silly ambulance gringo who didn’t understand perfectly fine English right under the bus.

It wasn’t easy, but the three of us got the Cloud disarmed, extinguished, on the gurney and to the hospital without anyone getting forked, set ablaze or blown up.

I smelled like a cigarette for months after that call.


Emergency Laughter: Stories of Humor Inside Ambulances and Operating Rooms
Copyright 2015 Mike Cyra
Available on Amazon 

About the author

Mike Cyra is the author of the bestselling EMS humor eBook series Emergency Laughter – It Wasn’t Funny When it Happened, But it is Now and Stories of Humor Inside Ambulances and Operating Rooms. Mike is a former EMT, Bering Sea medic, surgical technologist and maritime emergency medicine instructor. Find all of Mike’s books on Amazon or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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