A heart I lost keeps beating in the father of another lifesaver

A nurse caring for my wife reveals that the ripple that started on a tragic night long ago at the bottom of an escalator beats with a steady rhythm

Editor's Note: What we do as EMS providers matters. It makes a difference in the lives of our patients and their families. Unfortunately, EMS providers rarely receive affirmation for the work they have done; especially when the patient does not survive their injury or illness. But there are rare times when the gratittude comes back to us in unexpected ways. Make sure to read about the patient Morse refers to in this column and how he cared for her 12 years earlier at a Providence mall

It’s early in the morning; the sun peeks through our hospital room window. I’m looking at the blinds - they’re half-way up - and consider if it’s worth the effort to walk to the window and lower them. I’m fairly certain that I could sleep on the surface of the sun, so I don’t bother. I look at the mechanical bed, see that my wife is resting comfortably, adjust the recliner and close my eyes. Unconsciousness is immediate, but difficult to hold on to.

The events of the previous night replay in my mind as sleep deepens: the 911 call, the ambulance at my door, Capt. Mello from the Warwick (R.I.) Fire Department taking charge of the woman I have known and loved for 30 years. I never thought that anything could happen that we couldn’t handle, together. I thought wrong.

Giving up control is, it turns out, far easier than I ever would have imagined.I take my place in the background of my home as the crew from Engine Co. 6 carries her into the night and into the waiting ambulance. Darkened windows hide the silhouettes of my neighbors whose curiosity compels them to look outside, and see what’s going on. I don’t blame them; I have been in their shoes a number of times over the years as neighbors succumb to what ails them, and have to be taken away.

It was a long night in the ER, first the chaos at triage, then the solitude of a private room that my colleagues at the hospital found for us. It’s funny how we stick together. A series of doctors, starting with the first-year intern, then the fourth-year, finally the attending physician whose very presence let us know that the severity of our situation was indeed real. The doctors ordered tests, and delivered pain meds through the nursing staff, and we sat by ourselves for the most part and kept each other company as the clock slowly moved from 11 to midnight, then through the early morning hours where the later it got, the earlier it got.

Being admitted into the hospital was a relief, but not without concern. The abdominal pain that Cheryl had experienced, and which had prompted the 911 call, wasn’t going away. The CAT scan, ultrasound and blood work proved inconclusive, so into the system we went, and we were whisked off to “the floor.”

All-nighters are nothing new to me, and sleeping in a chair can be rather comfortable. The 15 minute night’s sleep reminded me of the times that I was on duty, but in a far different role. I listened with one ear as the day shift nurse introduced herself to Cheryl, and went over her medical records. Ciata spoke with a faint Liberian accent, and I found the lyrical quality of her voice comforting. I opened an eye to take a look at the woman who would be caring for my wife, immediately felt at peace and fell soundly asleep.

The beat goes on

Life moves slowly when you are a patient and have been admitted. The doctors make their rounds in the morning, develop a plan, order tests and wait for the results. The patients simply wait.

By the end of the first day in captivity Cheryl’s pain had not lessened, and the excruciating and debilitating nature of it made it impossible for us to go home safely. The tests she endured were inconclusive, so we stayed another day. Ciata was a welcome presence in our lives for those days we spent in limbo. We shared a professional relationship until the third day of our term. We had finally turned on the TV and were watching the track and field championships, or something like that; neither of us was well versed in that world. Ciata on the other hand participated in the sport and loved it.

“Kenya must be winning. They always win,” she said, smiling, glancing at the TV as she went about her tasks. That comment opened up a great conversation, prompted by Cheryl, who has a knack for digging deeply into people’s life stories, all while making them comfortable telling things about themselves. Ciata’s story was fascinating; among other things she has four children, and insists they excel.  

“My father taught us that education is everything,” she said. “He almost didn’t have the chance to tell us that. If not for some poor girl who lost her life 12 years ago.” The way she talked about her father made it clear that he is a wonderful man. “You might remember the story; a young girl fell from the escalators at the Providence Place Mall…”

I felt my heart stop beating. Remember? I have never forgotten. The memories that developed because of that “poor young girl” have bounced around my head for over a decade. Some calls stay with you, and her fall was one of those. I remember every detail, the sight, the smells, the emotionally charged atmosphere. I remember feeling the crushed skull, the lifeless eyes, her outfit, her fiancé’s ashen skin as he looked on, helplessly. I remember it all, like it was happening as Ciata spoke.

“They won’t tell us for sure if it is her heart that beats in my father’s chest, but I know. In here.” She bumped the middle of her chest with her hand, right where the heart is.

I remember thinking that I should let her rest. I remember looking at her friends, and her fiancé. I remember saying “start CPR” to the crew. I remember their own expressions as we began the grim task, knowing that in the end it wouldn’t matter.

A second chance

But it did matter. It was up to me whether or not to begin the lifesaving efforts that would ultimately lead to a second chance at life for the father of the woman who now stood at the foot of my wife’s hospital bed. I simply didn’t have the heart to let the poor young girl’s story end at the bottom of a 40-foot escalator on a cold, desolate mall floor.

So her story goes on, her heart keeping a vibrant, educated and productive man alive. He has the heart of a young girl, he jokes with his family, but never forgetting his good fortune. He takes care of his heart; he eats well, exercises and takes all of the recommended medications. His life is important, just as the young girl’s was. I thought of how fortunate I was to have found Ciata, and to have learned about the fate of a heart that very well could have died those 12 years ago without ever having the chance to beat life into a man, his friends and his family.

We stayed at the hospital for four days. Cheryl’s pain began to diminish shortly after the third day. More tests are in our future, but we may never discover what caused it. We did, however, find that through loss, much can be gained. Where there is grief, joy can follow. A broken heart has the ability to transcend place, and find purpose, and keep another person alive.

I’m glad we got to know Ciata. The miracle of this existence never fails to amaze me. Every act we perform has a ripple effect, often we will never know where that wave will go. But this time, I found out.  The ripple that started that night long ago at the bottom of an escalator beats with a steady rhythm. I’m beginning to believe that it will continue to grow, and will never stop.

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