Saving a life with ‘the monkey on my belt’

It never occurred to me that the voice over my radio was anything but annoying to my patients, never mind someone’s salvation

He wasn’t always an alcoholic, he said, eyes downcast, voice barely audible. He went on, telling us of a childhood spent in foster homes and orphanages due to his birth parent’s inability to provide proper care for him and his twin siblings.

“Back in the late 50s and early 60s foster parents were more interested in the check than the child,” he said, without any resentment. “I spent a lot of my childhood kneeling on clothespins in a corner, the backs of my thighs red and covered with welts.”

I listened, mesmerized. He went on to tell of a life that spiraled out of control as the years added up, leading him to a stint in the Air Force in 1972 and marriage shortly thereafter. He spared me the details, saying only that he slowly but steadily had lost all control over his ability to handle alcohol.

“If my wife left me today, she would have every reason to do so,” he said. “I wouldn’t blame her.”

On Christmas, 2010 he sat in his recliner, alone, his family gone for the day, his body full of Bacardi and his mind full of thoughts of ending it all.

“I had lost all hope. There was nothing. My wife, my daughter, my granddaughter were all having Christmas dinner with her family, the very people who had taken me in, and treated me with love and dignity. I repaid them by drinking. I had ruined another Christmas with my behavior. I wanted to die.”

The drink didn’t kill him though; he drank as much and as quickly as he could, trying to bring on acute alcohol poisoning. He failed at that, too. When his family came home and found him he was unconscious and unable to be woken up. In desperation they called 911.

“I don’t remember much from that night,” he told me. “But what I do recall I will never forget for as long as I live. Somehow, through the fog I had created I heard voices. I knew, somewhere deep down that those voices were coming from the radios that the EMT’s wore on their belts. I thought; maybe there’s a chance. I thought maybe I don’t want to die after all.”

I thought of all of the times that my radio clacked incessantly as I distractedly went about my job in the homes of similar people, and similar families. It never occurred to me that that annoying voice in the speaker was anything but annoying to the person I had been called to treat. What to me was radio chatter was to my patient the voice of God as he understood him. And in a way, we were the hands of God as we understood him, carrying out his wishes.

“I decided to go with them,” he said. “I didn’t have to, nobody could make me. I wasn’t hurting anybody, and I wasn’t visibly injured. But the voices from those radios spoke to me, and began the journey that saved my life.”

He hasn’t had a drink since that night. His family has been rediscovered, and he has made amends to the best of his ability. Life is still difficult, but he feels that he had been given another chance at living it right this time.

We have a truck full of life saving devices and medications, and years of education and experience at our disposal. I never knew that one of those life saving tools was what I used to refer to as the monkey on my belt.

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