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The EMS call that broke me

I don’t even remember the drive over to the hospital, but I do recall how quickly the doctor halted all efforts


Photo/City of Houston

By Uniform Stories

This is a guest post from Matthew Heneghan. Visit his Medic Memoirs Facebook Page here.

It was late into our shift. The squawking of the sirens broke the stillness of night, and we began navigating each city corner with haste. It seemed like the shortest response time I have ever had as a paramedic.

We made our way to a small residential section just off one of the main roads by the stadium where our football team plays. It was the heart of substance abuse and blue collar nestled into one area.

We were the first on scene, and although I could hear other sirens, I wished that they were closer. I began grabbing gear and mentally preparing myself for the scenario at hand.

As we crested the top of the porch stairs I saw her: the small, 8-month-old little girl. She was lifeless on the living room floor, wearing a pink onesie, her arms splayed out to either side, eyelids half-open, her mouth drooped toward the same side as her head was tilted. She looked almost like a doll, a toy.

My partner walked with purpose and readied at the head of the little girl. No pulse, I began CPR. She was so small, I felt like I could break her. Not just break ribs like we are supposed to, but really break her. And in a way, that broke me.

She was still warm, I could feel that through my gloves. I kept looking at her, just wanting her to miraculously wake up and start crying.

ems call that broke me, baby hand

Other members of the team showed up now — firefighters first, then a second response unit, and then a one-man paramedic unit, and finally a supervisor. All hands on deck.

I had a firefighter take over compressions and was now free to assist my partner. The pediatric pads were placed on, even though they were almost too big. It was an odd sight to see, such a small person with so many hands on her, with no expression. Her Dora the Explorer onesie looked new, and it likely was, until we ruined it with our trauma shears that we used to cut it away from her.

We couldn’t get a line. We tried, and we needed one, so we used the bone drill to drill into the little girl’s leg. It was an odd thing really, watching a drill puncture its way through the little girl’s skin, but a necessary thing for sure. We now had a line, and I was prepping the Epi. The fight was on. Death was in the lead, but we fought back.

My partner was a skilled paramedic with a cool head, so even amidst chaos, I felt at ease with what we were doing, and we did it well. I looked up for a moment and saw that the other response unit that had shown up was a friend of mine. Another sense of relief. I pushed a dose of Epi and the firefighter carried on with CPR, then I went outside to get a stretcher with my friend.

“Beer on days off brother?” I asked him as we wheeled the stretcher to the door with spine board in tow and placed it by the steps to the house, ready for our precious cargo.

He agreed before we jogged up the stairs to rejoin the battle. Back inside, the chaos was still raging, an organized chaos with a calm concentration of brilliant minds. We pressed rapidly and repeatedly on this little girl’s chest, but Death was winning.

I remember feeling as though we were on scene for a long time, but I would later learn that was not the case. I don’t even remember the drive over to the hospital, but I do recall how quickly the hand-over in the trauma room was, and how quickly the doctor halted all efforts. He was so calm about it. Callous, maybe?

ems call that broke me, trauma room

I looked at him with resentment and hostility, but I knew it wasn’t his fault. I knew he was right. I knew we were not even fighting death, because death had already won. But we tried. We tried with what little hope resides within us.

I stood there for a second and surveyed the bed that this little girl was now in. Her face had not changed, her mouth was still open but it was different now with the tiniest of tubes sticking out, her eyes still somewhat open, seeing nothing.

This small lifeless being, laying on that bed atop a full-sized spine board — a perplexing site. Young children should not die, but they do. Young children should not get sick, but they do. Young children should not be allowed to hurt, but they do.

My mind can justify seeing a full-grown body on that very same board, in that very same bed, with those very same tubes and wires, but my heart is at odds with my mind when looking at this little girl. She barely takes a quarter of that board. It shouldn’t be this way, but it was, it is.

I exited the room and walked through the corridor where other medics on shift stood and sat in the hallway with their patients during offload delay. I could feel them looking at me, maybe even wanting to say something. But they didn’t, not then anyway.

As I restocked in preparation for the next call — yes, there would be a next call, we still had a long night left — I walked over to the locked cabinet that housed our resupply and began restocking the bags when a soft voice entered my ears from behind me.

“My hands are shaking.”

I spun around to see who it was. It was the supervisor from the call. She also took part in all of that madness. I turned back and continued doing what I was doing but responded with, “Oh are they, are you OK?” You see, I heard her say that her hands were shaking, but in actuality, she was informing me that my hands were shaking. It wasn’t until I tried to unzip the airway bag to restock it that I realized she was right.

I turned back now to keep the tears from showing. Not that she would have judged me, she was a good supervisor, and a friend. She asked if I wanted coffee. I nodded and continued putting the ambulance back together.

ems call that broke me, stretcher inside ambulance

Eventually we would be informed that we would have a critical stress debrief at the station once we had cleared the hospital. This was good news. I don’t think I could have gone from that call to a hobo down or an old lady with chronic chest pain without losing my shit. I couldn’t do a generic EMS call right now. Not after that — not tonight.

We would arrive at the station and sit in the supervisor’s office and begin a roundtable of sorts about the aspects of the call. It wasn’t until it was my turn to speak and I began hearing my own voice buckle and struggle with emotion that I realized I was burnt. I had been on a run of bad calls lately.

Also, having relationship problems at home didn‘t help. My coping mechanisms were shot to say the least. I couldn’t go home, because that’s where she was, my ex. Not something I wanted to face in that moment, and it was too late to go to the bar. I didn’t want to stay at work. I was trapped.

So I lounged around the station and watched TV until it was time to drive to our home unit and switch out with the oncoming day shift.

I would meet up with my friend days later, the one from the call, and we would sit down and have beers. A lot of beers. I am pretty sure we both sat at the bar and took turns getting emotional during our endless supply of draft beer and shots.

Not sure if we solved anything that night, but we certainly numbed it for a bit. Drank it into a painless submission. At least we won that battle.

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