Help Is on the Way: Tales of an Ambulance Driver 

“You are young, eager, a rookie, and you don’t yet know that this job does not mean saving lives.”

Wednesday, Apr 1 2009

Potential Space

My partner takes a long drag on his cigarette and scratches the back of his head. I stand with hands in pockets, my head cocked to one side. We are silent. We are staring. We face the object in front of us almost as if we are at an altar praying, so deep is our reverie.

The rig is new. New! Crisp, clean walls with our company’s logo and colors painted on both sides, bordered by gleaming chrome and perched on tires with fresh tread. No scratches, no dents, no scrapes. Shining like an egg in the sun. The sirens and brakes haven’t yet experienced Code-3 driving; the inside compartments, newly stocked, have not heard screaming, gasping, puking, crying; the gurney hasn’t yet been contaminated with Code Yellow or Code Brown; and blood has not yet dripped onto the floor.

click to flip through (3) OWEN FREEMAN
  • Owen Freeman

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My eyes slowly scan the rig from top to bottom, soaking in every detail. I feel, strangely, a little sick to my stomach. Is this sparkling new ambulance mocking us? I don’t want to be reminded of what our last rig went through. I don’t want to think about what this one is about to go through. I don’t want to remember the particularly bloody trauma call two months ago, and how my partner had complained for weeks because blood had seeped between the metal floor plates that lock the gurney in place. I don’t want to think of the smells I occasionally noticed in the back — old, lingering smells. We survived all that, the rig, my partner and I. We got through it together. Now, here’s this ridiculous rookie rig, all clean and eager and unaware.

The station phone rings, the loudspeaker blaring right behind us. In the old days I would have jumped, panicked, bolted for the passenger seat, grabbed the radio and my map book, stared at my pager for the address and type of call. But these are not the old days, so says the fresh ambulance in front of us. I toss the keys to my partner, who drops his cigarette, crushes it. I let out a long sigh. Then we slowly walk to the doors and get in.

First call of the day. It begins.


Help Is on the Way

You are young, eager, a rookie, and you don’t yet know that this job does not mean saving lives. You haven’t yet figured out that 90 percent of all 911 calls are B.S., so every time you hear dispatch say your rig number over the radio, your heart does a front flip into your mouth, all that extra weight just sitting on your parched tongue. You scramble with the Thomas Guide; you aren’t good at mapping yet, your partner may or may not hate you, and the firefighters all but roll their eyes at you as you fumble, fumble, fumble.

Your first call, the first real call, is a two-vehicle accident and an overturned truck whose wheels are still spinning as you arrive first on scene. Your partner checks the truck while you squat next to the crinkled, folded car. Your patient sits slightly dazed amid the chaotic mess. Your patient asks for water, asks if he can call his fiancée, asks if he can go home. But you don’t answer his questions or say much, because as soon as your eyes connect with his against the backdrop of What He Just Went Through.

There’s light behind him

Every bit of medical information you ever had flies out of your head. You used to know the difference between pleural effusion and pericardial tamponade, but at the moment you don’t know your own name, much less how to make an assessment. Your eyes are locked with his, he seems calmer than you feel, despite the blood on his face and arms, the pieces of glass still stuck to him.

Does he know can he feel

Your brush jacket is too big and the helmet keeps slipping down over your eyes. You feel like a little kid playing dress-up, and it doesn’t help that you could swear you see something that doesn’t make any sense.

I swear I can see I swear I can see

Already you know you are too sensitive for this job, not tough enough, too trusting. You’ve been laughed at before for dutifully taking the blood pressure of a patient obviously faking an illness. But patients appreciate that you are all sympathy and that you actually listen to what they’re saying. What you need to learn is how to focus on what needs to be done in the short time you have.

I can see does he know

And it’s frustrating because you know you have potential, you know you could be good at this job but you just can’t put the pieces together fast enough.

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