Poignancy: A touching EMS call

March 31, 2010

My job for the past twelve years has been caring for patients and transporting them on ambulances. It is something I’m very good at, and I miss these days, as my hearing got to the point I can no longer do it full time. Yes, it has been a great job, full of excitement, danger, distress, hilarity, tension, and utter boredom at times.

Some calls we go on are mundane, some intensely exciting, some horrific, and some quite funny.

But of all the calls I’ve done (thousands, perhaps), none was more touching to me than a simple transport from a residence in southern Wake County to Rex Hospital.

It was on a private ambulance. The call came late in the afternoon, near sunset. My partner Wayne and I arrived on scene to find a Chinese family in a spacious house. A woman stepped forward and introduced herself, and explained that her mother-in-law was dying, and that Hospice had arranged for her to be sent to the Hospice wing at Rex for her final hours or days.

I noticed rows of shoes outside and realized this family practiced removal of shoes inside, so I proceeded to removed mine, but the woman’s husband said it was not necessary. “We are Buddhist,” he explained. “A clean house helps create a clean soul. But do not worry, we don’t ask you to remove your shoes. You are here to do your job. Come in…”

We then brought the stretcher inside and followed them down a narrow hallway to the patient’s room. The elderly lady inside was indeed dying. This is something you recognize immediately after years on the job. Deep, agonal respirations, unconscious, limp body. Two things immediately came to mind. First, she wasn’t going to make it much longer. Second, there was no way that stretcher was going to fit down that narrow hallway and into her room.

I conferred with Wayne and we decided to use a modified fireman’s lift to bring her out, taking care not to let her head roll much or expose her body. In all patient care, one goal is to preserve patient modesty and practice decorum as much as circumstances allow. We got her up and I cradled her head against my chest and Wayne carried her feet, and we gently laid her on the stretcher once we were back in the living room.

Quickly, we placed a blanket, pillow and other things in place and secured her. The woman asked if they could come. I was not inclined to at first. It’s really not allowed, due to safety concerns, to let family ride in the back. But there’s a time when rules need to be broken. As best I could tell, this was one of them. As she explained, the patient’s entire family, upon hearing of her imminent demise, had just arrived from Taiwan. None of them spoke English, and they looked at me, nervous and unsure what to do. I realized there was no way I was going to deny them the chance to say good-bye to their loved one. I nodded consent.

One by one they filed into the small ambulance and we began the trip. They smiled shyly at me as they climbed in, and all leaned over and held the lady’s hand, or placed a hand on her, as we began her final journey.

The patient’s condition was still poor, and getting worse. I did not attempt any interventions. I simply kept her oxygen flowing, and made sure she was comfortable. Other than that, there wasn’t much to do.

The daughter-in-law told us that they had immigrated some twenty years ago and now owned a small chain of restaurants, and were very proud to be Americans. They worked hard, and tried to teach their children the value of hard work in turn. They were all unfailingly polite, well-mannered and clearly loved the old lady.

At last we arrived at Rex and we made it to the fifth floor, which houses the Hospice wing on the east side. In short time Wayne and I again gently transferred her to the bed and prepared to leave. I stopped for a moment to express my condolences to the family.

The daughter-in-law smiled at me and shook my hand. Then she did something unexpected. “Thank you, sir,” she said, and bowed deeply. Surprised, I bowed in return, probably a little stiffly. But in turn, each member of the family also bowed, and in turn, I bowed back. Several of them had tears in their eyes. I again wished them well, and left them then.

Most transports end with families giving a cursory nod, or sometimes an actual thanks, but in this time, they expressed deep gratitude for something which to me was routine and mundane. I was indeed just doing my job.

I think it mattered to them that I cared. Sometimes that’s the heart of it all, knowing someone cared. And of course I did. No one can do this job very long without caring. And maybe, just knowing that someone cared, even if it’s just the EMT, can make a huge difference in times of need.

Humbled and pleased that they thought well of my efforts, I ended that day, over two years ago now, on a light note. A family had flown thousands of miles to be with a loved one, and all I did was allow them to be close to her during this time of need. Not even my boss would have done any different, government regulations be damned! There’s a time and place for everything, you see, and in the face of death, compassion is more desirable than regulations and rules.

I can’t say I’ve always made the right choices in times like that, but I know at least, on that day, I did.


One Response to “Poignancy: A touching EMS call”

  1. What a nice post. You did the right thing.

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