By Roc Morin
Stories from the New York City ambulance corps, travel in totalitarian regimes and disaster zones, telepathy, half-remembered dreams, religious miracles, 9/11, Hiroshima, the Guatemalan jungle, interviews with mental patients, drugs, cops, suicide, AIDS, badly-ended romances, the end of the world, brain damage, and through the power of science - a chance at eternal life.
New York is a city of strangers, and every day, thousands pass without a word, without a glance. But during an emergency, that anonymity collapses. Suddenly, a medic becomes the most important person in the world to someone they have never met. The medic becomes somebody’s mother.
That 6-foot-5 gang-banger we picked up - bullet though the neck and out the eye, teardrop tattoos spattered with blood. He thrashed on his back, pissing himself, begging, beseeching for an answer to his question: Am I going to die?
And there was little DeMille, the guy everybody called Combover, crouching above him, cradling him, shouting with a sweaty, foul-mouthed mother’s conviction, Not in my goddamned ambulance you’re not!
Afterwards, of course, the medic goes back to playing the stranger. Some guys couldn’t handle it. An old partner, Ostrovsky, got restricted for showing up at former patients’ houses. And then, there was the Sunrise Manor approach.
I don’t know what the proper name is for a place like Sunrise Manor. Everybody called it Heaven’s Waiting Room. It was a big building where old people went to die.
Vaughn and I gathered our equipment and walked inside. The call had come over as a cardiac arrest. We had both been here many times and neither of us had ever brought anybody out alive.
When the orderly led us to the room, medics were already working up a ninety-five year old woman. She was on her bed with her clothes cut off, limbs out, head nodding yes in unconscious acknowledgement of the CPR being performed on her. The way the intubation tape pulled up the corners of her mouth, it even looked like she was happy about it.
The man pushing on her chest stopped to wipe his brow with the back of a gloved hand. Well, he remarked between breaths, It’s an arrest all right.
I should hope so, I replied, otherwise you guys got a lawsuit on your hands.
Everybody’s a comedian, he said. Why don’t you take over for a bit?
In the late eighteen-hundreds in Paris, a young drowned girl was fished from the Seine. With no marks on the body, suicide was presumed. She was placed with the other unclaimed corpses on public display at the city morgue. The morgue was completely overwhelmed by the crowds that assembled to see her. Though she remained unidentified, there was something so alluring in her enigmatic smile that men broke down and wept.
She was buried finally, but not before a plaster cast had been made of her face. Copies of her death-mask appeared in parlors throughout Europe, becoming the fascination of the age.
A century later, a Norwegian inventor was looking for a face to give his CPR training doll. He found the death-mask. There is a hall at the EMS academy filled with his dolls, and we all learned how to raise the dead, breathing life into that girl’s mouth.
Doing chest compressions on a doll like that, with its weak spring, is a one-handed affair. Not so with real people. By the time I got my hands on her, the woman at Sunrise already had a couple broken ribs, and I felt a few more snap under my fingers. Textbook CPR.
The firefighters arrived next, as back-up, crowding in close, asking, Are you tired? Are you tired? They were good guys and wanted to save a life.
The department had just spent a million dollars on some kind of CPR device that measured how hard people pushed, and the burly firefighters were competing with each other, wailing on the woman to see who could get the highest score.
From the doorway, it looked for all the world like she was trying to fly out the window and their job was just to keep pushing her back down to earth.
All around the room were black and white photographs of people who had meant something to this woman. A lovely girl in a gingham dress eternally kissed the face of a handsome marine. Even with the woman’s teeth gone, and the tubes coming out of her, even with her shriveled body and cloudy eyes, it was clear that the girl in the gingham dress had been her.
An orderly arrived to rattle off the woman’s medical chart: Diabetes, Hypertension, Stroke, COPD, Arthritis, Cancer, Alzheimer’s-Induced Dementia… A full catalog of human suffering.
And the final strike, like a verdict being read, Next of Kin: None.
What’s the most stable heart rhythm? the senior medic quizzed. The answer: Asystole. That meant no rhythm, no beat at all. He called it at 22:53.
We pulled the defibrillator patches off the woman’s chest. We shoved gauze and torn plastic packaging into a red bag. Everything was clean now.
I took a last look at the photographs. Nestled among them was a sheet of paper in a dollar-store frame. It hung directly over the bed. It read:
Certificate of Achievement Presented to:
For not only being The World’s Best Mother but also My Best Friend
Presented on 10/21/10