That One Call

Issue 10 and Volume 10.

It was the fifth week of EMT class, in the spring of 2008. Most of us were itching to get past the medical half of the class and get into the “more interesting” sections on trauma. Under the watchful eye of one of the class helpers, we practiced our basic assessment skills on each other, and I looked up at him as my blood pressure was read.

“What’s the worst call you’ve ever been on?”

I’d taken to asking this of all the seasoned EMTs and medics, reveling in their triumphs and trying to prepare myself for someday seeing what they’ve seen. This medic was a 20-year veteran of paramedicine, and I could only imagine the things his eyes had seen. I watched his hands relax in his lap as his eyes softened with memories.

Painful Memories

He spoke of a decapitation, a few eviscerations, and some other calls that were very graphic in nature. All of a sudden, his voice dropped almost to a whisper. I stopped noticing the tightening of the blood pressure cuff on my arm. He spoke of a little girl who died on a summer night.

“She had blonde hair. I remember that because it shone in the sunlight. She was so little.” This little girl had been hit by a car. When the medic got there she was laying in the front yard of her house. Her father held her in his arms. “He didn’t want to let her go. He didn’t want me to take her because … I think he knew that once I did … she was really gone.” His eyes zoned out. “I knew as soon as I saw her that she was dead. I knew it. But we tried … you know. We tried anyway. For him.” I nodded. All traces of practicing vitals were gone from my thoughts. After a moment, he wiped his eyes and excused himself from the room.

Preparing for the Future

I never asked that question again. In my years of doing EMS, I realized that those calls get tucked far away, and reciting the events to a brand new almost-EMT isn’t something you ever want to do. Because you don’t know. You don’t know what emergencies your colleagues have been put in charge of, what injuries they’ve laid their hands on. That night, I learned the worst isn’t always the most graphic.

I never saw that paramedic again. He didn’t return to class. I’ve tried to remember his name or what company he said he retired from, but I can’t. I just remember his face and the way his eyes softened when he talked about her hair.

I don’t know if I’ve had that one call yet, which probably means I haven’t. I’ve seen plenty in my 10 years, but a lot of it blends together: blood, screaming, adrenaline, pain. There’s nothing that would make me cry. I suppose that means it’s still coming, and I can only hope that when it does, I can save the tears for after.