It’s never too late to learn to trust your gut, to take a risk, however small, and to be amazed by what happens next. This happened to me some twenty-five years ago, when I was in my mid-forties:
It was 2:00 AM on a hot Saturday night in August when the beeper on my night table went off. A call at that time of night usually meant an automobile accident. A call on Saturday night usually meant the accident was drinking related. I was part of my towns’ volunteer ambulance corps and had weekend duty. Shaking off the drowsiness of sleep interrupted, I [drove] to the ambulance building and met the two crew members I would be working with. We got the accident’s address from the police, then took the ambulance to the scene as quickly and safely as possible.
At the accident site, police cars shone their flashing lights on a small car wrapped around a large tree. Paramedics from the local hospital arrived about the same time we did. Hopping out of the ambulance, I grabbed one of the first aid bags and ran to the mangled vehicle. There were three young adults in the car. The driver had only bumped his forehead, which was bleeding. He was conscious and alert. The passenger sitting in the back was in a lot of pain from a possible broken leg, and was very combative. The young man in the front passenger seat was trapped in his seat, seriously injured and unconscious. The front right side of the car had wrapped around his legs and torso, and the door was crushing him.
The fire department arrived. More lights flooded the scene. An array of three EMTs, two paramedics, four policemen and perhaps five firemen all busily attended to the injured. After the other emergency workers got the driver and the back seat passenger out of the car, I positioned myself in the back, behind the front seat passenger. Putting my hands on either side of his head, I held him firmly while another EMT put on a cervical collar. A paramedic speedily checked his vital signs—he was extensively injured, but alive—they started an IV and stopped whatever bleeding needed immediate attention. Together, the teams of first responders made a plan to extricate him from the car.
I continued to hold his head and I began talking to him. He was unconscious, but I sensed that he could hear me. For many years, I had worked with the elderly, some of whom were at the ending stage of life. I would sit with them and, though they were unaware of their surroundings, I felt they could hear
my voice. I believed that hearing was a last sense to go, so I would talk and the tranquil sound of my voice did calm them. Sometimes, as a service to our community, we would pick up an elderly patient at the hospital and transport her back to the nursing home. Usually our frail, white-haired passenger was hard of hearing, but that didn’t deter me. I would sit next to her, hold her hand and continue an ongoing one-way conversation. My fellow corpsmen teased me for doing what I did, and maybe they thought I was a little loony. But I didn’t mind their kidding. I liked to make people feel comfortable, and this was one easy way to do that.
"Okay. Hi. My name is Susan. I am an EMT and I am here to help you. I’ll stay with you and talk and tell you what is going on." And so I began as I knelt in the back seat of the car, with bright lights flashing all around us and machines making all sorts of noises. My hands, with some of the young man’s dried blood on them, still stabilized his head. I talked about what was happening from moment to moment. The firemen placed a blue tarp over us for protection from the windshield they were going to have to shatter.
"Now don’t get nervous, you will be hearing a loud crashing noise when the guys batter the front windshield. They need to do that to make it easier for us to get you out of the car. Not to worry, you will be fine. I will be here with you. Boy, it sure is warm under this tarp. Okay, get ready, here comes the crashing windshield!" And with that the firemen’s ram burst through the glass. We didn’t see it, but we sure heard it and we felt the shattered glass thundering on the tarp raining down on us.
"That wasn’t so bad. We’re safe and snug here." I kept a running commentary for the next twenty minutes or so. And as I talked, it occurred to me that this young man seemed to be about the same age as my own son, which inspired me further to keep talking, crazy though it might seem. If this were my son, I knew that I would want a caring voice speaking to him. Everyone was playing a part in this dramatic scene: the paramedics kept on top of his vital signs and the IV, the firemen were busy with equipment trying to extricate him, and the police were vigilant of the whole scene, keeping their eyes on everything. I felt I was holding this young man’s life in my hands. This could have been my son. I felt compelled to keep talking.
"Okay, now the firemen have pried the door open and they are going to carefully get you out of the car. We are all trained to do this, so just try to relax and let us do all the work. I’ll be with you all the way, still holding your head steady. Can’t you feel my hands on your head?" I said. I pressed just a bit more firmly. "The rest of the guys will turn you gently and get you onto the back board. Someone will swing your legs to the right, carefully. Okay, here we go!"
They got him out of the twisted car, onto the stretcher, into the ambulance, and we raced to the hospital. On the way, the paramedics kept in touch with an MD at the hospital and gave the patient fluids and meds to keep him alive. I was along for the ride, still talking; holding his hand now, instead of his head. A large jagged piece of metal was imbedded in his shin, but that was the least of his problems.
After several minutes we arrived at the hospital. As the rest of the crew got him ready to depart the ambulance, I gripped his hand a little more firmly and said, "We’re at the hospital now and they will be taking you into the emergency room. You are going to be fine. You’ll be in the best of hands. I hope I didn’t chat your ear off, I know I am a big talker, but you have been a good listener!" And with a swift motion, his litter was swept into the emergency room and he was swallowed up by the other EMTs, paramedics and hospital staff who came to get him.
My crew stood around for a bit, collecting our thoughts and our strength. I saw the attending MD come out and heard him tell the young man’s parents how grave the situation was and that the prognosis was not great. He might not make it. It was heartbreaking. Then I overheard the name of the young man and recognized it: Chris and my son had been on the same soccer team when they were in 7th grade. It had been more than 12 years since those games; I hadn’t recognized the boy’s face, but I knew his name. I looked at his parents. I did recognize them. My first impulse was to go over to them, to say something, but the strain of the past hour caught up with me and the realization of what just happened made me feel slightly lightheaded and nauseated. And what were the right words to say to them? I didn’t know. So I turned and with my other crew members walked down the hall to the exit. My hands were still blotchily stained with Chris’s blood.
I went on with my life and about four weeks after the incident I happened to be visiting someone at that same hospital. On a whim I checked to see if Chris was still a patient there, and he was. I thought about whether I should go and see him. He had to have gone through a great deal. I didn’t know what sort of condition he would be in or whether visiting him would invade his privacy or if it would be the right thing to do. I considered those things for a while and then decided that if the tables were turned, I would welcome a visit from him.
I walked down the long corridor to his room feeling very apprehensive. What would he look like? Would his mental faculties be intact? I didn’t know what to expect. The harsh hospital disinfectant smell penetrated my nose before I reached his room. I saw his name on the door, then slowly pushed it opened and walked in. His bed was the second from the door and closest to the window, and the curtain that separated the two beds was drawn, so I was not able to see him. I approached slowly. I could see his legs sticking out of the end of his bed. Colorful pins protruded from his toes, as if his feet were macabre pincushions. I hesitated on one side of the gauzy beige hospital curtain, trying to think of what to say. The first bed was empty and the sparse light in the room came from the window next to Chris’s bed. I didn’t know if he heard me enter or if he was sleeping.
I began in a very low voice. "Hi, Chris, you don’t know me, but I was one of the medical team that brought you to the hospital on the night of your accident. I was in the hospital today and thought I would stop by to say hello and see how you’re doing. My name is Susan." I didn’t pull the curtain opened immediately, respecting his privacy, but after a silence he slowly said.
"I know your voice. I’ve heard it before. I know your voice. It was your voice I heard at my accident. It kept me alive."
For the first time in a long while, I knew I didn’t need to say anything. A powerful, humbling experience was ours.
Our contest was inspired by the book One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, available at Barnes & Noble .