Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Getting Real

I've had a lot of fun playing hero. The gear was cool, the calls were fun, but last night I got a perspective adjustment that hit me like a 2x4 between the eyes.

We had just gotten back from a gas odor call. Although the emergency itself was not of any particular interest, it was the first time I've actually gotten to ride to a call on the fire truck. Now THAT is a cool experience. Driving fast, sirens blaring, people making way for you on the road; not gonna lie, that's fun. So we made sure everything was safe while the utility company sent a truck out to fix the gas line, no big deal.

Just as we're getting back off the truck in the station, the tones go off again. Everybody smiles, excited that the night is turning out to be so lively. We all pile back into the engine as we listen for the dispatch.

"Engine 801, engine 1408, motorcycle accident..."

My smile drops. This could turn out to be a little more intense than I'd expected. My brother is driving the engine, and I can feel our speed increase a little as further information comes over the radio. It doesn't sound good. One motorcycle, ran into a guardrail, victim is not moving.

I start rehearsing in my head every thing that will need to happen once we arrived at the scene. We'll need the medical pack and the backboard for sure. I pull my latex gloves on in preparation, half anxious to help, half hoping someone else will take care of the victim so that I don't have to.

No time to think about it though. The engine stops and we all jump out, each grabbing the equipment we were assigned. I throw the backboard off the engine over my shoulder and immediately start striding towards the cluster of people I can see already pulling the victim back onto the roadway. Secretly I don't want to look; I've never seen any trauma before, and honestly, I'm scared of how I might react. Will I get sick? Will I just freeze? But this is what I signed up for, and I know it, so I try to stay focused on what I need to do instead of processing what I'm seeing.

I throw the backboard on the ground and start tearing off the straps. In theory, I know what is supposed to happen next; we will put this guy on a backboard and load him into the ambulance. This isn't the same as working with a dummy though; the weight of his limbs is eerily familiar. Exactly what my leg would feel like if I lifted it with my arm. Just by touch, I can tell this is a real human. And he is dying.

The injuries are extensive, and the odds don't look good, but we start CPR in a desperate attempt to save him. Now, I'm well trained in CPR; we went through all the mechanics and techniques during recruit class. But it's just not the same on a human. I don't think I ever realized just how fragile our bodies really are.

I can feel my companions working around me. Dressing wounds, clearing clothing, a well oiled machine working at a feverish pace. I don't want to think about it. I just keep my eyes on my hands, pumping his chest, trying to keep enough blood moving to save him. I know if I think too hard about what I'm looking at, it will be too much. I'll see the damage done to him and to think "what would that feel like?". But speculation is not a luxury I can afford at the moment.

The medics call for everybody to clear the body for a second so they can check his vitals. I sit back on my knees, hands in the air to show 'I'm clear'; and that's when the feeling really hits me. This guy is not going to make it. Eyes vacant, skin pale, he stares blankly at the sky. The medics glanced forlornly at the paper printing out of their machine. "One more round, and then we'll call it." Frustrated and a little shocked, I start compressing the chest again with renewed vigor, somehow convincing myself that if we were to just try hard enough we might make a difference.

Just believing something doesn't make it so.

"Thank you everyone", the medic says, "that was a really good attempt".

I feel sick.

As I walk back to the engine (slowly now, all urgency gone), I try to figure out how I feel about the whole situation. Somebody is dead, and in a very traumatic way. Do I feel bad about it? Yeah, I guess so. I'm a little stunned for sure, but somehow not "devastated" the way it seems like I should be. It's a strange bit of cognitive dissonance. It's almost like I WANT to feel bad, but I can't summon enough emotion and feel any amount of depression or loss. Just a vague sense of malaise and failed effort. What's wrong with me? This is somebody's son, someone's friend, who is never coming back. Why can't I feel for them the way I should?

And yet, I feel terrible. Terrible for not being able to make a difference. For not being able to save a life, and for not feeling bad enough about the loss of a fellow human being.

I don't know what to think. So I don't.

My brother pulls me aside later and asks how I'm doing. I answer him honestly, I'm doing better than I thought I would be, but somehow I'm unsatisfied. He had some advice I hope I can take heart: "This is not your fault. You didn't cause of the crash. You didn't cause his injuries. You came here to help, and you can't win them all. Be happy about the ones you CAN save, but don't get hung up on the ones you can't."

He's right. The amount of death and loss that firefighters encounter is staggering. Empathy for one's fellow man is an admirable and virtuous trait, but it comes at a cost. If your friend were to lose a parent, you could cope. You could bear a part of their pain and sadness. Maybe even the suffering of a few friends simultaneously. But if an emergency worker were to take on the guilt, pain, loss, and sorrow of every loss of life they witnessed, the burden would be too great for any one soul to bear.

So I just don't think about it. Well, that's a lie. I try not to think about it. The first fatality I ever witnessed will probably stick in my memory for the rest of my life. But no amount of sorrow or depression will save his life or heal any of the family members he left behind. I've done everything I can for him, God rest his soul, and now the only thing left to do is focus on those will need help in the future.

That's life.

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