I anxiously watched the clocks second hand slowly ticking off the seconds until this shift was over. My ears strained to hear the sound of my replacement driving up the gravel driveway as I stared blindly out the window of the shift bedroom. “To hell with the call gods,” I thought and I packed up my duffel bag. Stuffing the pieces of my life that I carried back and forth to work with me into my old duffel bag I defiantly dared the tones to drop. I glanced at the clock again and thought of how ironic it is that the last 30 minutes of any shift last the longest. With another ten minutes to wait, I rolled up my sleeping bag and tossed it into the locker. I tensed a little, thinking I had heard the slight static the speaker system puked out before the tones dropped and stopped what I was doing to listen for the staccato beeps. But not this time. This time the beeps didn’t come and the speaker remained silent. This time the call gods must have sensed that I was teetering on the edge. They must have known what I did not know. Whatever it was, they waited until eleven minutes after I punched out to drop the tones and page the rig out to an assault on the other side of the reservation.
As EMS5 lumbered out of the driveway with lights and sirens blaring I tossed my heavy duffel bag into the backseat of my car and slid exhaustedly into the driver’s seat. It had been a tough shift and this time there was no pang of guilt for not even offering to assist the EMT on call. She was new here, and still had grandiose idea’s about changing the world, one person at a time. She hadn’t come to the realization yet, that no matter how much we cared, or how much we did, the abused will return to their abusers, the alcoholic will return to his alcohol that makes the ugliness of how he sees the world a little less ugly. She doesn’t know yet that sometimes, the only thing we can do is listen to the pain in their voice as we tend to their outer wounds. To be someone with a gentle hand and a caring heart as we fix what we can see, and pray about the things we cannot see or change.
Shifting the car into gear I followed the rigs tracks out of the snow covered driveway and turned in the opposite direction it had taken and began the long journey home. Four hours of traveling time to clear my mind of the events of my shift. Four hours of solitude to think about what I wanted to think about and rehash the tough calls in my mind, time to put my work life in a box and tuck it safely away until my next shift.
As I left town everything glittered with the sun’s reflection on the pure snow. The trash and thrown out garbage littering the sides of the road was covered with sparkling white snow diamonds in the suns early morning light. Like a band aid covering a healing wound, it covered the historical and intergenerational trauma that was felt here and for a brief moment in time, the snow bridged the cultural and financial gap between the reservation and the rest of the world. Not wanting to ruin the morning beauty I left the radio off and driving in the silence I admired what a beautiful job God had done creating this land. Listening to the muffled sound my tires made as they hummed along on the freshly fallen snow I was slowly decompressing and transitioning myself from EMT to mom. I was closing all the doors and lowering all the walls that kept my EMS life, and all the depression and tragedy that I see in it, away from my real life. I caught a glimpse of a bald eagle soaring through the crisp spring air over the pastures and rolling hills and I could feel the tension leaving my shoulders as I tossed a cigarette fresh from my pack out the window as an offering to the spirit of the eagle. I whispered a quick prayer and began to feel a peaceful blanket cover me in warmth and chase away the pain and depression of the last 48 hours. I decided that if I got home early enough this afternoon I would pick my son up from daycare and take him to Wylie Park for the day instead of going home to sleep. I smiled thinking about how he loved going there and seeing all the animals and playing in the fairy tale worlds they had so skillfully created. Today was going to be a wonderful day.
And then I came to the curve. The curve where 22 hours ago there had been a tragic accident. The curve where we had scooped up the tiny body of a three year old girl thrown from the window of the car her drunk mother had rolled while trying to negotiate the curve at a high rate of speed. I tried not to look at it. I tried not to let my anger at the mother and the pain of losing the child fill me with sorrow. I tried to keep those feelings on the other side of the wall I had built in my soul, to keep them where they belonged, packed tightly away into the box. But then I saw it. A tiny little pink cross with white flowers on it standing there, like a brave little soldier surrounded by busted car pieces, empty beer cans and random contents from inside the car. Silently standing guard in the middle of the ditch and daring me not to care. Daring me to drive by without letting the walls come down and reliving the entire call. Daring me to not shed a tear, to not to feel the anger I had felt towards the mother. And the wall in my soul crumpled and buckled under the weight of the memory of those beautiful brown eyes of the child glazing over as the life drained from her body beneath my hands. The box that contained the part of me that wasn’t supposed to seen blew apart into a million pieces of tears.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road and dissolved into a ball of sobbing tears and gasping breaths for air. The sadness and the futility of the fight to save the little girl’s life filled my entire being and touched me to the core. I let the tears flow and the emotions take over as I sat in my parked car and stared at that tiny little cross so bravely marking the spot where a beautiful little girl had lain just hours before all crumpled and broken. I ran the entire call through my mind again and again, critiquing everything I had done, everything I hadn’t done. I questioned myself if there was anything I missed, anything I could have done differently. Deep down I knew that I had done everything I could and had given her every medically possible chance to live, but I still couldn’t make a difference. I cried as I remembered seeing the mother’s expressionless face as she lay on the long spine board secured to the bench seat beside her dying little girl. Uncaring, unaware, or maybe just unable to feel the pain of knowing that she had just killed her baby. Maybe her life was so miserable that she didn’t expect anything less than to lose a precious little girl that she had given life to. My mind replayed how she had screamed at me to give her something for the pain in her leg while I was trying to intubate her little girl. How she had called me a “white bitch who didn’t give a damn about her” when I was doing compressions on a tiny little chest that was crumpled and broken inside. I shivered as I recalled the cold grip of her hand on my arm while her daughter took her last breath and demanded that I call her ex-boyfriend and tell him his baby girl was dead. I remembered looking into her drug and alcohol glazed eyes and seeing a small glint of understanding in them. A quick flash of realization of what was happening and what she had done to her baby before they glazed over again. A glimpse of knowledge that was too great for her to bear at the time. It was easier for her to be hard hearted and uncaring and she silently stared at me I as continued to try and bring some life back to the crushed soul beneath my hands.
I felt the empty hollowness in the pit of my stomach that I had when my partner and I had walked past the trauma room that held that tiny little body on the cold metal steel bed, covered with a white blanket and lying all alone while her mother cursed out the hospital staff across the hallway from her. Each of us turning our eyes away from the lost little life in that room. Each of us stuffing it into the box to be tucked away in our minds and kept from the world.
I stared at that little pink cross and worried about my partner. I recalled the hollowness in her voice when I asked her in the rig on the way home if she was okay and she shrugged her shoulders and said “yeah.” I told her I was going to call a critical stress team in for everyone involved on the call and she shrugged her shoulders again and said “I won’t come anyway.” During the trip home I had tried to talk to her knowing full well that she wouldn’t talk about it until she was ready. I knew she would just go home and call up her buddies and they’d go out and get drunk and there wasn’t anything I could do about. After staring out my window for a bit I looked over at her and I told her, “You know you’re like a little sister to me right?” and she shrugged and nodded her head. I knew she would be calling in “sick” for our shift next weekend and I probably wouldn’t see her again until she had dealt with this in her own way. “You know I love you right?” another nod, but this time without the shrug to her shoulders. A small victory. A small acknowledgment that she knew how much I cared about her and wanted to help whenever she was ready. And we rode the rest of the trip back to the bay in silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts as the headlights of the rig guided us through the dark cold night back home.
I wiped the tears from my eyes and began to tuck the memories and feelings back into the box and place them behind the wall in my soul. Quietly I stared at that little pink cross in the middle of the glittering snow and prayed that whoever had placed it there had shown the little girl some measure of love. I prayed that in her short life there had been someone there to give her some measure of happiness. I wiped away the last of my tears and I told her that I was sorry and that she will always be loved by me and I will forever carry her in my heart. As I put my car into gear and slowly drove away, I asked her to forgive me and wished her a safe journey to a place where I knew she would be happy and feel a glorious love.
The cross is probably gone by now, but I have carried her memory in my heart since that day. Several years and many calls later, I have finally become friends with her spirit. That tiny little spirit that came in the dead of the night, or when I felt like I was all alone. I’d see her standing there, staring at me when I was so depressed I didn’t think I could do this job anymore and it would fill me full of sadness and make me question why I kept putting the uniform on. Make me ask myself why I was going out to do this job over and over again only to have more people die, more broken bodies and lost spirits locked away in that box. Until finally one day it dawned on me, this is where I was meant to be. This job, with all the things we see and do in the field, the calls that can take us from pure elation at the birth of a newborn baby to the anguished cries of a trapped teenager in the space of a 48 hour shift is the job for me. I think about the new EMT who replaced me on the reservation and I hope she kept her grand ideas of saving the world, one life at a time. I hope she never lost sight of trying to help one person at a time and I realize that although I thought it was silly at the time, I still had that hope inside of me as well. I still go on every call hoping that I can say or do something to make one person feel better about themselves or the situation they’re in. Hoping that I can make a difference to at least one person with whom I come into contact with. Whether it be a calming voice and gentle hands as I help a patient through an asthma attack, or the feel of my hands as I carefully splint and wrap a broken arm, I am still trying to change the world one person at a time. I hope I never stop doing that.
And now, when my little spirit visits me after a tough call or in the middle of the night, she comforts me instead of haunts me. She pushes me to be a better provider and reminds me that this is the job I love, this is where I was meant to be. She is a piece of me, she comforts me, and I no longer try to keep her in a box. I carry her spirit and the spirits of many others along with me through this life and they will remain forever in my heart. They will continue to remind me that sometimes, the only thing I can do is just be there for my patient and let them know that someone does care.