Time Warp

Sometimes you’re called to crash scenes that are bigger than their physical elements: the bent metal; wet pavement; the belongings scattered like secrets. The crying kids, sweet odor of hot coolant, noise, and the busy movements of other rescuers. You can’t help noticing, for instance, that the woman in front of you is 33 years old. Her eyes say she’s at least 50.

She’s a single mom. The sign on her little car says For Sale. Now, uninsured and nearly out of fuel, it’s worthless. She and her two kids have been living in the car, eating frozen vegetables and some birds they’ve caught at a nearby farm. Winter’s coming. Caught in your area without coats, the three of them cling together on the curb and shiver under a thin blanket. They all have minor injuries, but she’s adamant: no hospital.

Your partner, Mary, has been on the phone with her husband Bill. “Come on,” she tells you, “I’ll attend. Take us to my house.” The expression on her face is all business.

Mary’s crazy; got to be. You want to remind her the ambulance doesn’t belong to us; this isn’t in the protocols; this isn’t our job; we can’t save the whole world. But Mary’s adamant, too. She shushes you and tells you to stay off the air. You drive the three miles to her address and carry one of the kids up the front steps. Mary uses the portable to inform dispatch you’re available, no aid necessary. She spends a few minutes in quiet conversation with the lady, hugs her, embraces Bill and ushers you out the door.

“I want you to call for a supervisor,” she says. “This is on me, not you.”

I’m a good person, but I didn’t sign on for this. I’m just a new medic, and I really need this job. Still, I don’t want to rat on my partner. What am I supposed to do?

Count yourself lucky. Your partner’s a master. She’s probably saved the lives of three people who have nothing and nowhere to turn. And she’s protected your career in the process.

What are you talking about? She’s way out of line. I feel sorry for this woman, but how did Mary help her, other than to make her dependent on Mary?

You may not recognize it, but this little family’s story has unfolded before—some 75 years ago. The photo that appears with this article was originally shot in 1936 by Dorothea Lange, a depression-era photographer, and is now in the public domain. The lady’s name was Florence Owens Thompson, and, according to Library of Congress records, Florence’s plight was almost identical to your patient’s story.1 There’s no telling what eventually happened to Florence and her children, because there was no 9-1-1 system to catch her. But so many social support systems are failing all over the world today that medics just like you are meeting people just like Florence everywhere. EMS was framed to address realities much smaller than the ones we’re facing today. As a result, too often we find ourselves wondering what to do.

We’re all pretty fragile financially. And just as you say, none of us can save the whole world. But your partner sounds like she’s practicing at a quantum level above most of us. And she’s not alone.

OK, but how does Mary’s solution really help this woman for more than just a day or two? Obviously, the solution isn’t for us to personally support everybody who gets in a jam.

Sometimes I think our society takes better care of lost kittens than we do lost people. People do get lost, don’t they? We’ve all encountered them. A few of us learn to sense their predicaments and fewer make it their business to intervene. When they do intervene, even the smallest, most unnoticed act of kindness can mean the difference between somebody’s next breath and a silent, inner collapse of their soul. I think your partner may have averted just such an emergency in the life of this woman.

I still don’t understand how Mary helped her in the long run.

Mary made sure this little family’s immediate needs were addressed. They’ll probably get something to eat, sanitation, some clothing, access to a phone and a little rest. In the course of protecting you, she’s also forced their situation to the attention of your agency, which can access other resources (including the media). That may not be all this family needs, but it’s a ton more than they had.


1. http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html; August 13, 2011.

Thom Dick has been involved in EMS for 40 years, 23 of them as a full-time EMT and paramedic in San Diego County. He is the quality care coordinator for Platte Valley Ambulance Service, a community-owned, hospital-based 9-1-1 provider in Brighton, CO. Thom is also a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. Contact him at boxcar_414@yahoo.com.