I see the neighborhood mostly through the rear windows of Rescue 1, the images traveling past me going backward. Glimpses of city life witnessed through fleeting glances, snuck between patient care and the paperwork that goes with it. We travel these roads often, cut-throughs between Providence’s busy main thoroughfares, shortcuts learned from years of taking people to hospitals. To us they’re just streets—tools, if you will; means of travel. For the people who live on them, they’re home, often disturbed by speeding rescues and piercing sirens. Sometimes gunfire precedes these interruptions.
As we rush to the scene of a child struck by an auto, I think of the last time I was on this particular street. That time it was for a kid from the neighborhood who didn’t make it out. The last time I saw him, I was standing in the pouring rain in somebody’s backyard. He had a bullet hole in his head. Rain thinned the trail of blood that ran down his chin and onto his t-shirt, making it look fake. I felt for a pulse, felt the skin cold at my fingertips—no radial, no carotid, nothing. His eyed rolled back in his head. I wanted to close them like they do in the movies, but it was a crime scene. I backed out, careful not to trip over the gun that fired the bullet that ended his life.
A few days later I saw his face again. I had to look twice at the picture; he didn’t belong on the obituary page. He was a young guy, long braided hair, his mother dead, raised in foster care. He left his foster mother, a brother and two kids without a father. It was strange, but the picture on the obituary page didn’t differ much from the mental image I had from the day I saw him dead. Going through the motions of life is far different from living.
Life for the rest of us goes on. As we passed the house where he died, different people sat on the deck, enjoying the summer five feet from where a young man ended his life. I looked out the side window and remembered, then focused on the kid who needed us more.
They had put her in the grass, 20 feet from the road where a slow-moving car had run her leg over. She had been playing, enjoying the day with about 20 people, grill fired up, cold drinks full, an inflatable bouncy tent in one of the backyards. A crowd had formed around her; we had to squeeze our way through as her relatives slowly gave ground. Her father had to be moved away from his daughter so we could do our work. He reluctantly let his baby go and watched a bunch of strangers tend to her. She screamed in fear and pain while we splinted her lower left leg, crushed, bleeding and swollen. But she said, “It’s OK, daddy,” her own pain secondary to her worries about her distraught father, as we lifted her onto our stretcher and rolled her away.
A crowd had formed, as it often does in the inner city when flashing lights and the trucks that run them make an appearance. More times than not something violent has preceded it. This time there were no hostilities. It’s a little different when the victim is an innocent 7-year-old and the injury an unfortunate accident rather than an act of aggression or revenge. The crowd stood by respectfully, watching as we did our thing, stabilized the patient, calmed her fears and tried to ease her pain.
There are differing philosophies regarding family members in the treatment area during emergencies. My own is to let the family in and have them close by to offer comfort, especially when children are involved. The little girl’s mother entered our ambulance through the side door and sat on the bench seat, watching as we got ready to go. The leg had been packaged; only some gauze was visible under the blanket that covered the child.
“What is her name?” I asked the mom.
“She doesn’t speak English,” from the little girl, calm as could be.
“Well, then, what is your name?”
“No. Magneline. M-A-G-N-E-L-I-N-E.” Talk about grace under pressure.
She told me her date of birth, her correct address and everything else I asked her. And she told me she was worried about her father. “Where is he? Is he OK?”
We got rolling, Hasbro Children’s Hospital less than a mile away. Her father followed. Once inside the hospital, the nurses took over. In the small treatment room, with the girl’s mother still close by, they undid our packaging. When the mom saw the injuries, she broke down.
“Don’t cry, mama,” said Magneline, soothing her mom, letting her know it would be OK. Then her father joined them, and little Magneline comforted him too.
Then they administered morphine, and little Magneline rested.
I cannot imagine Magneline sinking into the same black hole that draws so many of the inner-city kids into nonproductive existences. The allure of quick money, street cred and popularity takes initiative away and replaces it with instant gratification that cannot be maintained and often ends violently, sometimes with a bullet in the head.
Some of the most promising children are tempted to join gangs, live on the fringes and develop contempt, anger and mistrust of society. Others have a certain something and manage to overcome the allure, stay focused and in school, and make something of their lives. In doing so, they help the rest of us see that even in the bleakest of places, there is always a glimmer of hope.
Thank you, Magneline.
Michael Morse, EMT-C, is captain of Rescue 5 in Providence, RI, and has served on the city’s busiest engine, ladder and rescue squads as a firefighter, rescue technician and lieutenant during his 21-year career. He is the author of the books Rescuing Providence and Responding.