We lift her onto our stretcher, my own tiny legs nearly collapsing, and she starts to cry. Bearing witness to the surrender of a person so used to hardship is nearly impossible to watch. She’s obese, ugly, mean and alone. None of the area hospitals give her more than the bare necessities, and rightly so; she has burned all of her bridges in the city.
The hospital waives their restraining order for tonight, but additional security is needed to keep an eye on Gayle while she’s treated for her phantom chest pain. People who live on the streets know the buzzwords that will get them in. Chest pain, difficulty breathing and suicidal work much better than alone, tired, hopeless and cold.
Once she’s comfortable, perched on her stretcher in the triage area, off the streets, her demeanor changes once more, and the glint returns to her eye, and her eyes dart back and forth, waiting for somebody to engage her. She’s wound up tight, much like the springs in my mattress and the one that used to wind the alarm bell so long ago. We make eye contact just before I turn to leave. No words are spoken, just the acknowledgement of familiarity that to me means little but to her means much more.
At 0500 I’m back in my bunk, the plastic mattress feels like a fine feather bed once more. I close my eyes, and blackness takes over.
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.