The Shift is a new column by Michael Morse, author of Rescuing Providence and Responding. Over 2014, it will take readers through a typical 24-hour shift in a busy urban fire-EMS department. For more Morse, see installments of his previous column, Stories from the Streets, on www.emsworld.com.
We rode through some of the roughest streets in Providence when we left the ER, not by choice; rather, it was the quickest route home. Rescue 4 is quartered at the Providence Police and Fire Department headquarters, along with Engine Co. 3, Ladder Co. 1, Special Hazards and Division 1, the shift supervisor. The crew was preparing the night’s meal, and it might be all hot! I certainly hoped so; mealtime is my favorite time of day.
“Rescue 4, are you available?” barked the radio speaker.
“Roger, clearing Rhode Island ER,” I replied.
“Rescue 4 and Engine 3, respond to Route 95 south at exit 17 for a reported pedestrian struck.”
I keyed the mic. “Rescue 4, responding.”
“Roger, Rescue 4, at 1922 hours.”
Jared looked a little confused, so I gave him some direction and settled in. It is imperative to know the streets in the city, and most people spend countless hours studying maps, but no matter how well you know the streets by map, responding from the middle of the city is far different from leaving the familiar ground of the station.
It doesn’t matter how long I’ve responded to emergencies, I find every one brings with it a certain level of excitement. I rue the day it just doesn’t matter. A pedestrian struck on an interstate has the potential to be catastrophic. I reached into the box between the seats and grabbed some gloves, knowing that if indeed a person was struck, there would be multiple glove changes. I gave Jared a handful.
The breakdown lane was mercifully open, and we moved toward the incident. As we closed in things became clear. I saw from the activity on scene and the lifeless form in the low-speed lane all I needed to know.
“Rescue 4 on scene with police, cancel Engine 3.”
“Roger, Rescue 4. Nature?”
“Grab some sheets,” I told Jared and moved slowly past the troopers toward the body. We covered the remains with sheets as white as the skin on Jared’s face.
“Rescue 4 to fire alarm.”
“Go ahead, Rescue 4.”
“On scene at 1927 hours. Time of death, 1927.”
“Roger, Rescue 4. Are you in service?”
I looked toward my partner and responded. “Negative.”
The first body I saw, other than one in a casket, had been struck by a train. I dodged blobs of humanity scattered across the railroad tracks as I approached the carcass; quarter-size chunks of meat that moments before were held together by a suicidal man’s skin squished under my shoes the closer I got. My world began spinning, and I thought I was going to faint. Nausea crept into me and stayed as an aura of unreality enveloped me. The coppery smell that filled the air nearly overwhelmed me.
“Suck it up, kid,” was all I got from my officer.
So I did. And I remember every second of that call to this day, and it haunts me still.
“You OK?” I asked Jared as we left the highway and the smell of copper.
“Fine,” he said.
“These things happen whether we’re there or not,” I said. “Because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That guy was going to be dead whether we declared him so or not, and there wasn’t a thing we could have done to change it.”
It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. Maybe he would be OK, maybe not, but I didn’t want to leave him hanging.
“What do you think happened?” he asked after a few minutes had passed.
We talked about it all the way back to the station; it didn’t take long before words were flowing, and feelings previously trapped were allowed to escape, and some sort of sense was made of the tragedy. It helped me to talk about it, and it helped him. The wave of nausea had returned as soon as I saw the scene in the distance and knew the lifeless form in the high-speed lane was another body. I suppressed it and did my job and had no intention of letting the image, sounds and smells that accompanied the event lie dormant inside of me, like a insidious disease waiting to attack.
“Rescue 4 to fire alarm, hold us out of service for decon,” I said into the mic as we backed into quarters. As we climbed the 22 steps from the apparatus floor to the living quarters, the station PA cracked, and the words “all hot!” filled the air.
“You hungry?” I asked Jared.
“Starving,” he replied and gave me an uncomfortable grin, and we joined the firefighters just sitting down for the night’s meal.
Michael Morse, EMT-C, is a rescue captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department.