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Patient Care

Stories from the Streets: Legs


“Rescue 1 and Engine 13, respond to The Highrise for an emotional, suicidal female with a knife; stage for police.”

The cops got there first.

“She needs to get those legs looked at,” said one of the three officers who stood in the corridor outside the patient’s apartment. She was in the corridor as well, sitting in a wheelchair, a bloody towel on her lap. A little ankle biter barked non-stop inside the apartment; I peeked in and saw him, inside his cage, protecting his territory as best he could.

“She’s not going to want to go with you guys. I hope you can talk her into it,” said one of the officers, his demeanor making it clear he would prefer to be anywhere but here.

I walked toward the wheelchair bound person, crouched down and made eye contact. Then I looked over my shoulder at the circus behind me. Three cops and four firefighters had responded to the call, along with me and Brian. Then I looked back at her, a 24-year-old lady with tiny legs, clean clothes, highlights in her shoulder-length hair and a half smile on her face. She was amused with all of the commotion she had caused.

“Strong work,” I said, and grinned.

Her smile grew.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I was frustrated after arguing with my boyfriend last night. He wouldn’t leave me alone, or leave my place. I can’t throw him out,” she glanced down, “I don’t know why, but I did this.” She lifted the bottom of her pants, pulled them over her knee and rolled the material back. First one, then two lacerations stretched from one side of her thigh to the other. They were deep enough to require stitches.

“You have to come with me and have those looked at,” I said, keeping the shock out of my voice, and eyes, I think.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because those are serious wounds, and they’re self-inflicted, and you need some help.”

“I manage just fine.”

“What happened to your legs?” I asked. They were half the size they should have been, atrophied and useless.

“Spina bifida,” she said, bravely, as if it were just an annoyance.

“Do you have feeling in them?”

“A little.”

“Did you feel it when you sliced them open?”

“Not really.”

“How about when you stitched them closed?”

The wounds on her thighs had been savagely stitched together with sewing thread and needle. A dozen pinpricks—covered by red welts waiting to fill with pus as infection invaded—bordered each side of the sliced flesh, and bloody thread held the skin together.

“I didn’t do that. My boyfriend did. He wouldn’t leave me alone until I let him.”

“Did it hurt?”

“Oh yeah,” she winced. “It hurt a lot.”

Her boyfriend had taken a needle and thread, and sewed her up. Just like a torn pair of jeans. The pain would have been unbearable to most, but her life of pain had made this latest injustice bearable.

“That leg will get infected, and you might lose it,” I told her. She gave me the strangest look when I mentioned she might lose a useless leg.

“I’ll go,” she said after giving it some more thought, and likely realizing that she was going whether she agreed to go or not. Then she me the most genuine smile I’ve seen in a while when I let the police and firefighters go. We took her to the ER and she told me about her “boyfriend” of six months, who stitched her leg and told her not to call anybody, because he would take care of her.

“And where is Mr. Wonderful now?” I asked.

“Out taking care of my disability check.”

Her home has become a prison, her body making escape impossible without help. The only person she has to help her is too busy helping himself to be of any use to her, but he is all she has and she will let him back into her life, and suffer in silence. I left her at the ER. It took dozens of calls and dozens of patients before I was able to clear her from my mind and move forward, admittedly not as quickly as I once did, or as easily.

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.

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