She pulled the safety pin out of her arm and handed it to me. Blood poured out of the hole, running from inside her elbow to her wrist. I handed her a few 4×4s.
“Thank you,” I said. “You’re going to get blood on your sweatshirt.” It was a New York Yankees sweatshirt, but still.
She took the gauze pads from my hand and placed them on top of the hole in her arm as I placed the pin into the sharps container. Her other wrist showed old wounds. She is a cutter. Now she is self piercing as well.
We had left the group home minutes before, after the police had escorted her out following some behavioral issues. She was on fire then, full of anger, still hot from whatever had happened inside. It wasn’t my first time with her.
“You look sad, Shantee,” I tried to get through. “Not mad, like usual.” She stared into space, stone face in place, not blinking, not showing any of her true thoughts, but the mask had grown tired, her facial muscles giving in to the true feelings she tried desperately to cover with her self-mutilation. “What happened?”
“Is it everybody there, or just the lady working tonight?” I asked. It was always the same attendant whenever I was called to take her away.
“I don’t like any of them,” she finally spoke, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“Have you tried to leave?”
“I have nowhere to go.”
“Another group home maybe.”
“You need a plan.”
“I have a plan.”
“And what is that?”
“I plan to die.”
The way she said it stunned me—no emotion, no drama, just the facts. I’ve seen more than my share of hanging bodies and overdoses to not take her at her word. At one time I thought that a person ready to take their own life was at a dramatic, crisis-fueled moment in their existence, and made the final choice as an act of desperation. Now I know that for the person who takes their own life the end is no more significant than a sneeze.
“That is a terrible plan.”
I had to try. She wasn’t talking to me, so I began talking to myself, out loud.
“I wouldn’t want to be 18 again for all the money in the world. A lot of people feel the same way. It sucks. And those kids on TV and at school, all cool and everything, without a care in the world, going through life without a problem, two parents, maybe a car and a boyfriend? It’s bullshit. It’s a lie. Everybody hurts, they are just better at hiding it. There is always sadness; it’s in all of us. Some just get a little more.”
I looked at her and noticed she was looking back.
“But there’s another side and you can find it—and you will, just don’t give up.”
The truck was backing in to the ER now, my time was nearly through.
“I’ll tell you one more thing,” I said as we walked out. “At least you’re honest. That’s a lot more than most of us have, so busy trying to look happy and all that bullshit. Stay honest, and don’t let anybody lie to you, and I hope you will be OK.”
Nothing. She followed me in, and sat in “the chair” and stared into space, lost again, wherever she goes.
Two hours later I brought another patient in. Shantee was still sitting in the same spot. She didn’t expect to see me, and when she did, the most genuine smile I have seen in a long, long time brightened her face. She kept it for a few seconds, met my eyes, and then looked away. It was completely spontaneous and totally honest.
And it made all the bullshit go away—made me realize why I’m here. I just may have saved a life tonight, and it didn’t take any meds, defibrillators or rapid interventions, just good old emotion and honesty.
It felt good to be alive.
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.