We are called to a house on Elmwood Avenue, a boarding house, not known for the upscale clientele. We trudge up the stairs to one of the rooms, heavily fortified and completely unsanitary to find a 59-year-old male hunched over in an easy chair. His body is obviously wracked with pain.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“I slept in my chair, now my back hurts,” he responds.
“Get up and stretch,” I say, a little annoyed.
“Can’t. Broke my ribs,” he groans.
“Well, sit and stretch,” I suggest, a little less annoyed.
“Can’t, broken vertebrae.”
I take a closer look. The visor on his black baseball cap lays low on his forehead. A handsome man looks up at me through eyes filled with pain.
“Come on, we’ll get you to the hospital,” I say, embarrassed with my annoyed behavior.
“My doctor is at St. Farthest.”
Here we go again. I begin to tell him there’s no way I’m going to take him across the city, past two perfectly fine hospitals, when I see his medications. He is HIV+.
“How long have you had HIV?”
“Since ’83. I’m an addict.”
St. Farthest has a program where they do great work with AIDS and HIV+ patients. A cross-town trip won’t kill me. We load him up the best we can—broken ribs and vertebrae are tough injuries to work around. He’s a trooper, only complaining a little.
Inspiration comes from the strangest places. This time it’s in the back of Rescue 1, two guys from different worlds talking about the Celtic and Laker years of the ’80s. He’s a Laker fan, me the Celtics. Doesn’t matter, it’s as if Magic and Bird are in the ambulance with us.
“I remember when I heard about Magic,” I say, referring to his HIV diagnosis. “I thought he was a goner.”
“I thought I was a goner,” he smiles, and we reminisce. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Robert “The Chief” Parish. Worthy, Johnson and all the rest. I feel like I’m with an old friend, just watching the game and having a beer.
Turns out he’s a Vietnam-era, combat-wounded Special Forces veteran. He doesn’t mention that, one of the security guards at St. Farthest served with him and tells me. I wonder if the folks at St. Farthest see a destitute former addict with HIV and fail to see the man under the visor.
I hope not. I nearly missed an opportunity to connect with another human being because of my preconceived ideas based on where he lived. I could spend a lifetime administering medications, bandaging and splinting, doing CPR and working trauma codes, and would never feel the satisfaction I get from simply being with another person and sharing our common humanity. EMS is more than a job—it’s an everyday opportunity to grow as a person and provider. Paying attention to the people I treat is the key to understanding that.
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.