Outside her apartment, city life flourished. An intoxicated man stumbled across the street, and kids in gangs strolled the sidewalks slowly. Litter blew past, along with airborne grit that had been dumped onto the pavement by sand trucks during the brutal winter just now giving way to spring. Somebody had unlocked the door at the street level, two doorknobs and a deadbolt. We walked the stairs, another unlocked door with double locks waited. I knocked; a voice from behind the door welcomed us in.
She was on the couch next to the door, dressed in a coat and wearing gloves. It was freezing in her apartment.
Nothing hung from the walls. The place was immaculate. A fine lace tablecloth covered the dining room table, and a matching one sat atop a little table in front of the couch she occupied.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You see that table?” she asked, pointing toward the dining room. I noticed that it leaned to one side.
“Last night I fell on that table and it pushed to the side, my back is hurting something terrible.”
Her voice had a lyrical quality to it, beautifully spoken, almost like a song.
We helped her to the truck and started toward the hospital. I asked her the usual questions, one answer stuck out, she had an allergy to chlorine.
“Chlorine?” I asked, having never heard of that allergy before.
“It’s for the malaria,” she explained.
“Did you ever have malaria?” I asked. I never knew anybody who did.
“I did, and it’s awful,” she replied.
She came from Gabon, Africa. It’s a small, beautiful, country nestled between Congo and Cameroon, on the South Atlantic coast she told me. She spent a dozen years in a refugee camp. She didn’t tell me why or how she ended up in south Providence.
“It’s much warmer in Africa,” she said, wistfully. “My family is still there. Perhaps some day we will meet again.”
The sadness in her voice and faraway look in her eye transcended the few feet between us, and I felt a small part of her pain for a brief moment before the gloom lifted. She smiled then and silence descended upon us, but after a few moments it passed. Communication need not be through spoken words or gestures, sometimes a moment of silence says more than volumes of books.
Before long we were at the hospital, but not before she insisted on making us some Jollof rice someday to thank us.
I had never heard of Jollof rice until that moment. I had never heard of Gabon, Africa, for that matter. If I hadn’t become an EMT there are a lot of things I never would have heard of.
Once the classes and lectures were done, the training evolutions were over and the simulations through, the education that feeds my soul began. People’s medical problems are pretty much universal. It’s their stories that make this work fascinating.
Of course, not everybody offers us something to eat. Some of our patients offer us the opportunity to test our human relations skills instead:
"You were bit by a mouse?"
"Right on my foot."
"Did you see the mouse?"
"No, but I know it was a mouse."
"How do you know?"
"Because my cat chased him into the box."
"Did the cat follow him in there?"
"No, he didn't fit."
"Why did you put your foot into the box if you knew there was a mouse in there?"
"I didn't think mice bit."
"Maybe it was a rat."
"No, it was a mouse."
"Are you sure?"
"Get in the truck."
Job satisfaction can be found in ways you never expect. For me, it’s the people I would never have met, and their stories of struggle and triumph that matter most. That I have the ability, training and resources to help them feel better, sometimes heal them and often simply listen when they have nobody else is something I will always be grateful for.
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.