Being an EMT, especially on a volunteer ambulance in a small town, brings you into peoples’ lives in a unique way, and brings some unusual perspectives. One of the things that has surprised me is how many families are caring for very sick or disabled older people at home.
Because my town’s ambulance isn’t all that busy (we average two or three runs a day) our duty crews don’t stay at the ambulance building, but go about their business until the pager goes off. Also, we are short members, and don’t always have a crew on duty, but rely on off-duty members stepping up when the pager goes off. One result of this way of operating is that, if a member is near where the ambulance is needed when the pager goes off, they will go directly to the scene and initiate care while someone else gets the ambulance.
It was probably the autumn of 2006, my first year as an EMT, when we were dispatched to a house in my neighborhood for a woman in her eighties with nausea and abdominal pain, and I went directly from home, arriving even ahead of the police. She was living with her son and daughter-in-law, and it was during the work day. A young woman, who was a friend of the patient’s grandson was looking after her while the family was at work.
She was in bed, mostly naked, and when I came in, the young caregiver started telling me rapidly and incoherently what had happened, while the patient lay exposed. I interrupted her and asked if she could find some clothing she could quickly slide onto the patient, as the room would very soon be filled with cops and other strangers. As she worked, I asked the relevant questions and assessed the patient.
The patient was very uncomfortable with abdominal distress, and obviously very sick – pale and sweaty. She had previously had a heart attack, and two hip replacements, one of which hadn’t turned out well. (There was a motorized wheel chair in the middle of the floor.) The room quickly filled with cops, EMTs, and then paramedics.
Nothing else stands out in my mind about this trip. I remember we had to use a stretcher called a Reeves stretcher to carry her out of the house to where we could set the heavy ambulance cot. As always in cases like this, the paramedics ran an EKG on the way to the hospital, and determined that it was likely she was having a heart attack. (They were right.)
I went back to that house for the same patient a few months later. This time, she was in the living room, sitting in her wheelchair, all dressed and made up. She was feeling somewhat ill, and, because she had a history of heart attacks that present atypically, her doctor had instructed her to call 9-1-1 and get to the hospital.
This time, I was alone with her in the back of the ambulance going to the hospital, and, while I did the routine patient care tasks, monitoring, checking and rechecking vital signs, we chatted. She told me about her heart attacks and hip surgeries, and how difficult life had become with sickness and disability. She began to cry and talk about being a burden to her son and daughter-in-law, who had to take care of her.
I told her that, in allowing them to love her and show their love, she was doing something for them, she was doing them a service, and while it is very difficult to allow others to take care of us, it is the kindest gift we can give people.
I have never been sure that conversation made a difference to her, but it did for me. I had verbalized something I hadn’t realized before, so I remembered it about a half year later, after I had been diagnosed with cancer, when I needed help and needed my own advice about how to receive help.
Being in need isn’t easy. It challenges our self-concept, and can feel humiliating if we don’t learn to see the fundamental difference between “humiliating” and “humbling.” Indeed, it is humbling to need help, and that’s a good thing.
Humility is a virtue, and acquiring it – even if by force – makes our lives better, allows love to deepen and express itself, and, in so doing, makes others’ lives better also.
But it still ain’t easy.