It’s been way too long since I posted.
Things started getting crazy about four weeks ago, when my mother fell and broke her hip. The fracture had to be pinned, the small surgery led to medical complications, and things took time.
While that was going on two weeks back, I was trying very hard to get a blog post written. I felt strongly led to write in depth on a particular theme, without any real story-telling involved. I reviewed what I have been writing the past couple of months, and was surprised to see that I have written several posts already on my chosen theme. While I was still sorting that out, the weekend hit …
Then I sat down with what I suspect was a lingering case of post-traumatic stress, an urge to write without discipline or restraint, and wrote an uncommonly long post that is mostly unusable.
And for those readers who don’t live on the mid-Atlantic seaboard, let me remind you that the region went through a unique experience; our first October snow storm. With the leaves still on the trees, the wet snow and ice (ten-plus inches of it in my town) overloaded the trees, and trees and branches came crashing down on power lines and roads. Much of the region was without power for near a week, and many roads, including the main road into and out of my isolated town, were closed. I had to deal with the lack of light and heat at home, the devastation in my own yard, and running around with the ambulance. I’ve been extra busy with the ambulance.
So, the dog ate my homework. No, what I mean is, this is a peculiar kind of writing I am doing here. The writing goes quickly, but the preparation for writing is exhaustive. (No not exhausting, it’s enlivening. But it takes some time.) I have to spend some time settling and quieting, then listening and dialoguing with the Silence. When I hear and feel the silence — or, what someone else called “the small, still voice” — then, and only then, I am ready to think about writing. So, as hectic as the past couple of weeks have been, it hasn’t been happening.
Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Here’s a story I was able to salvage from my post-traumatic screed. Actually, this is why I was in such a state.
Friday, the evening before the snow even hit:
It had been a tough day. I had spent much of the day getting my mother moved from one rehabilitation facility to another. I got home in the afternoon, very much in need of a nap, but before my eyes quite closed, the ambulance pager sounded, and I ran out to do a long, hard call with a critically ill patient, where I was the only one who could actually see how sick she was. (When we got to the hospital, it was obvious that the nurse and the doctor on duty saw it immediately.)
About 11:30, I was getting ready for bed. I set the ambulance corps radio-pager in its charger next to my bed, and adjusted it so it would only emit sound if they were paging all members, if they needed more of us than the duty crew. A moment later, as I got undressed, I noticed that the small green light on the radio that indicates that the channel is in use, was lit. Curious, I turned a knob.
“…Ringwood Police to the Ringwood Ambulance duty crew and all fire companies, report of a motor vehicle crash with entrapment, Peter Mine Road, near the Recycle Center.”
I stopped getting undressed, started putting my ambulance corps uniform on. As I reached for my heavy, black emergency services boots, the first police unit arrived at the crash: “Ringwood, we have four entrapped occupants with head injuries, one unresponsive. We need more rigs, paramedics, and put a helicopter on standby.” (That quickly became four rigs, two paramedic trucks, and two helicopters in the air.) By the time the “all-call” tones came through the radio, I was heading for the door.
It grieves me to report that only one other member of my squad answered the call that night, so, including the duty crew, we only had five members in two rigs at the scene. Mutual aid rigs from two neighboring towns responded while our third rig sat idle in its bay. (The duty crew consisted of two EMTs and a trainee; for some reason, they decided to send their trainee with us. I drove.)
There are a few things I have to tell you about the crash scene before we get there. First, remember that, even though we are in northern New Jersey, this town is rural and rugged. The road in question runs almost straight and flat for about a mile through new-growth forest with small houses at intervals, and the boro recycling center near the end. A short distance past the crash scene, the road ends with a residential cul-de-sac appended on one side. All this is part of a small, self-contained neighborhood (five streets in all) of a few dozen houses where everyone shares just four family names. (More of their clan live in enclaves in four neighboring towns.) They are the Ramapough, descendants of the native Lenape, runaway slaves, and Hessian deserters from the Revolutionary War. They are isolated, insular, and poor. About forty years ago, Ford Motor Company turned their neighborhood into a toxic waste dump, and it is still one of the worst Super Fund sites in the country.
The duty crew got to the scene at least five minutes ahead of us, and one of the mutual aid rigs was about two minutes ahead of us. As we approached the turn-off for Peter Mine Road, I started calling the incident commander for orders, so I would know how to approach the scene, but he didn’t answer. So, we already knew that we were rolling into pandemonium.
As we passed the last turn-off from Peter Mine Road, approaching the scene, we found the dark country road lined with parked cars! There were people walking, hurrying toward the crash. We came around a gentle bend and saw the red and blue emergency lights, the woods beyond lit up as day by the powerful flood lights on the fire trucks. And more than a hundred bystanders clogged the scene and the isolated country road before me.
I pulled the big ambulance to the side of the road, in a gap between two parked cars, just behind the other emergency vehicles. We each carried something that we expected to need, and wended our way through the crowd and haphazardly stopped emergency vehicles. People in the crowd were crying and comforting each other, milling about in a mix of anguish and fear. We pushed forward with our gear.
When we reached the flood lights, we saw the remains of an SUV off the right side of the road, in the trees. It was blocked up level and stable on the side of an embankment, the left side inaccessible, and the right side off the ground. The entire top of the vehicle, from the windows up, had been removed, as had the doors on the right side. There were EMTs and firefighters swarming over the top of it, while other firefighters pulled tools and car parts away to make safer access.
Walking up to the wreck, I saw that there were still three occupants. The driver and the passenger behind him were conscious, but clearly injured. The front passenger seat was vacant, and the man seated behind it was slumped way forward against the seat back, unresponsive, with just a little blood on his face.
The mutual aid crew were on top of the car, extricating the passenger behind the driver. One member of our duty crew stood next to the car holding equipment, while the other member, an older man with lots of experience, climbed into the front seat. He checked the unresponsive passenger, said to his partner, “I can’t find a pulse”, then climbed past to the driver. He asked for a piece of equipment that I happened to be carrying, so I moved forward and handed it up. This put me right by the unresponsive man, who was teetering in the vacant doorway, so I braced him in place with my right hand on his chest, and checked again for a pulse. Couldn’t find one.
As the mutual aid crew pulled their patient from the wreck, someone came up behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a paramedic. I told him, “We aren’t finding a pulse on this one.”
He felt for the pulse, then said, “Let’s just get him out of here so we can really check him.”
A longboard was handed up to two firefighters on top of the car, and we pushed and pulled the patient onto the board and strapped him to it. I followed the squad of firefighters back to the road, but by the time I got there, the paramedic was pulling a sheet over the patient’s face. I turned and went back to the car, where I helped package the driver for transport. We handed him off to the second mutual aid crew, who had just arrived.
I went looking for the rest of my crew, and, after a couple of minutes, found them on the other rig, with the body. But I had a nagging feeling that we had forgotten something or somebody …. I walked toward the wreck again …
Before I got there, I found her, the missing front seat passenger. I don’t know how she got herself out of the wreck, or who had initiated care, but she was all packaged for transport, collared and boarded on someone’s stretcher, visibly injured, and two paramedics stood over her, doing an initial assessment. But there was no ambulance crew there to assist and transport, so I stepped forward.
One of the medics said, “Let’s load her. Which rig are we using?” I told him, and called someone over to help me move the stretcher. As we pushed past the duty rig, my crew joined us. As we pushed through the crowd of onlookers, a woman (the patient’s sister) and a man joined our group, talking to the patient. We reached the back of the ambulance, opened the doors, and began loading. As we worked, the man demanded, “Where are you taking her?”
I said that we didn’t know yet, and he glared at me furiously. I explained that it was a medical decision, and the paramedics would check her to determine her medical needs, then tell us where to take her to best meet those needs. He stomped off, hopefully to calm down. I got behind the wheel, the patient’s sister next to me, and the medics got in back with my partners. While they worked, I thought about how to get out of there.
We were up a dead-end country road that was totally blocked by fire trucks, just a few feet ahead of us. I could pull into the single open lane next to me and back up the road about 300 feet to a good place to turn around, or I could pull forward a few feet, back into a narrow unpaved track across the road from me, and turn around there — keeping in mind that I was driving an over-sized ambulance with no rear view, and the road was narrow and dark, with people milling around.
When the medics were finally ready to go, I opened my window and called to the man who had confronted me. “We’re going to Good Samaritan. I have to pull forward, then back into that lane to turn around. Would you watch behind me and keep people clear when I back up?” He agreed enthusiastically.
I sounded the electronic horn, turned on my side lights, and began inching forward. The crowd parted just enough to allow me to move, and I kept gesturing for more room as I maneuvered. I backed into the lane, but with the cars parked on the narrow road, I had to jockey back and forth a few times, very carefully. A man yelled at me, “If you don’t know how to drive that thing, let me do it!”
I shouted back, “Get these people back farther so no one else gets hurt!” A couple more maneuvers, and we were free, driving carefully up the dark road. And about twenty-five minutes later, we delivered a stable patient to the trauma center across the state line in New York. (The paramedics were full of wonder at my driving skills, and my partners were full of wonder that they had heard me sound angry.)
In case you were wondering, yes, it is believed that alcohol was involved, and no, no one was wearing a seatbelt. The next day, it snowed — a lot — and things really fell apart. But when the post-traumatic stress cleared, I found myself filled with wonder.
I have written many times about how important community is, both to me, personally, and to the world’s well-being. Here was an amazing allegory of everything I have been trying to say about love of neighbor. A car crashed in the middle of the night, and an entire community came out to cry and pray together, to comfort one another, and to make certain the outsiders knew they were being watched very carefully. People in the crowd were talking on cell phones, and more people kept arriving. This was community on steroids.
But the rest of us, with our uniforms and flashing lights, weren’t seen as part of the community. Even though we live just down the road and shop in the same stores; even though we come into the Ramapough community often to confront the many emergencies that poverty engenders, and even though we are volunteers who show up to help in the middle of the night and in the middle of storms, we aren’t seen as neighbors, we are outsiders. And this separateness, mistrust, and hostility made everything harder, worked against the injured, who all of us cared about, and could have harmed them or hurt more people.
Even when people clearly know how to love their neighbor, all too often, their idea of community is too small, way too small.
And who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:30).
By the way, the name of the hospital really is Good Samaritan Hospital.