The Lifeguard

Obviously, I have been suffering from writer’s block. Back way before Christmas, I started writing a post that quickly ceased interesting me, and I haven’t been able to finish it. I have assumed that the real problem has been busy-ness, with my mother in rehab for a broken hip, all the holiday stuff, some minor medical stuff of my own, and a little travel. However, I am thinking now that that is all camouflage; the real reason I can’t finish writing that post is that there is something else I really should be writing about instead. There’s this big elephant in my mental space that won’t go away, but must be treated carefully.

There it is.

When I retired from police work back in 2004, I wrote a long essay about my career. I found myself telling stories, the stories that most demanded to be told, and, when I was done, I was surprised to realize just how many of the stories that insisted on being told involved dead or damaged children. I wrote:

… in telling these stories, I have learned some new things about myself – it hasn’t been fun – and there may be more to learn. Here’s what I have learned: most of the important events of my police career that keep demanding to be told involve dead or devastated children.  And, after twenty-seven years as a cop, there is a great sadness in me that I never recognized, but, nonetheless, keeps demanding to be told.

You may recall that my last post was about the death of my eleven year-old cousin, and, not too long ago, I wrote about a traffic accident that killed one young person and severely injured three more. Do I need to tell you that the elephant in my mental space is a dead young person, the worst ambulance call of my EMS career? While this blog is about love, not about death, it is also quite clear that death peels our layers away, leaving the love all raw and exposed.

Here’s what I can say without crossing any ethical lines: The patient was a young woman, just at the age of majority. In the very early morning hours of Christmas, her father found her on the bathroom floor, not breathing. I was the second emergency responder to arrive, coming directly from home, and getting there shortly after the first police officer arrived and began CPR. The patient had vomited, and the vile fluids that only come out of the dying filled her throat and mouth, dripped from her face, puddled on the floor. Using my gloved hands and a turkey baster I commandeered from the kitchen, I cleared her airway, secured it, and began ventilating.

When the ambulance arrived, my partner suctioned the patient’s airway properly, we got her on the stretcher, and out to the ambulance. (It was a few steps up to the street, and the police carried the heavy stretcher for us, going through the garden gate so fast, I think they knocked it off its hinges.) The paramedics were just arriving, and we got in the back of the ambulance, and all four of us worked on her for another half hour without getting a single blip on the heart monitor, aside from our CPR compressions.

I have lost count of the number of times I have done CPR, and I have done this work in front of patients’ spouses and children, both grown and small. But this was the youngest person I have ever done CPR on and the first time in front of the patient’s parents. Their barely-suppressed hysteria was palpable, as they orbited the room, not knowing what to do with themselves, but they held it together, followed our requests, and helped us, with tears running down their faces — such heroes. It tore my heart out. (Come to think of it, it may have been the girl’s father who tore the gate off its hinges.)

I have now been writing this story in fits and starts for more than a week. I have thought about this small event every day, from December 25 to January 18, have shed some tears almost every time I have thought of it. This past Sunday evening, the ambulance pager went off while I was watching Downton Abbey, sending the duty crew to a house in my neighborhood where a small child was choking. As I ran to the door, I remembered not saving someone’s child, struggling to clear her airway while a young cop pushed on her bared chest and the horrified parents watched and sobbed, and suddenly, I couldn’t breath, couldn’t draw breath as my chest tightened in panic. I lurched to my car, started the engine and the blue emergency light, and started up the street, telling myself Breath. Drive. Breath. Drive. Breath … I didn’t draw a full breath until the first cop got on the radio and said Advise responding units the child is conscious and breathing without difficulty.

(I was so proud of my ambulance corps that night, we had three off-duty EMTs on-scene before the duty crew got the ambulance on the road.)

There are many who would say that what I have described here is a first-class case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and their case is a strong one. However, it doesn’t feel like a disorder, it feels natural and proper. It is natural to love all children beyond reason. It is natural to be rent with compassion for parents we have seen watch their daughter die of despair; we are all one! — and love and compassion are how we experience oneness. It is when we are burdened by love and compassion that we are closest to God, experiencing God and God’s consciousness as best we can.

And so, I am content to rest in my “disorder”, my layers peeled, my soul bare and raw, so long as my Teacher sees benefit in leaving me so.

(Please experience this amazing poem by James Dickey, “The Lifeguard.”)

2 responses to “The Lifeguard

  1. This a beautiful story Paul. Fierce. Thanks for the beauty and the ferocity.

  2. Pingback: Adventure! | Something Entirely Different

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