Your Choices Change Us

Originally, I wrote this piece for a high school memoir assignment. Up until that point, I had not been able to write a single thing relating to the subject. Except for poetry. Something about broken lines appeals to fractured minds.

For my colleagues who have read this and for those just beginning, you should know something first: I abhor this piece. For me, writing this was similar to emesis. And what person enjoys returning to her own vomit?

I did not change names in this public account either. The people mentioned deserve credit for all that they have done, did, and do.

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Your Choices Change Us

Dear Patient,

There are accidents and there are intentions. I will not say which pertains to your case because sometimes, I don’t even know myself. Did you know what you were doing? I wonder, I wonder. But don’t fretI will tell you. I will tell you what your choices have done.

You should know that it was my first ride along. You should know that my hands and feet were sweating buckets hours before I was due to arrive at the station. You should know that the only thing that kept me calm was the steady repetition of, “I could save someone’s life.” You should know that I was given a yellow highway vest in the morning and was told, “You probably won’t need it, but EMS is unpredictable.” You should know that I believed I wouldn’t don that thing for another eon of experience. You should know that I was wrong.

 

At 7:55, I arrived at the Wayland EMS station. The air was bitterly cold, but my nerves kept me insulated. Yes, I remember wiping my palms on my black pants, before stepping around my car to enter the building. I had cash in my pocket, a sack lunch in my hand, and various papers to fill out for the end of my 9-5 shift. Despite the anxiety circulating my system, I was ready.

Inside the main doors, was Robin, a gentle old woman who oversaw the clinicals. I was the first from my EMT class to embark on such a trial of practical skill. I was first for many reasons, one of them being my desire to have seniority over fellow classmates. The other reason being that we didn’t have school that Friday, so I would not miss any of my classes.

“Good morning,” Robin greeted in that calm tone of voice I have only ever known her to possess. “Are you ready?”

I didn’t have time to answer before she was sweeping me towards the office. We stood in the doorway, and I glimpsed the paramedic I would come to respect so completely. He was a tall man, though I couldn’t tell from how he was leaning back in an office chair. He was bald, too, with a grin that meant more than just welcome, but you’re-in-for-it-now.

“Maci, this is Orland,” Robin introduced, and I had the decency to say something like “hello,” though that detail escapes me.

I was then taken to the living quarters, where I met Meghan and Don, as well as some other employees who I would work with later. I recognized Don from an earlier training session in the fall. My friend and I called him cinnamon bun because he sang softly to himself in public. We thought that was endearing. I’d never met Meghan, but she was young and blonde, beautiful in every place that I was not (which was most places).

You know when you meet people and you think little of it? You don’t know the people and probably never will, so who cares what their names are? I thought little of it then, too. I would memorize every line of their expressions, every word they ever said in my presence, later. That’s what happens when your life changes with others. You remember them just as vividly as you remember the event.

Following my presentation to the crews on shift, Robin launched me to the ambulance. I’d never been in one, and immediately took account of as many little details as possible. The OB kit was in cupboard 6, above the long, maroon bench. There were seat belts hooked into the wall, and Clorox cleaning wipes stashed between that bench and the wall, as well. From my cubby (where I was told was my seat for the day), I could manage the patient’s head, take vitals, and see out the stretch of window across from me. In that seat, my legs were crowded by the stretcher, a yellow-skeleton thing layered in a pink sheet, pillow, and red blanket. Just looking at it caused adrenaline to shoot into my veins. I was not ready.

“Here is your special vest,” Robin handed me the yellow wad that had been in her grip since orientation began. “You must keep this with you all day, and you must wear this if you guys go out to the road or the highway. If that happens,” Robin gave me a stern look, “stay with your paramedic. Because if you are lost in the chaos of the scene, the paramedic will not wait for you.” Robin had a tendency to enunciate key words— must, if, not— but she still managed to do so with a calm, even tone.

Seemed harsh, but I wasn’t about to argue with a system I barely knew.

“Okay,” I nodded my head in understanding, trying to picture what chaos could possibly separate me from my paramedic. I couldn’t see anything past my own irrational insecurity, but I took the vest anyway.

“You probably won’t need it,” Robin assured me, “but EMS is unpredictable.”

She was wrong.

 

As unpredictable as EMS is, it is predictable. My first calls pertained to elderly patients, a staple of the job. How many times had I read that the elderly population is two times more likely to call 911 than any other? Enough times to have it surfacing in my mind as I wrote down a long list of medications for one of my patients.

Time rolled and waved by until I noticed the clock, and it read 4:28. I’d learned from an earlier conversation with Abby (another EMT) that, “Around 5, we always get a call. Without fail.” At that point, I wanted to go home. I hoped Abby’s statement to be untrue. It wasn’t. She was right.

I was hunched over the dining room table, scribbling with my pen, trying to appear busy, though no one was watching. It was an eventful day, as far as calls went, but an entirely lackluster one. I hadn’t yet done anything worth bragging to the class about on Monday. That was okay with me. I had two more clinicals next month, so I told myself I would be more prepared for excitement then. I was slightly terrified of putting the blood pressure cuff on backward or sticking the nasal cannula in the wrong way. I was slightly terrified of failure in general, which is never a good combination with anything medical.

4:30.

And then those hideous tones went off, high-pitched and jarring, like the smoke alarms from my childhood.

My spine straightened, alert, eyes wide and ears strained to understand the static.

Dispatch announced through the radio waves, “Pedestrian struck my semi…”

A chorus of words followed suite that I am not allowed to repeat in school. I can’t remember thinking anything. A cold front anchored to my brain.

I think I stopped breathing, though I grabbed my vest and followed Orland to the garage. Before I completely disappeared, Abby called after me, “Stay with Orland. It’s going to be crazy out there.” That’s when the reality sunk in. I put on the yellow vest.

I was strapped in my cubby seat of the ambulance before I remembered getting there. Orland was in the back with me, the sirens wailing above our heads, above our voices. Sometimes, I can still hear that pitch. Sometimes, when I really do hear the sirens, my mind cowers inside my skull, like a skittish cat.

“I don’t know how this guy is going to look,” Orland was saying, all traces of his former humor gone. I nodded because I didn’t know what else to do. What did I need? Should I grab the jump kit? A pen and paper certainly wouldn’t help this patient. In my mind, I went over the numbers for CPR.

No longer than ten seconds to check a pulse and breathing…

One person: Thirty compressions, two breaths.

Two person: Fifteen compressions, two breaths—

“If there’s something you can’t handle…” Orland was still talking? It took me a moment to process what he had said. I nodded again because I could handle anything. I could do my job. To say otherwise would be to admit weakness, which is something I learned from a young age is better left out of the equation.

I remember that Don was driving because Meghan was fairly new to the area, so she didn’t know her way around yet. I remember that the traffic was bad enough that Don swerved into the highway shoulder to get through. Lights and sirens couldn’t part that sea. I don’t think Moses could have either. I remember the truck stopping, Orland tossing an oxygen tank on the stretcher. I remember being told that I didn’t have to leave my seat, and I remember saying, “No, it’s fine.” I grabbed the burgundy jump kit and followed Orland out the door.

I may as well have jumped into another dimension. Despite Robin and Abby’s advice, I lost sight of Orland immediately. I lost him in the pale yellow of firefighters, the faded green of the grass. I lost him in the robotic tones, “No shock advised,” as I approached the scene.

Someone— the man ventilating you, I think— warned me not to set the jump kit in a puddle of blood. Obviously, I thought, as I had already noted the crimson pool, slick as ice on that dead earth.

And there you were, so internally broken that every maneuver we did on you looked wrong. Your chest was a balloon refusing to pop. Your neck like a bird’s wrung and loose. Your eyes, open and so blue, I was immediately reminded of the smooth sea glass my sister and I had found that summer on the beach.

I walked around your feet, around the horde of people trying to save you. I stared at the ground the entire way. I noticed something glinting near your hand, something tangled in the dying grass. The world seemed to freeze then, as my brain made sense of that object. It was just me and you and that golden cross lying dejectedly in the grass. I thought to myself, My sister has the same exact one, except it’s silver. I could picture where hers was, wrapped around her rearview mirror. I wondered if yours was usually wrapped around your neck, or if you had it clenched in your fist when the semi kissed your body.

When I blinked, I was standing next to Meghan, behind your head. When I blinked again, I saw Kathi Osborne manning the AED. She wasn’t on shift, I know, but somehow, she was there. I can’t say I have ever been more relieved to see a familiar face in my life.

However shattered you were on the inside, you were pale and purple on the outside. I found my eyes averting to your socks, so white and unscathed. I followed the gentle curve of your feet. Your socks were a distraction from the deformities in your arms and wrists, from the evidence of bone breakage and otherwise. I did not even think to question where your shoes may have gone. It was only later, when the police were combing the area with cameras, that we found them— twenty yards apart.

But the horror of your accident is not what I wanted to tell you. I want to tell you about the people, about those your choices changed with the careless slam of your car door.

Orland: This man so confident, so eager, that he facilitated your rescue and then your body’s transport, without batting an eye.

Don: This man so tender and caring, he jumped ahead of the string of firefighters to do chest compressions on you.

Kathi: This woman so big-hearted that she first responded from home, wearing sweatpants, just to be by your side.

Meghan: This woman, who never laughs but always chuckles, grew with me in that moment, as we witnessed your blood soak through pink linen. A blot of red paint. A watercolor canvas. We were instructed to cover your being with it because you were gone. There was nothing else we could do, except wait for the medical examiner.

You were pronounced dead five minutes after we arrived on scene. But your choices stuck with us much longer, like some kind of industrial glue. For two hours, I stood in the cold, hovering over your covered corpse. For two hours, I watched the traffic get worse, watched two other cars, across from us, fly off the highway. For two hours, I watched that poor truck driver limp back and forth, your specter trailing behind him, more crippling than any stiff leg.

For two hours, I shivered in the frigid evening air, thinking, It could be worse. It could be raining. Strangely, I thought little of you then. I thought little of anything except the simple things. The sky was gray, slightly cloudy in the distance. There were two pine trees ahead of me, dark green and stoic. Don and Meghan were talking about the Casino billboard to our right, the one that advertised $10.99 dinners like steaks, chicken legs, and other platters. They were hungry. I was cold. We were avoiding the subject, the subject being you, lying three feet from our cluster of persons.

I stopped shivering then. My muscles no longer shook, my body no longer ice. The world rushed over my head in waves. I heard none of it, saw none of it. I was inexplicably alive in that expanse of seconds, like a pocket of time and truth. It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes, and all that I felt was peace. I thought about you then, and I wondered if you felt a warm sensation like this, as your heart exploded. I wondered if Life had been shaking you too long. I wondered. I wondered. I wondered. Is it what you wanted? Is it what you feared?

The only thing I did to help you, was put you in a body bag, black and smelling of new plastic. Your skin was wax, your body stiff with arctic air and rigor mortis. I wanted to close your eyelids, but I admit it, I was afraid to touch you. I can still feel the weight of your arm falling against my knee, as we moved you into that bag. I can still see the purple puddle on your back, trapped underneath your skin, trapped the same way my memories of that day are trapped inside my neurons.

And then we were whisked away, a trail of “Are you alright?” echoing in my ears. “Sure, yes.” Anything to get their eyes off of me. I didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to think about the contents of the body bag we left in the ditch.

But I did.

Somewhere between your shoes, between Meghan and Don, between life and death, I lost something in that ditch. And it was more than just you.

 

You should know that your choices change us. You should know that I was late for dinner that night. You should know that, even as I took the back roads home, traffic— traffic you caused— crept by in inches. You should know that it was only when I was ten minutes from home, that I cried. You should know that I cried because I could not save you. You should know that I wanted to quit the course training. You should know that, sometimes, I still do. You should know that I am looking for a redemption call. You should know that I have yet to receive one.

I know I couldn’t save you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to. I know, I know, I know— I don’t. A quiet voice inside my head, Could I have saved you if I had a chance? I don’t know. I dreamt I did, but your very real death was a stark reminder of how little dreams matter.

When I woke up the next day, the world was spinning. I couldn’t tell if it was because my mind had shattered or if it was because that’s what the world does— it spins, and us along with it.

You were all I could think about, all I could obsess about. I could write my way out of any emotion, but I could not write my way out of this one. I couldn’t even pretend otherwise. No words could erase what my eyes had seen. You couldn’t possibly have known, could you? You couldn’t possibly have known that one, two— three of your steps would lead to my utter deficiency, my utter inability to recall anything but your eyes, so blue that they are sea glass in the haze of gray memories. You couldn’t have known.

While my friends laughed over vine compilations and debated the quality of art, I thought about your eyes. While my teachers expressed niceties— prodded by discrete emails from my counselor, I am sure— and while I learned that HClO4 is a strong acid because it ionizes completely in water; while I learned that the anti-derivative is the same thing as taking the integral; while I learned that Islam is a beautiful religion; while I learned that this poet meant that when he wrote this— I thought about your eyes. I thought about all the ways I could have saved you and about all the ways I had failed you. Me, the student. Out of all of those policemen, all of those firemen, all of those medical responders on that hopeless scene, I blamed me. All I wanted was to save someone. And I failed.

I learned much later— almost a month— that I should never have been given the choice to leave the ambulance that day. I should never have seen you, should never have known that your hair was gray, your socks were white, and your eyes were blue. I guess Orland was not supposed to give me the choice of knowing, of following him out the door. Does that matter now? Hardly. I think I would have felt worse, had I been disinvited to your case.

But you should know:

Your choices change us. The shockwave of your death became the shockwave of my despondency, became the shockwave of another’s inability to understand. It is a vicious cycle. Just as radiation alters cells, your choices change our body chemistry. Vertigo to blankness to “I’m fine” to if only, if only, if only. If the sun hurt you, lights and sirens hurt me. If death is your sentence, life is mine.

 

It is one thing to tell the story. It is another to allow people to know it. Perhaps you were familiar with this dilemma, but you couldn’t have possibly known the error in your calculations. We were all casualties to your choices. When I speak about you, people pretend I’ve said something else, something about the weather, about cats. They pretend I’ve said something different because no one wants to hear stories about dead men.

But it’s about time these stories came out.

Your choices change us. Sometimes for better. Sometimes for worse.

I am still trying to figure out where I have landed.

 

Yours in contemplation,

Maci Bennett

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