Fire Life

The Real World

By Michael Morse

“Engine 3 to Rescue 1, code 99.”

“Rescue 1, received.”

Three years old. Pedi code. Two minutes out. Racking my brain, dosages, kilos to pounds, airway, rhythms, joules, access ….

The baby lived on the third floor of a pediatric nursing home. “The Cabbage Patch,” I’ve heard it referred to, and I myself have called it that. Saying it isn’t disrespectful, or mean, or callous; it’s just one of the many ways we cope with the things we see. I don’t think the name is funny, and neither does anybody else. Ironic maybe, or even appropriate, it doesn’t matter. I think we need to use language that others may find offensive if we are expected to return to difficult scenes again and again. Our dark humor allows us entry into worlds that break the toughest people and, more important than entry, it allows us escape.

Most people have no idea places like this exist, or if they do know, they keep that knowledge tucked away somewhere. Children with severe birth defects live and die here, cared for by people trained to provide the best care possible when the family cannot. I often marvel at the people who choose to expose themselves to what I would be unable to endure every day. There are heroes in hidden places who live their lives in anonymity and do their job without fanfare or acknowledgment from society.

Joshua lived on a ventilator. Three years had passed since he entered this existence, and for three years artificial means kept him alive. He grew, and ate, and smiled, and felt. His parents came every day and took him home on the weekends. His room was full of toys and notes and cards. And people who worked there, and made the noises that he responded to, and whose scent made him smile.

Now it was full of firefighters, EMTs, nurses, a respiratory therapist, and others trying to help; one did compressions on his little chest, another bagged him, and I looked into his eyes with my penlight to see, and I saw: 4mm, fixed and unresponsive. For a brief moment, I thought he would look back at me and smile and say, “What’s all the fuss?”

He didn’t. We loaded him up and brought him to Hasbro Children’s Hospital, where I gave my report. The nurse signed the papers, and we left as his parents rushed in. Three years without speaking a word, or taking a step, or worrying about the future.

He’s gone now, at rest.

It is a strange existence, and I cannot help but wonder if Joshua was ever aware of what he was missing, or if he even knew that he did exist. I do know that I exist, and knowing that people like him, and especially the ones who cared for him and those who cannot care for themselves, make this existence bearable when the weight of it threatens to overwhelm me.

It was the last call of a long tour, one that I am glad is over. The good calls, the monotonous calls, violence, excitement, and heartbreak all meld into one big package that I put away as soon as I leave the station and return to the real world.


Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.