By Michael Morse
In an old house in the West End of Providence, Rhode Island, a neighborhood that struggles like so many here do, a lady who had lived there for 40-plus years decided to take a seat. She sat in a kitchen chair, but the chair had had it, unable to bear her weight. It collapsed just as soon as the brunt of the woman’s considerable weight filled it, spilling her to the floor. The floor broke her fall, but the jolt of it caused considerable back and neck pain and no small amount of embarrassment. There were no gross deformities, no bleeding, and no loss of consciousness, so we did the best we could with what we had. The backboard proved unbearable, so we finagled the stretcher through the cramped first-floor apartment, lifted her gently, and carried her outside and into the back of the ambulance.
She was in a lot of pain, and the streets in this part of the city had long ago given up; potholes, craters, and the occasional abyss stood between our location and the ER, so I decided to administer some pain management to make the ride more bearable. As we assessed her vital signs and prepared the IV and morphine, a car suddenly appeared behind us; two men rushed to the back doors and frantically banged away. A girl was stabbed, they said, and bleeding.
The lady on the stretcher looked at the men, concern taking place of the pained look on her face, and said to me, “Go get her.” So get her I did. I left the woman for a moment and approached the car and found a young girl lying in the back seat, diaphoretic and struggling to breathe. All of our ALS units were tied up; there would be a wait of at least 12 minutes for mutual aid to respond. I didn’t think she had 12 minutes. We helped her into the rescue and found she had indeed been stabbed, a centimeter wound on the left side of her upper back. How deep? I didn’t know.
She sat on the bench, I started some oxygen, and we got moving. Her heart rate was in the 130s, her blood pressure was decent, but she had diminished lung sounds on her left side. Her oxygen levels were holding steady, but for how long? I’ve seen stabbing victims circle the drain, and circle the drain quickly. The girl was 16 and told us that the same people who stabbed her cousin last week snuck up behind her and stabbed her. Her tough facade deflated like most illusionary means of survival are wont to do when somebody else puts a hole in it, and tears she held back for who knows how long exploded from her eyes. In a neighborhood where 16-year-old girls are routinely stabbed, tears are a rare commodity.
Bodily fluids cause different reactions in me: Blood doesn’t bother me much, I hate puke, urine isn’t all that bad, and it doesn’t get much worse that bowel movements–but tears? Tears are the worst. I’d rather deal with puke, blood, and urine.
I stood in the well next to the bench, applied pressure to the wound, and tried to think how best to proceed should she crash; fortunately she didn’t, and the 53-year-old lady who had collapsed her chair took over, ignoring her own pain (which I was not able to treat the way I would have liked, considering the situation), held the young girl’s hand and said some soothing things as we bounced along. I think the concern shown by this injured woman, who forgot her own pain for the moment and assisted in the new patient’s care, did more to keep her stable than the two IVs I managed to start while we bounced along.
Strange, wonderful moments of grace come along when I least expect it: Two women of different generations forced together in the back of an overheated ambulance in the West End pulled together and found some tenderness in an ugly world. An Hispanic girl, an African-American lady, and a Caucasian guy found some common ground in a cramped space, blood, tears, pain, and sweat mixing together to form a short-lived bond. We made the best of a bizarre situation and did the best we could.
We survived: The girl went to surgery; the lady was treated and released; and I went to Rescue 1 for the next shift, taking with me the knowledge that kindness has a place in this crazy world called Providence.
Michael Morse, a Providence (RI) Fire Department member for 22 years, writes about his experiences as a firefighter on Engine Co. 2, 7, and 9 and Ladder Co. 7 and 4, as well as his time on Rescue Co. 1 as a lieutenant and Rescue Co. 5, where he is currently captain. He lives with his wife Cheryl seven minutes from his station, which, fortunately for him, is “worlds away.”