I sat alone on the bench of my ambulance, tears falling unchecked, quite sure I had made some seriously bad career decisions. The stretcher was all made up with clean, folded linen and a fresh pillow, but in my mind I still saw it disheveled, only one strap fastened over the tiny, still body. I wasn’t cut out for this. I mean, who was? What kind of lunatic could do this?
The infant had been gone too long for me to do anything to help, but in the dimness of the mobile home I couldn’t be sure. In the bright lights in the back of the ambulance, it was clear. She was blue, and cooling quickly out of the hot environment of the trailer in the summer heat. There was no activity in her heart. She was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it.
My partner had kept her distance, not sure how I was going to react, giving me time to compose myself. It was cool inside the ambulance bay, but I could still feel the heat from that home, giving me false hope that the baby could be saved. I had put on a professional mask, informed the family that she had been gone too long, transferred the scene to the state troopers and the coroner. Being a paramedic, there was nothing else I could do there.
It was the first question everyone asked when I said I wanted to be a paramedic. “How will you handle children, babies, dying?” It was the topic of conversation among students, the first thing rookies asked the old pros. “How did you handle your first SIDS baby?” It is the question on everyone’s mind when they first get into an ambulance on the first day. The half-finished letter of resignation on the bench beside me was my answer. “How did you handle your first SIDS baby?” “Not well, kid. I quit to become an accountant…”
I sat there alone trying to deal with my feelings for almost an hour. Layers of tears dried on my face as I went through waves of being ok, NOT being ok, wanting to finish my letter, wanting to tear it up, and wanting to just lay down and sleep for a month. I was so deep in thought that I jumped a mile when the back door opened and a familiar face appeared.
This particular state trooper had worked dozens of scenes with me, seen me hold together through some messy ones, heart-wrenching ones, all the stuff that goes along with our professions, and had seen me be strong. I guess now it was only right that he see me be weak.
Without invitation, he climbed inside and sat down on the bench. Picking up the half-finished letter, he read it. Putting it down and looking at me, he said, “That’s your plan? Walk away?”
I shrugged, changing the full battery on my monitor so I wouldn’t have to look at him. “Not a bad way to deal. There’s plenty of other jobs out there where you don’t ever have to hold a dead baby.”
“True,” he said. “There are. But not for you. This is where you belong.”
“Not necessarily,” I replied, now deciding my airway kit needed cleaned.
“Then tell me this,” he said, taking the airway kit so I had to look at him. “You couldn’t help this one. And that feels like crap. Maybe you can help the next one. But I can tell you this for sure.” He held up my letter. “If you turn this in, you go become a teacher or a carpenter, you absolutely, one hundred percent, CAN NOT help the next one. You stay here in the ambulance, the next person who needs your help will get it. If not… Well who knows who will get the call?”
I stared at him, processing his words. He was right. I might be able to walk away from the job, but I would always wonder. Every time I saw a wreck or obituary in the newspaper, I would wonder if I could have changed the outcome, If I could have done something someone else wouldn’t have thought of.
Before I could form the words to respond, my partner hurried out. “We got a diabetic emergency at the nursing home. You ok, or do you want me to send the other crew?”
The trooper gave me a questioning look, still offering the letter to me. “It’s your call,” he said.
It was. And there was only one I could make. “We got this,” I told my partner. “Let’s roll!”
As we exited the back of the truck, he held up the letter again. “And this?”
I shook my head. “Just toss it. I don’t think I need it anymore.”
KR Pendergrass is a paramedic of 13 years, author, homeschool mom, wife, pet of a particularly spoiled dachshund. Years in rural EMS has produced many heartwrenching stories. It has also produced many hilarious ones as well. Her home with her husband, sons and dogs is full of both laughter and stories, because you can’t let the heartbreaking stuff take a piece of your soul. Her first novel, Incompatible With Life was released last spring, and her followup, Crisis of Faith, should be out in time for Christmas this year.