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The Jungle

The Double Forking

On ambulances.


The call came in over the radio as a double stabbing. Big Eddy and I were in the back of the Saint Michael’s ambulance, scarfing down a gooey sausage and mushroom pizza in anticipation of such an event. Any time you got hot food in the rig, it was guaranteed that as it approached your lips you’d get a call. The pizza would be stone cold by the time we saw it again. 

“Ten-four base, we are seventy-six,” said Gary “Dauntless” Dauntly, ninteen, from the driver’s seat. There was a click clack as he hit some switches and red lights whirled on the six-foot deep snow piled on either side of the street outside. The siren wailed from the front as Big Eddy, aged twenty, threw himself on top of the hastily closed pizza box on the stretcher, to keep it from flying to the rear of the rig. 

Our Horton, box-style ambulance skidded into the night over slushy roads. We were in Winooski, Vermont in the late Eighties, on a brutally-cold night in February. Jason “Jaybo” Wilson, aged twenty-one, our crew chief, leaned into the back from the front, chewing pizza: “Trauma bag, oxygen and suction,” he said. “Get an I.V. of Ringers ready.” “Ten-four,” we replied. 

The trauma bag was an orange duffle-bag filled with bandaging supplies, but also other necessities for traumatic injuries—tourniquets, splints, thick trauma dressings, cravats—and of course a blood pressure cuff, Maglite, penlight, trauma shears and basic first aid needs. Our oxygen was a slender, two-foot long tank in a padded green bag that we slung over our shoulders, with one-use plastic masks inside, wrapped in sterile plastic. The non-rebreather oxygen mask was used most often on calls, at six liters of flow. Good for a trauma patient in shock.

The suction was made of heavy metal, one-foot high and long, six-inches wide, and operated by a foot pump. We would swing up its top, then use the plastic tube inside to suction vomit out a patient’s mouth, usually, or sometimes blood. The unit looked like it was from the Korean War. And a Lactated Ringer’s IV is used to replace fluids in patients with low blood volume or BP. Big Eddy hung this IV from its ceiling hook over the stretcher, as I stowed the pizza in a compartment under my bench seat.

As we both stood up fully, the ambulance suddenly inclined almost vertical, as Dauntless up front punched it up a big hill into the heights of Winooski. All the equipment shot from the middle section shelves into the rear cabin of the rig, nearly braining me with the metal suction. Big Eddy and I scrambled after the bags as Dauntless came to the top of the hill and the equipment slid back to the other end of the rig, our feet dancing among the bags.

It was Saturday night, my usual weekend duty night. On Fridays I went to Irish Happy Hour at the Last Chance in the city of Burlington (population forty thousand), and swung my sticky, glass beer mug to songs like “The Wild Rover,” courtesy of Vermont’s eighteen-year-old drinking age. I’m not Irish, but I like a dark ale and singing along with a raucous guitar, fiddle and bass. But tonight I was on ECNALUBMA. (This was how we referred to the AMBULANCE. It was written across her front hood, backwards, for cars to read in their rear-view mirrors.)

Dauntless, a gigantic, innocent Maine boy with a mischievous sense of humor, was driving. Jaybo sat next to him as crew chief, with a close-cropped beard, intense gaze, and glasses. He was one of the best E.M.T.s in the state, and in ambulance jargon, “I would drag myself by my lips over broken glass if in a car accident to get into his territory for treatment.” He was that good. He was our ambulance organization’s first lieutenant, or training officer. He had a burning desire for excellence. And even today the thought of him looking over my shoulder as I take blood pressure or pulse still makes me sweat. This is because I grew up in a family where the saying, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly” was often used. But this didn’t apply to E.M.S. Anything involving saving lives has to be done with competence and excellence. And it was Jaybo, more than anyone else, who patiently drove that into my brain—like a nail into cement—until I had the skills to become a fine E.M.T.

Big Eddy was not big, but solidly built—a muscular Viking with blond hair and a thick beard—the sweetest, gentlest man who ever spent free time squashing his opponents on the rugby field. And then there was me, the really far from home Californian: Eagle Scout, bookworm, B plus student, coddled son of the middle class. Wanting to get out of my quiet, rural world of childhood into a land of dangers, where as a knight errant I could find dragons to tilt at. Wiry, wise-cracking, nineteen, with brown hair. A tendency to daydream. Looking for adventure.

I found it on the rig. What I had been searching for since my family went on a trip to the mountains when I was a boy. In a diner one night, boisterous men and women wearing ambulance blue uniforms sat in the booth behind us with their black, two-way radios crackling on the tabletop. They were rugged, cheerful E.M.Ts. They worked a world off the safe, beaten track. And I was mesmerized at their staggering self confidence in the face of whatever might be thrown at them. This would impress anyone, but especially a seven-year-old child still afraid of the dark.

When I was ten, my strapping cousin Mark came to visit my family. He was twenty-five, fresh from tours as a U.S. Army medic, with down-to-earth sensibilities and a booming laugh. One day he opened the trunk of his Pontiac Astre sports car and showed me his medic bag and Army helmet with a red cross on a white circle. I was awed, holding these adventurous tokens of his craft. He was strong, kind and considerate of me, even though I was only a little boy. I wanted to be just like him, in both strength and kindness. As the summer days passed all too quickly, he regaled me with stories of treating patients on an ambulance in Germany. So one day, many years and miles away from my childhood’s green valley, I, too, chased serving on a rig. 

Dauntless punched again across the heights and we descended into a valley toward the central part of town. Winooski was a primarily working class, old New England mill town whose boom days had been from the 1800s to the 1940s, when the mills made woolen clothing and blankets. Eventually, in the late Fifties, the mills closed and stood empty, but in the 1980s they were gentrified. There were two huge, brick mills down by the icy Winooski River. One mill now had upscale restaurants and shops, with fairy lights gleaming in the windows. The other was chic housing for yuppies. The heights of Winooski had nice, clapboard, middle class homes; but the valley, descending toward the river, had attractive, aged-brick, working-class homes; then seedy tenements housing the impoverished, addicted, and occasionally criminal. 

Our ambulance executed a skidding turn in the slush onto Colchester Avenue—lights flashing and siren blaring—and raced between both parts of the small city, up to the north, into an industrial park near the interstate. It was not a place we usually went for calls. The two-story clapboard apartment house we pulled up to outside—sandwiched between two large warehouses—had seen better days. The home’s paint was chipped and faded, but it was hard to get a close look at it, because there were flashing lights of all colors playing over it.

Two police cars were parked in front. The rescue squad ambulance from the University of Vermont arrived just after us. U.V.M. was our back-up in that area. They usually covered parts of Burlington and South Burlington. We backed them up occasionally and I enjoyed going into their territory. They had a more sophisticated class of patient. Light spilled out from an open side doorway of the apartment building. Its wide upstairs windows, curtain-less, let out even more light. A cop on the snowy front lawn gestured us inside the doorway leading directly to a stairwell: “Upstairs!” 

We hopped out on the slick street in our knee-high fire boots with the trauma bag, oxygen, and suction. Jason told Dauntless to stay in the rig. As driver, he would be called by radio to bring a backboard or stretcher as needed. A backboard is a varnished, wooden board six feet long by eighteen inches wide. It has handles cut along the sides. It is used to strap down spine injuries. It also comes in handy at car accidents or places where you need rapid extraction—which means getting a patient out fast.

Big Eddy and I stomped after Jason up the walkway to the house. “Upstairs,” said the cop again, his eyes tense. We knew him from repeated contact and he was never this uptight. Must be interesting inside. U.V.M. exited their rig behind us, laden with equipment. We clumped up the stairs and entered the brightly-lit efficiency apartment. It took a moment to get used to the light, and after that to process the fact it looked like a herd of water buffalo had stampeded through the interior.

A coat rack was knocked over by the front door. Clothing and household objects were scattered all over the one large room—a kitchenette at one end, a bathroom at the other. There was a pink love seat against one wall, and two twin beds at either end of the room. Household belongings covered all of the furniture. There was silverware all over the floor. Knives, forks, spoons, butter knives, cocktail wiener forks, slender iced tea spoons, serving spoons and forks. Sporks.

These items crunched under our feet as we walked in our big rubber boots, and I was grateful I was wearing proper foot protection. Striding over that silverware barefoot, or in regular shoes, would have been a painful undertaking. And our patients were barefoot. Ah yes, our patients. Did I mention them? There were two female patients, each lying on the carpeted floor, in the chaotic room: attractive young women—a brunette and a blonde—both half-clothed, swearing and screaming a blue streak. Most of our patients were not this attractive, frankly, and most had their clothes on—unless we cut them off at a car accident to check for traumatic injuries.

Two cops, one for each woman, were restraining the swearing women, and yelling at them to stop swearing. The cops were not swearing, but they were mighty loud. Jason took one patient and gestured Big Eddy and me to the other. Eddy started a patient exam and had me start taking a pulse and blood pressure. It was a little difficult to concentrate on these tasks with the crazy environment. My brunette patient was wearing her underwear and a bra only. The other patient was in a bra and shorts. When I got my hands on the patient’s arms, I noticed she was covered with innumerable tiny red scrapes, or abrasions. What in the world could it be? They were all over her body—head to toe.

U.V.M. ambulance’s crew appeared upstairs. Jason directed them to his patient, then joined the police officer by Eddy and me for some patient history, as our patient was clearly out of her mind and not terribly conversational.  I couldn’t hear what they were discussing. I did my best to focus on my tasks. The patient’s pulse was slow, which didn’t tell me much, only that it was abnormal. 

Jason keenly shone a penlight into our patient’s pupils. They were pinpoint. A sign of possible narcotic use—or head injury. Across from us, U.V.M. moved their patient onto a backboard. Dauntless appeared upstairs with ours. We worked as a team to strap the patient on it. There were lots of straps in those days, laborious and time consuming, until the invention of quick straps, which snapped on the sides, and clasped over the patient with seat belt clasps.

The patients continued to swear at us. Such lovely ladies. We carried our brunette down the steep stairs with some difficulty, out to our stretcher waiting on the front walkway. We strapped our patient on the backboard to it, and wheeled her down the walk. The police helped us carry the screaming patient, on the stretcher, to the rig on the street, placing the stretcher inside the warm interior. Big Eddy, Jason and I hopped in back. The cops closed the doors behind us with a thud. We waved to them out the back window, “Thanks.”

The sound of the siren came from the front of the rig. In the back, we steadied ourselves as Dauntless sped down the street. The rig raced through Winooski, Code Three—lights and sirens—and across the bridge over the frigid Winooski River, then up the hill to Burlington.

Inside the rig, Jason gave the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont our patient’s history over our radio, and I found out what had happened by listening in. “The two female patients were allegedly doing drugs in the apartment. We’re not certain how the patients ended up in their underwear but they got in a fight and utilized the silverware as weapons.” Jason continued, “For some reason the patients chose the forks, instead of the knives. Thus, the tiny abrasions all over their bodies.” Later I found out the downstairs neighbors had called the cops. And the rest of the story you know. 

Before you get too curious about the lack of clothing: certain illegal drugs, after the high, follow up with a burning sensation. The patient can’t get cool enough, and often remove their clothes to try and cool off. A cop friend of mine once found a drug patient dead in a lake, who had taken to the water in an attempt to alleviate the burning heat—but was too stoned to swim.

At the hospital we backed the ambulance inside the yellow, cavernous ambulance bay and wheeled the patient into the busy E.R. U.V.M. Rescue was right after us with their patient, still yelling. Our screaming patient went into one room, theirs in another, profanity rising like a bunch of blue clouds of smoke to the ceiling. Ah, debutante types. Jason calmly updated our patient’s nurse. Big Eddy and I went to clean and ready the rig. We were paged by base for another call shortly after, and headed out. We pulled the pizza out from the bench seat compartment in the back. Stone cold.

The last part of this story was told to me by a reliable source, but I have never verified it officially. Right after we left, our unstrapped patient leapt from her gurney, screamed her way into the E.R., then turned and shot out into the ambulance bay, and from there into the February night in her bra and briefs. These days, around this point in the story, when I am telling it to my kids, I say: “This is a great reason not to do drugs.”

A few months after this call, an acquaintance of mine suggested I might like to try acid some time. He was surprised at the vehemence of my “No way!” But he had not seen what I had seen: people whose brains leave town like a fast moving, north-bound bus. And never come back. 

But back to my half-naked patient. According to my source, she was never seen alive again. I wonder if they found her in the spring?

Chris Treece is a screenwriter, documentarian, and former emergency medical technician. This essay is excerpted from his recently published memoir, Crazy Ambulance Tales.

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