The Worst Thing I've Ever Seen

August 13, 2008 It was hot, but not so hot that you had to have the windows up with AC blasting. You could still keep the windows down and enjoy it a bit. System status, and we were posted on the north side, hidden from the public behind a Home Depot. My partner and I had been working together for quite awhile, and worked well together. He was studying the inside of his eyelids in the driver’s seat, and I was chatting on the phone with a friend, my feet up on the dashboard.

We were hailed on the radio and Scott grabbed the mic. I continued to chat on the phone. We were off, windows up, lights and sirens on. Scott knew the city like the back of his hand, so didn’t need any directions from me. I was well tenured, so let him do his thing, finishing up my phone call and clearing intersections for him as we went. I never did hear the dispatch information, so had no idea what we were going to.We pulled up to a gated apartment block. The engine had just driven through and the gate was closing behind them. We watched from outside the gate as they parked, while we waited for on-site security to open the gate back up for us.

As we started to drive through, I noticed the fire crew had their bags in hand and were running toward an apartment. They never run. “What’s the call?” I asked Scott. “Pedi respiratory distress or something.” he said. Seeing the fire crew run concerned me. I asked Scott to park while I got out to see what was going on. The fire dept. medics had their bags, and Scott was a competent guy. He’d get the ambulance parked and then come join us. As I walked up to the apartment, the fire crew was standing outside the door, staring down at the sidewalk in front of the apartment. They were just standing there. Frozen.

I looked down to see what they were looking at and found a nightmare. A bloody, rag-doll of a boy. Head different colors of white and gray and blue. Blood streaming out of his nose, mouth and ears. And they were just staring. “What happened?” I asked. “A TV fell onto his head” came the reply. It looked like his chest was moving. Barely. I felt for a brachial pulse. He had one. I bent down and carefully scooped him up. And then I ran. It was the only thing I could think to do. I ran to the ambulance with a medic from the engine running behind me. I never ran. I screamed to Scott “SCOTT! WE’VE GOTTA GO!!!” and practically leaped into the back of the ambulance. Scott had set everything up in the back for me, just as he always did.

The hospital was maybe 2 miles in a straight line from where we were. It wasn’t a trauma center. We didn’t have a trauma center. But it was the closest place we could go. I laid him down on the gurney. He had agonal respirations and needed his airway cleared. I told the fire medic to start compressions and I went to work on the airway. It was awful. Full of blood, and worse – brain matter. I’d never seen that before. Brains in the airway. He was dead. His body didn’t know it yet, but he was dead. Compressions and a tube. That’s all we had time to do.

We arrived at the hospital in what felt like an hour, but in reality it was more like 2 minutes. We transferred patient care to the ER doc who terminated resuscitation immediately. I walked down the hall like a zombie. I went out to the rig to start the cleanup and paperwork. When I walked back inside I heard it. A sound that can’t be forgotten. The soul-tearing wail of a mother who has lost her child.I shut down the rig and we both went home. There was no way I could handle another call that day. My mind was numb. Here’s the thing… this little boy was born just one day before my son.

I went home to my sweet little infant son and sent the babysitter home. Another parent went home to emptiness.I have sleep issues. Always have. I used to have to medicate to sleep sometimes. My wife came home. She is also a paramedic, and was working on the other side of town when I got the call. She knew what it was. She knew I was grieving. We put the baby to bed and then climbed into our own. I had a drink and some Ambien and drifted off to a very restless sleep. I was off the next day. My wife wasn’t. She brought the baby into bed with me when she left for work.

This was a normal routine. He would curl up and sleep soundly against me or snuggle up on my chest. But on this morning, the routine changed. I had finally fallen into a deep sleep in the wee hours of the night. My son woke up before me and started to explore. He crawled his way to the foot of the bed. I woke with a start at the scream from my son. He was lying on the hardwood floor at the foot of the bed, up against my dresser – with a tube TV perched on top. All I could see was that little boy. Not my little boy, but someone else’s. Blood coming out of his ears, mouth and nose.

I picked him up quickly and screamed as the most primal fear I could ever imagine came racing to the surface. I forgot that I was a paramedic. All I could see was that little boy. As I hugged my son close and checked him for injuries I could see that he was fine. He calmed down and stopped crying. I cried like I had never cried before. I put him back in his crib, and still in my pajamas, removed every TV from the house and put them on the sidewalk. I worked for another 2 years on the ambulance, then 3 more on a helicopter, then I left EMS.

I’ve seen horrors. The same horrors that others like me have seen. I live with my ghosts and have learned to manage them. I am on a mission to provide support for first responders. We all need help in Managing the Ghosts. Help is available. Break the stigma that stops us from asking for help. Reach out to a friend when you see them hurting. Be the voice of change. Only we truly understand what it’s like to be us.