What does it mean when my patient’s worst day is a day I can’t even remember the next day?
The tones went off, and they kept going off … and kept going off. Engine 1, Engine 3, Engine 4, Ladder 1, Ladder 2, Squad 1, Medic 301, Medic 303, District 202, District 204, District 206, Stat 10. It didn’t make any sense. It was around 4 a.m. In 1985, Bloomington, Ind., wasn’t a big city. We never had dispatches like this. The Plektron sounded like the clarion of Armageddon. For a young EMT on his first job, it was surreal. We were Stat 10. We were the back-up service to the primary 9-1-1 service in town. We were almost never called—and never on an initial dispatch. Our station was an old house on Kirkwood with two ambulances parked in the driveway behind the house.
We pulled ourselves out of REM sleep with difficulty. We hadn’t yet become used to being wrenched into consciousness from deep sleep; we were still young, still naïve, still rested. But we got up, threw on our uniforms—including the zip-up polyester smocks popular at the time—and headed downtown, listening to the radio chatter.
We arrived to more apparatus and red lights than we’d ever seen together at one time. We were directed to the conga line of transporting ambulances.
The call was to a fraternity. All we knew at the time was that there had been a fire, the fire was mostly out, and students in nightclothes were strewn across the lawns on every side of the fraternity—all scared, all cold, some hurt. We only learned later what had happened.
The fraternity had had a party that night. A young man had come to the party. He tried to put the moves on several women and was rebuffed. Eventually he was expelled from the party by members of the fraternity. He decided to exact revenge.
He drove home, got a can of gasoline and returned in the early hours of the morning. By this time everyone was asleep or passed out. He went into the basement, poured gas around the basement floor and lit it.
The resulting blaze left one student dead and many injured. Students had to jump out the windows to survive.
We parked at the end of the transport line and then went up to the scene to see whether we could help. At that moment, the student who would be the only fatality was brought out by firefighters and laid at the feet of the medics, who attempted to intubate him. His trachea was black with smoke. They ripped his shirt open to start CPR. A baggie of grass fell out.
That night we transported dozens of mostly smoke-inhalated students to the ED. We worked till the morning light and then went to breakfast. This was the baptism by fire for the new EMT. In a way, I envy him; I envy him the excitement and the adrenaline and the soul searching that followed that night.
Twenty-seven years and thousands of calls later, I miss the emotional affect calls had on me in the early years, when we would sit around and dissect them, talk about them, analyze them, think about them. What does it mean when what most people consider horror, tragedy, terror and sorrow are all in a day’s work? What does it mean when I am never kept awake by a call? What does it mean when my patient’s worst day is a day I can’t even remember the next day?