Trama - Not a Television Show
I throw the backboard on the ground and start tearing off the straps. In theory, I know what is supposed to happen next; we will put this guy on a backboard and load him into the ambulance. This isn’t the same as working with a dummy though; the weight of his limbs is eerily familiar. Exactly what my leg would feel like if I lifted it with my arm. Just by touch, I can tell this is a real human. And he is dying.
The injuries are extensive, and the odds don’t look good, but we start CPR in a desperate attempt to save him. Now, I’m well trained in CPR; we went through all the mechanics and techniques during recruit class. But it’s just not the same on a human. I don’t think I ever realized just how fragile our bodies really are; or what it looks like when they’re so thoughrally damaged. How can you prepare for your first compound fracture? What can strengthen your stomach against the first time you feel ribs crack under your palms? Where in your lecture notes is the material that helps you deal with an organ that has somehow found it’s way outside it’s intended body cavity? I’m working more out of momentum now than anything else.
I can feel my companions working around me. Dressing wounds, clearing clothing, a well oiled machine working at a feverish pace. I don’t want to think about it. I just keep my eyes on my hands, pumping his chest, trying to keep enough blood moving to give this guy a chance. I know if I think too hard about what I’m looking at, it will be too much. I’ll see the damage done to him and to think “what would that feel like?”. But speculation is not a luxury I can afford at the moment.
The medics call for everybody to clear the body for a second so they can check his vitals. I sit back on my knees, hands in the air to show ’I’m clear’; and that’s when the feeling really hits me. This guy is not going to make it. Eyes vacant, skin pale, he stares blankly at the sky. The medics glanced forlornly at the paper printing out of their machine. “One more round, and then we’ll call it.” Frustrated and a little shocked, I start compressing the chest again with renewed vigor, somehow telling myself that if we were to just try hard enough we might make a difference.
Just believing something doesn’t make it so.
“Thank you everyone”, the medic says, “that was a really good attempt.”
I feel sick.
As I walk back to the engine (slowly now, all urgency gone), I try to figure out how I feel about the whole situation. Somebody is dead, and in a very traumatic way. Do I feel bad about it? Yeah, I guess so. I’m a little stunned for sure, but somehow not “devastated” the way it seems like I should be. It’s a strange bit of cognitive dissonance. It’s almost like I want to feel bad, but I can’t summon enough emotion and feel any amount of depression or loss. Just a vague sense of malaise and failed effort. What’s wrong with me? This is somebody’s son, someone’s friend, who is never coming back. Why can’t I feel for them the way I should?
I don’t know what to think. So I don’t.
My brother pulls me aside later and asks how I’m doing. I answer him honestly, I’m doing better than I thought I would be, but somehow I’m unsatisfied. He had some advice I hope I can take heart: “You didn’t cause his injuries, you’re just here to help, and you can’t win them all. Be happy about the ones you can save, but don’t get hung up on the ones you can’t.”
He’s right. The amount of death and loss that firefighters encounter is certainly a little more than the average person. Empathy for one’s fellow man is an admirable and virtuous trait, but it comes at a cost. If your friend were to lose a parent, you could cope. You could bear a part of their pain and sadness. Maybe even the suffering of a few friends simultaneously. But if an emergency worker were to take on the guilt, pain, loss, and sorrow of every loss of life they witnessed, the burden would be beyond unrealistic.
So I just don’t think about it. Well, that’s a lie. I try not to think about it. The first fatality I ever witnessed will probably stick in my memory for the rest of my life. It’s been almost a year and I still see those blue vacant eyes as clearly as I did the day I looked at them. I still feel vaguely sad for someone I never knew. But you know what? I’m glad too. That experience, shocking to the system as it was, gave me real practice and experience (two things that are more valuable than gold in a field like firefighting), and in a way I feel more grateful for and protective of my life now that I’ve seen first hand how easily it can be demolished. That’s what it’s like to walk out of the TV shows and into the street. No glamor, no sheen, but harsh reality balanced with just enough gratification to make us want to be out there every day ready for the next one.
That’s life, and it’s the one we signed up for.