As I pulled up to my house, I felt a sudden ease of relaxation wash over me. My shift was over, I was safe. The tension that once stored itself heavily within my shoulders was beginning to dissipate. Albeit slowly, it had been quite the day. I was still dressed in my navy-blue uniform; the chosen attire for a paramedic. I had finished work late and cared very little at the thought of changing at the station, I just wanted to get home. I sat in my car for a few fleeting moments after removing the keys from the ignition. I was drained in the truest sense of the word. I let loose a deep sigh and convinced myself to grab my duty bag and make my way from the car to the front door – a matter of fifty-or-so-feet. Still, an arduous task on this day.
I stepped out of my car and without hesitation, the cold January air began nibbling at my face. This acted as motivation to get inside and rid myself of not just a uniform, but the day as well. I walked through the entry way of my home and could hear the ‘clicking’ of my dog’s nails rasping against the wooden floors in an attempt to gain traction so as to come and meet me. With child-like enthusiasm, the ninety-pound German Shepard barrelled towards me like a fur missile. This was a right of passage for all who entered our home. I was no different. I didn’t mind though; the untainted love of our pets is nothing to scoff at.
After several moments of dodging her wet nose like a boxer evades punches, I was able to settle her enough so as to allow myself time and space to begin untying my boots. It was while I was crouched down and finger wrestling with a maniacally stubborn knot that Anna, my girlfriend, came into view. I could smell her seductive scent of coconut, strawberry and vanilla. A smile soon grew from coast to coast along my face. As I rose to greet her, the warmth of my home suddenly gave way to a chill akin to that of the arctic. Her stern expression was nothing short of soviet era tension towards their enemy, in this case, me, for reasons I was not yet aware.
“Hun, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Where were you, Matthew? You’re two-and-a-half-hours late!”
“Yeah, babe, there was a – “She cared little for my answer. So little in fact, that she refused to allow me time to speak it. I was now receiving a barrage of insults and insinuations of my faithfulness to her, which I found offensively absurd! I hadn’t even been home for five-minutes and world war three had broken out right there in my living room. Steeped beneath a heavy obfuscation, I tried to question her so as to gain some clarity of where this venomous rile was coming from. It was of no use; it was as though she was picking a fight simply to have a fight! Turns out, that is exactly what she was doing; I wouldn’t find this out until many months later, but she was looking for an excuse to leave the house – she had a date…
When I look back on it now, it becomes painfully clear; she was dressed to perfection. Her hair was done so meticulously that each strand was placed into specific formation. She boasted that little satin top that I loved and devilishly form-fitting pants, and her perfume, oh, her intoxicating perfume… She wore it all. But, not to welcome me home, not to celebrate another shift that I made it back from, but for him; whoever he was…
I hadn’t even been able to tell her why I was so late before she had walked-out and slammed the door closed. It was a heavy day, a really heavy day. Not so much due to loss of life, but emotionally and physically. It was the kind of day that gripped at the bottom of your heart and pulled it towards your feet. The kind of day where your soul cries, even if you can’t. She had been gone for what must have been twenty-minutes, and I hadn’t moved from that spot by the door. My fucking boot was still on!
The day had started off okay, I was paired with a great partner, Jay, was his name. That man used sardonic humor with professional comedic delivery! It was always a good time working with him. Three calls stand-out from that day; one was for an elderly man who had died at home. His wife had called 9-1-1, when she noticed that her husband was taking too long to get dressed, and when she went in to check on him, he was lain on the floor with only one pant-leg successfully inserted. We had to declare him deceased, despite our best efforts. Then, there was the call for a young woman with suicidal ideations who had ingested fistfuls of prescription medications. As we arrived on scene, the housing block crooned an eerie familiarity to me. I swear I’d been on this street before?! I chopped it up to the fact that I must have done another call here some time previous in my career; that was not the case at all! … We entered the home which also gasconaded a peculiar sense of the familiar to me. The police were on scene and downstairs, they called for us to join them, mentioning that our patient was also on the sub-level. Pushing this perplexing sense of comfortability of my surroundings away from the forefront of my mind, I entered into the finished basement and began to approach a lone feminine figure resting on the arm of one of the couch-chairs. I approached her from behind and as I made my way to her front, I knelt down and began grabbing the BP-cuff from the monitor while introducing myself.
“I know who you are, Heneghan.”
Those words spoken through the despondent lips of the lady in front of me forced my head to snap upright and towards her tear-glossed eyes. It was Mindy! I had served in the army with her. She was a medic too. I had gotten out of the army when she deployed to Afghanistan, but I had heard through mutual friends that she had, had a rough go of things over there in the land of sand and stone. She had been the victim of a heinous sexual assault upon her return home, which led to her eventual release from the forces. As I stood before her now, it would appear things had not gotten any better for her poor soul…
As I continued my assessment, she slapped me with a haunting query; “Matt, are you judging me right now? Do you hate me?” All muscle tone within my face sank beneath a dragging empathy that was now glued to my expression.
“Mindy, God, no! No, not at all, okay?! I’m gonna let my partner take over, alright? He’s a great medic, Mindy, okay?”
I felt it was best to let Jay step in on this one, I was too close to it…
By the time we had gotten her to the hospital, the sedative effects of the medications that she had taken had begun to show; she was taken into a trauma room right away. Mindy would live. She would make a full recovery and has since moved on to bigger and better things. She is doing so unbelievably well! But I did not know that back then on that day…
And then, there was the fire. It was nearing the end of our shift, but as anyone who works in first response will tell you, the God’s don’t give a shit about your clock-out time! They almost seem to oppose it. The call came across as; structure fire, flames visible. The call notes were right; when we pulled up on scene we became transfixed at the sight of uproarious flames that licked themselves angrily into the chilled winter air. The structure was a newly constructed opulent apartment building. Fire was on scene and beginning to wage battle against a defiant red beast. We parked the ambulance and I went to the fire captain to let him know EMS was on scene and to see if he needed the ambulance parked in a different location from where it currently was. He said we were good to go and that we could expect patients soon as he had sent a group of recon firefighters inside to retrieve any stragglers. I went back to the truck and readied an intravenous line just in case we received a critical patient, which was possible, with a fire as angry as this one. Even as far back as we were, you could still feel the heat.
We remained on scene for at least 45 minutes past our end of shift. Eventually a night-crew ambulance would come and relieve us. We conducted a short and concise hand-over of scene and took one last glance at the growing fire before driving away. I was tapping the screen of my Toughbook, making notes about the call when all of a sudden, a ghastly wail perforated the holes in our speakers; “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY! GET EVERYONE OUT, NOW!” The muffled sound of a voice bellowing through a fire mask and into a handheld receiver broke through our radio. And then, as Jay and I were looking at one another, we heard, “WE HAVE THREE MEN TRAPPED ON THE THIRD FLOOR! THE FIRE CHANGED DIRECTION, WE NEED TO GET THEM OUT!” Jay and I conversed without spoken word to one another as we defied dispatch orders to clear and head home. We spun the ambulance around and proceeded with haste back to the scene. I radioed ahead to let the other crew know that we were coming – but we received no confirmation transmission from them. Fuck!
We arrived on scene and found the two paramedics standing alongside several other firefighters. Jay pulled the rig close enough so as to be able to speak through the window and confabulate with the other crew. We were relieved to hear that all members of the fire crew had gotten rescue. The firefighters had to smash a hole into the sidewall of the third floor where they were trapped and then escape onto an awaiting ladder from a truck below. On this day, the only injuries would be to property. That’s about all you can ask for in a situation like that.
As we left scene for the second time and began driving back to the station, the adrenaline dump happened and both Jay and I were stoically silent on the trip home. No witty statements from Jay…
All I had wanted to do was to go home and kiss the woman I loved, hold her close and forget the dangers and realities of the world for a little while. Instead, I was standing alone within a loveless house, one boot on, one boot off, crushed beneath the weight of a day and an absent girlfriend. Mayday, Mayday, lonely and alone…
There is a common misconception made by those who don’t understand or choose to not understand; it is that our jobs are the same as any other, no more, no less. They feel that the things we see do and touch are somehow magically left in the back of the ambulance, or squad car or firetruck. They feel as though the uniform acts as armor, and that our willingness to perform the duties means that we are somehow impervious to its concatenation. My girlfriend was no different than those whom now judge me for my postliminary wounds. The fact that she was a first responder as well meant nothing. She cared very little for the way I felt. As evident by the fact that I stood alone and tarnished by a heavy January day, while she smiled in warmth whilst on a date!
To whomever is reading this; please, never judge anyone for that of which you do not understand or merely think that you understand. My story is merely one example of the kinds of days that first responders can have. Some can be much worse. And some, admittedly far better. Don’t forget that they are humans, humans who somehow manage to do super-human things. The uniform does not protect anyone against inhumanity or trauma. This is not just a job that one has applied for. It is a duty that only a select few willingly choose to bear!
She left me alone in that living room on that day. But, it was I who learned how to walk away. I learned that I do not need the love of anyone in order to heal. Especially if that love is selfish and self-serving. If anything, I simply need to love myself; something I am still working on. But once I get there, I can help the rest fall into place, like Mindy did. Ironic, isn’t it? Back then I thought it was I who was helping her; six years later, though, turns out it is she who has helped me!
She survived, so will I!
BREAK, BREAK, hear me now! …
(Below is the actual recording of the fire that day. At the around the 1 min marker and on, you can hear the ‘mayday’ call! At 2.56 min, you can hear me on the radio stating we are available if needed.)