“Heneghan!” Bruce’s baritone voice cut through the ambulance bay like a sawing blade. Halting any and all around in place. My hands, still weighted by a 1000cc bag of saline, bandages, roller gauze and other medical trimmings that I had just retrieved from inventory. I looked up to see that he, Bruce, was steamrolling toward me. His gaze locked onto the deepest recess of my eyes. I felt a hum of nervousness crawl across my skin.
“What the hell had I done? What did I do wrong? Heneghan, you idiot. What the hell did you do?”
Bruce was a well-respected veteran of our paramedic service. 20 plus years on the job. His voice, opinion and condemnation, when warranted, carried weight among the brass. As my mind raced to catch hold of any indiscretion that I may have unwittingly committed, my steadfast gape ingested the features of Bruce’s approaching face. His brow, crinkled by seriousness. His lips, pursed and taut. His ambulation relayed to me that whatever was about to take place was not only consequential, but very, very important. And also, directed right at me…
Now, before I tell you what happened, it’s important that I backtrack a bit. Rewind, if you will. So, let’s go back to earlier that day. Everything had been going well, for the most part. I had procured a coffee, managed to nibble on a quick bite to eat, and was early for the start of my evening shift. All good things, considering I was the new kid on the block. This was one of my first shifts as a paramedic post my probationary period. Meaning that I was no longer riding third on truck. It was just me and my partner. So I had better know my shit. Because there’s no more safety net. My decisions mattered.
My partner for the night, Amber, was a fairly seasoned medic. Which always helps with new guy angst. She was pleasant and easy to talk to. Made the start of shift go by smoothly. When we did get toned out, the first couple runs were fairly low acuity in nature. But I had seemingly demonstrated to her that I knew my stuff. Because after one of our more intensive calls, she told me that I could drive the ambulance for the next few trips out. This was a big deal considering driving was usually a matter of seniority. When you’re not driving, you’re running all the calls. Meaning all treatments, interventions, hospital handovers, and yes, all the paper work is yours to do. Driving is seen as a bit of a reprieve from the aforementioned. It too comes with its own unique responsibilities and stressors, but nonetheless, it’s a sought-after mantel to mount.
Confession time—I didn’t learn to drive until I had joined the army. As a matter of fact, I didn’t wield a license until I was in my 20’s. We didn’t have a vehicle nor willing tutors when I was young. So, it became the army’s job to remedy that shortcoming. And remedy they did. I drove armoured ambulances, luxury G-Wagons, troop carry vehicles and more. But all that had been done while secured within the relative safety of a driving course. My experience past that was… limited at best. So, I approached the task of ambulance navigation with a generous helping of humility and responsibility.
When I first plopped in-behind the wheel, a heft of accomplishment took hold of me. For the first time in my callow career, I felt as though I had made it. I felt as though I was where I was supposed to be. I felt—like a paramedic!
Over the next few hours calls came in and we responded. I drove “hot,” a term used to indicate, lights and sirens, to a few of those calls. And all was going well. The less severe nature of most of these calls also helped with providing me a sense of assuredness. But, as all days do, the sun fell away and an ebonized sky emerged. It was now the thick of our nightshift. And anyone who has worked in first response will tell you; when the sun goes down and the stars align—people do stupid shit—I mean really, really stupid shit.
Before long, our radio clamoured to life. Belting with staccato call after call. I swear, we reached every corner of the city within a 4 hour stretch. Anything from a nosebleed to a family feud that ended with grandma in handcuffs and grandson with ice pack firmly planted on his aching family jewels.
I guess granny didn’t appreciate the nature at which grandson was quietly removing money from her home. Retribution came in the form of a rolling pin to the nuts after she had baited him to her house with the promise of fresh baked potato biscuits. He got biscuits alright—very bruised biscuits.
While Amber and I were attempting to grab gas station coffee, our centre radio squawked to life.
“Alpha 9, Alpha 9, you’re responding to the university district for a male down, multiple stab wounds. Police enroute as well”.
Coffee would have to wait…
Amber hopped into the passenger seat and by the time I had gotten my seatbelt on, she was donning gloves and readying herself for the call ahead. I reached down and felt the craggy toggle of the lights. I flicked it upward and our ambulance roar ablaze with nictation. Each of the LED bulbs that festooned our noble chariot boasted brilliant flickers of red and white in an alternating scurry. I began to pull out from the gas station and onto the road. There, I moved my right hand away just slightly from the lighting board and allowed the pads of my fingers to grasp onto the turn dial of the sirens. A piercing wail of importance broke through the city streets and accompanied us from downtown, across the bridge, pass the bar scene strip and onto the university property.
It didn’t take long for us to know where we were going. A frenzy of people standing outside of a student housing structure began jumping and signalling frantically with arms-a-flailing, crying out for our attention. As we neared, I was able to see that there was at least one person lain on the sidewalk. It was all I could make out with all the people that surrounded him. Campus security was on scene and one officer ran to my side of the ambulance. As I dismounted, he spoke speedily to me. Attempting to seem in control of the environment and its happenings, but experience (what little I had at that time) informed me that he was undoubtedly shitting bricks. And that told me that this may be a serious call.
And that’s exactly what it would turn out to be. The man I had seen on the ground had indeed been stabbed. Multiple times, in fact. Blood was collecting around where he lay. He was lethargic and pale. He was breathing rapidly but shallow. Amber and I got to work right away. I didn’t even notice the supervisor pull up on scene—Bruce—he was the south side super that night. He ululated sharply at the throng of onlookers, demanding that they get back, and give us room to work! And they listened…
Bruce was a bear of a man. So it was of no surprise to me when the crowd dispersed with immediacy.
“Amber… new guy… whaddya need?” The resonance of Bruce’s voice queried.
“Ah, get me a line to the hospital, tell em we’re coming in with a priority patient. He’s got some arterial bleeding. He needs an O.R. (operating room), stat”.
“Copy that.” Bruce obliged.
When we had done what we could on scene; now along with a fire crew that had arrived, a police officer as well as Bruce, we got the stab victim into the back of the rig. I helped set things up and then hopped out to drive us in to the trauma hospital. There was just one catch; the closest hospital to us was already overrun with high priority patients. So we had been rerouted to the next closest trauma unit—across the bridge, through the downtown core and up 5th avenue. It was a bit of a journey, and this guy was fading rapidly. This was a less than ideal situation. Not only for the patient, but also for the trepidous medic behind the wheel…
I got into the driver’s seat, duplicated my start-up from before and began to pull away from the scene. In the back of the ambulance was; Amber, a policeman, two firefighters, a guy near death and Bruce. And probably a fucking partridge in a pear tree.
Now, you may think that I was hauling ass. I mean, the situation certainly warranted it. Thing is, an ambulance is not a sporty mode of transportation. That’s not to say that it can’t fly—it’s just that doing so comes with ramification—like tossing the inhabitants in the back all around. So, I drove speedily, but smoothly. Something they preach during onboarding and orientation. But something seldom practiced by the uninitiated.
To top things off, there was even an unavoidable roundabout on the way to this secondary trauma centre. I navigated the curves of the city the way I would with finger tips to a woman; purposefully, firmly and smoothly. The fornication of emergency response.
What I’m about to say next may come as a bit of a shock, but if you were to ask me now, which I would choose over the other; great sex, or a crazy trauma call? Well, all I can say is, the sex better be the stuff of legend. Otherwise, gimme the keys!
I made the last turn and pulled up the ramp and into the bay. No sooner after placing the rig in park, the team in the back spilled out. Amber was now doing compressions (CPR) on the patient. I followed them in and helped transfer the patient from our stretcher to an awaiting hospital bed. After that, I grabbed the blood-soaked gurney and retreated back to the capacious space of the bay.
It was during the final moments of clean up that I heard my name spoken with frightful volume. It was Bruce, he was demanding my presence. And now, you’re all caught up. What comes next has stayed with me through to this day…
Bruce’s intimidating frame now stood mere inches from me. His eyes piercing mine.
“Sir? What are you, in the fuckin’ army?”
“Yes, sir. I mean, no sir. I mean, I was sir.”
“Okay. Fine. That was you driving us there, right?” After hearing that, I felt my blood pressure bottom out. I readied myself to be chewed out for going too slow, or giving them a rough ride.
“I want you to listen to me, and listen to me good… okay?”
“You, Heneghan… could drive for fuckin’ NASCAR! I’m tellin’ ya. That was one of the best trauma rides I have ever had! And a helluva a job on scene, too.” And with that, he tapped me on the side of my shoulder and walked away.
My senses began to inflate with glee. A compliment from Bruce… And on driving of all things… to this day that remains one of the most influential pieces of praise that I have ever gotten.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering… Stabby Stabberton, the guy who got stabbed… yeah, well, he lived. All in all, a great night.
And that, my friends, is how I discovered that I could drive, drive for fucking NASCAR!