Friday, October 22, 2010

Chapter 4

Keeping up with the fiction theme...

I have a few other projects as well, but nothing noteworthy yet. Boring is a good thing in a war zone though.

Halfway through the day, I was ready to turn in my ID. We’d done 6 back-to-back transports. There was no lunch break, no coffee stop. We picked up one patient after another and they were all the same. Somewhere in their eighties, diabetes, dementia, renal failure. Some needed a Foley catheter placed in their urethra for urine retention or an infection. Some were going to dialysis. Others headed to die forgotten in a nursing home where no real nursing ever seemed to happen.

My partner for the day, Jerry, was a jerk. He was 300 pounds, with a chip on his shoulder. There was no right way to drive for him. I was always going to fast for him to work, and he couldn’t keep his balance or start an IV. If I slowed down, I was driving like a grandma and somehow our stable patients were going to arrest and die along the way. I ignored him for the most part. He was out of shape, belligerent, and possibly a little jealous of my life and my past. His attitude made the day very easy to hate. After being told to drive faster for the seventh time that day I pulled over.
“Do you want to drive?” I asked, exasperated.
“Don’t get snappy with me! I just want to get to our pickup sometime today.” I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the door. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with it today. He watched me for a moment, but didn’t move.
“If you don’t like the way I drive, then drive yourself. Otherwise shut the hell up and I’ll get us there as quickly and safely as I can. Besides if I drive slower it’s more time before we get yet another job.”
“All I’m trying to do is make you a better tech!” he growled.
“Nobody else I work with ever complains, Jerry. You’re the only person in this whole damn company that seems to find a problem with every single thing that I do. You always talk about doing things by the book-you won’t even let me get you an IV line on a rough scene because it’s out of my scope of practice. Well I drive ‘by the book’. I’ve got a wife to go home to, and I’d like to see her again tonight.”
“Fine,” he told me. “Just drive.”

I called out at Hudson Falls Hospital. Dispatch was making up for their compassion the other night and put another job on us straight away. “721, I need you to take it into the crisis unit, 25 year old male, going to St. Johns Psychiatric facility. A scrip for restraints will accompany you.” Jerry looked at me as it went over the air. He hated violent patients. He was a useless fat-body. If something went awry in the back, he’d get his ass kicked by just about anybody. A 70 year old with Alzheimer’s once gave him a black eye.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this one.” I told him. Normally I would have let him squirm, but the name that came through with the Nextel page was familiar. In fact, it was a dead mans name. “You’ve got the next two after this though. I’ve already done four.” For once, he didn’t argue as I pulled the stretcher out of the back and dropped the wheels.

Hudson Falls was a hospital no more than the Hudson River had waterfalls on it. Many years ago, it had been one, with an Emergency Room and all. It had closed in the 1980’s, was bought by the state, and now served as a nursing home/rehabilitation facility, and a crisis center. We were here for the third feature-on the lower level was a psychiatric crisis facility.

Their job was to take despondent people and evaluate them, and then decide appropriate treatment, which usually involved a transfer to a drug rehab or psychiatric recovery center. The weather-beaten, shoddy red brick exterior was foreboding at night, and downright depressing during the day, and the plain, dark long hallways did nothing to lift your spirits once inside. I had heard they did a pretty decent job with patients, but the cloud of despair over the place made it feel like they must be fighting an uphill battle.

I pulled the stretcher through the automatic double doors that used to enter the old ER, waved at security and headed down the hall. As always, the fluorescent lights above me were dim and flickering. My heels clicked softly with each step, pausing briefly at another set of double doors before entering the crisis division.

Inside the crisis center was a bit warmer than the rest of the hospital, both in temperature and d├ęcor. The walls were a light colored wood paneling and the lighting seemed to work better in this part of the building than anywhere else. There was a carpeted waiting room with some fake potted plants in the corners, with comfortable looking chairs and magazines to read. At the moment, many of the chairs were full. The back right corner of the room led to another hallway-the main office and some private rooms for interviewing and problem patients that couldn’t be trusted to sit quietly and play nice with the others in the waiting room. My patient was apparently one of those people in the back rooms. I left the stretcher and Jerry in the waiting room and stepped around to the office to pick up paperwork and get a report.

Heather was on the desk today. She was a small, freckled redhead about my age with a neat, tidy appearance. She wore plain tan business skirt and blue knit sweater. The collars of a white button-down were tucked over the sweater’s collar carefully. It was a conservative look, but attractive nonetheless. She looked harried and busy when I came around the corner, but she smiled brightly at me.
“Thank God, Paul. I am swamped, and this guy was a handful. He’s not crazy, he just wants to kill himself and he’s very adamant about it. Veteran, like you, except he’s a bilateral above-knee amputee, and blind in one eye. He’s definitely got some PTSD goin’ on. Not married, no family. He takes Percocet for pain, and apparently took the whole bottle last night with a bottle of Jameson. A neighbor spotted him through a window and called 911. I took in in quietly, nodding. I was pretty sure I knew this guy. I’d been in that firefight.

Jerry waited around the corner while I went in to introduce myself to our patient. Kevin Burke. He’d been a 19 year old gunner on a HMMWV with me in Mosul. I’d taken the wounds that had sent me home while kneeling over his body trying to stop him from bleeding out. I’d never figured that he’d survived. I took a deep breath, pausing for a moment at the door. My memory of that battle was scattered and there were plenty of blank spots, but I could still hear the screams and smell the burning gunpowder sometimes, and now was one of those times. I steeled myself, walked through the door, and was promptly banged over the head with a chair.

It was cheap, light plastic, and the seat actually broke, but the metal frame caught me hard on the left side. For a moment I was dazed, but not long. Sitting in another chair in the corner of the room was PFC Kevin Burke, former infantry. He was smaller than he had been before, because of the missing legs, but he still had the massive frame of a young man that had once been 6’4. His skin had lost the sun baked tan he’d had in Iraq, it was pale and blotchy from long time spent indoors. One eye was regarding me with a deep fury, and the other lay lifeless and blank in its socket. He was screaming at me.
“Leave me the fuck alone! If I want to die that’s my own business. He threw in even more gratuitous profanity, and deteriorated into nonsense shortly after that. He was known for creative tirades long before he’d been hurt. I did what I’d done back then. I leaned into his face, very close-it was a risk, but calculated. I could probably jump back faster than he could swing. I let my voice get slow and icy. “Private Burke, at ease!” He stopped, the one good eye regarding me curiously. It took a few moments before he recognized me behind my goatee.
“Sergeant Bauer? Doc?” His mouth dropped a little bit, and then he grabbed me in as big a bear hug as he could manage. “I thought you were dead…” I returned his embrace.
“I’m not dead, buddy. I just got sent home. I thought you were dead too though. I thought I’d failed you. Now I find out you want to go and waste that second chance? Hell of a way to have a reunion, Burke.” He started shaking in my arms and then I realized that I’d gone too far-he was crying. It’s not easy to make infantry cry.
“I’m useless, Doc. I can’t work. I can’t drive. I can barely see. No woman wants to look at me. I’ve got nothing left. Sometimes I wish you’d left me in the sand. You wouldn’t have gotten hurt then, and I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

His words made the sounds of battle ring out in my head again. I could hear the chatter of AK-47’s and M4 rifles trading rounds. I could smell the burning powder, and oil and blood. “Back then, I would have told you to quit feeling sorry for yourself and drive on, Burke. I’m not going to tell you that now. This situation sucks, and I know that, but you’re still here for a reason. You’re going to die someday, so why rush it?”
“I’m only here because you made it happen.”
“I failed you,” I told him. “I got hit too. Some other medic saved your life.”
He looked up at me with that one-eyed, quizzical look again. “You don’t remember anything after that grenade went off, do you?” I shook my head no. It was true. The blast had knocked me out cold. I didn’t remember thinking a damn thing after I said a quick, final prayer.
“Tell ya what doc, I’m gonna take this little ’ammalance’ ride with you, and along the way, I’m going to tell you a story. About the man who saved my life.” With that, I called Jerry into the room, and Burke moved himself over with his arms. We wheeled him out talking about the old unit, and girls that used to send us photos to entertain ourselves with in the desert. I winked at Heather, and she beckoned me over to the desk.
“What the hell did you do?” She whispered.
“I told him that if he got better, you’d take him out on a date.”
“No, not really. I used to know him. He’s actually a pretty good guy, just lost some hope.” She nodded in understanding-her and Amy had grown up together and she knew my story through her.
“Have a safe trip, Paul.”
We wheeled down the lonely corridor once again, but it was lit up with Burke’s loud, excited chatter. It was a complete turn-around from the broken man in my paperwork, and far more like the motivated young man I’d known years ago,
“I was going to make them call the cops and shoot me,” he told me. “But then you walked in. Good thing it wasn’t your buddy there, I mighta killed him.” I thought it was possible, even with no legs. I let him smoke a cigarette in the parking lot even though it was against the rules. I could see Jerry’s discomfort and privately reveled in it. I loaded the stretcher, Climbed in the back, shut the doors.
“So Doc,” he started. “Tell me what you remember.” I started to sweat. It was suddenly getting very hot in the ambulance. The diesel engine started up and it sounded like a HMMWV turning over. I could feel the weight of my body armor again, could smell the rank odor of Mosul’s streets. And then I was back in Iraq.

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