The evening of Veteran’s Day, I took a call for a complaint of constipation. “What?!? Why are they calling 9-1-1 for constipation?!” I was trying to stay awake reading a book on ECG interpretation, so I welcomed the interruption, even for something like constipation.
My partner and I arrived to a house we’ve been to many times, but always before, the call was for a woman – this time, it was for her husband whom I’ve never met before. The medics had arrived a few minutes before us and had already began checking the gentleman out, assessing vitals, getting information, and gave us the rundown as we walked in. I listened to the report of elevated blood pressure, bilateral rales, and a host of other symptoms aside from the constipation. I stopped listening, however, when I saw an old, ragged patch on the dresser. The Big Red One. The Army’s First Infantry Division. MY old division (yes, I was also in the US Army for a few years.) I turned to Joe and extended my hand and thanked him for his service. He shook my hand with a solid grip, looking me straight in the eyes. I could see a certain pain in his eyes, but couldn’t imagine what was causing it. At the same time, I heard the medics telling my partner that Joe just got home that afternoon from the VA hospital. Then I heard the word that stopped my heart and turned my blood cold.
My father, a veteran and one of Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children, died this past January from cancer. They caught it late, and it had already spread too far for an operation to have any effect. The chemo and radiation didn’t do anything but drain his energy, and 2 months after he was diagnosed, he finally lost the fight, 5 days after my birthday. My father
was is my hero, and not a minute goes by that I don’t think about him. My mother and my sister and I are still trying to get used to him not being there, cracking jokes, doing housework, getting the paper, and just being there. There are still days I don’t want to get out of bed, because I want to spend all day crying. If cancer was a person, I’d get sentenced to 100 consecutive lifetimes in prison for what I’d do to them. Slowly, and with a great deal of attention spent on the smallest detail.
I did a mental shiver and shot back to reality, and focused on my patient. We got him loaded into the ambulance, as gently as we could manage, and I admit I was a bit brutish when I told my partner that I’d be in the back with Joe. Normally we alternate driving, but not this time. I even pulled my officer card, something I make a point of never doing. I wanted to spend time with Joe, even if it was only going to be a few short minutes to the hospital.
As we walked the short distance to the ambulance, I noticed a similarity between Joe and my father: no complaints. Joe was in pain, but as I asked him again to describe the pain to me on a scale of one to ten, all he would say is, “ahh, it’s a little more than usual. Nothing you guys should be worried about.”
Since we had everything we needed as far as vitals, background history, current complaint, medications, and everything else for the run sheet, the short ride to the hospital was spent talking. Joe was talking, and we were listening. He was telling us what units he had been assigned to in Viet Nam, where he did his training, and how the world was different when he came home. He also told us he knew it would all be over in a week or so. I asked him once if the pain was any better or worse after we had hit a pothole, and he gave me The Look, as if to tell me, “Hey, you, I’m talking here. Shut up.” He continued the conversation as we gently unloaded him, and proceeded to the ED. Thankfully, my partner started giving the report at the nurse’s station as we rolled up. The nurse looked at Joe with a less-than compassionate look in her eyes and pointed to an empty bed in the hallway without so much as uttering a single word.
Normally, this is the part where we smile, nod, and leave the patient where we’re told to.
We wheeled the stretcher over to the hallway where she pointed, and then, as calmly as I could, walked back to the nurse’s station, having noticed that only one room was occupied, and the remaining 19 rooms were all open and empty.
The nurse, who is normally very friendly to me, had a questioning look in her eyes as I approached. As I opened my mouth to speak, she said, “Judging by the look in your eyes, this is either a special patient, or you’re about to yell at me for something.” I closed my mouth and mentally checked myself. Did I really appear that hostile? Did she sense my mental tension in the way I walked over to her desk? In the split second it took me to think about it, I realized that I was, in fact, feeling very hot on the back of my neck, and I probably had my back a little straighter than usual as I approached her. Those that know me would say I’m a generally happy guy, always quick with a funny comment and a smile on my face. I realized that that’s not who I was at this moment, and I took a mental breath to calm myself.
When I opened my mouth to speak, I forced myself to use a gentle voice.
“Look, I know there’s a few beds open, and I was wondering if you could do me a favor and let me put Joe in one of the nicer rooms for tonight. It would mean a lot to me.”
She looked directly into my eyes as I spoke, and she seemed to sense there was something I wasn’t telling her, something she wouldn’t understand. Her face lightened, and after only a second or so, she nodded. I thanked her, and returned to Joe and my partner, who were both looking at me with a confused look on their faces. I just smiled, and told them about the new arrangements I had made for my patient. The look on my partner’s face was typical “whatever, dude, let’s just do this and get out of here.” Joe, however, had a small smile on his face for the first time that night, but was trying to hide it from me. When he realized I was a foot away from his face and was looking directly at him, he knew he was busted. The two paramedics had watched the entire scenario play out, and were waiting for us in the hallway at the empty room the nurse had reassigned us as we approached. They didn’t say a word. They didn’t have to. They are both veterans themselves, and one of them had heard the conversation in the ambulance on the ride over.
After we got Joe transferred to the bed and squared away the gear, I asked my partner to get a signature on the run sheet, and I’d meet him outside in a few minutes. Both medics put their hand on my shoulder as they left in silence. They knew I was not my normal self, and were kind enough to wait until later to ask me about it (which they did, a few days later.)
Joe’s wife didn’t drive, and wouldn’t be coming to the hospital until later the next day to check on him. On the way to the hospital, Joe had commented on the fact that it wouldn’t be too much longer, and the way in which he said it made me immediately think of my father, who had said the same exact thing, almost word for word, with the same matter-of-fact attitude. I was trying very hard from that point forward not to let my emotions show, but as I stood there next to Joe, it was almost impossible to hide it anymore. I guess he noticed it, because he asked me what was wrong.
I cleared my throat, and forced myself to be strong as I told him the similarities between him and my father, and what had happened. He listened without saying a word. When I was done, he thanked me for the care I had given him and reached out to shake my hand. We were both looking at each other directly, and we each saw the tears welling up. There was nothing else I could do for Joe, and he knew that nobody could do anything further for him, except to give him something to ease his physical pain.
I stayed with him, talking about the military, comparing places we had both been to, how this place had changed since he was there, changes in unit locations, and how the military itself has changed over the years. I don’t know exactly how long I stayed, but when I finally left, I found my partner behind the wheel, fast asleep. I slammed the door as I got in, and was greeted with a few not-so-nice words comparing me to a number of bodily functions and genetic deficiencies. When I threatened to do him the favor of removing all of his teeth without the benefit of using pliers, he suddenly realized why I was not in my normally jovial mood. He said nothing as we returned to headquarters, as I tried to clear my head and get back to “normal.”
After the rig was cleaned and restocked in silence, we headed home to get some sleep.
A week or so later, we were called back to the same house, this time for Joe’s wife. When we arrived, we met the same team of medics outside. They let us know they were canceling themselves, and that our patient was fine, aside from a scrape on her arm. We thanked them, and as they turned to leave, one of the medics mentioned that our patient had something for me. I looked at her quizzically, but she kept walking and didn’t say anything else. We went inside to relieve the police officers (who are all EMTs) and to meet our patient as I wondered what she was talking about.
We found Mary inside, sitting at the kitchen table, with a small scrape on her left arm. She looked… different. We’ve been there so often over the past six months that she knew most of the squad members by first name, mine included. When she lookup up and saw me, she just smiled.
“I have something for you, Kevin” was all she said.
She got up from the table, and slowly walked into her bedroom. When she returned, she was holding the old, ragged patch I had seen on our last visit.
Without saying a word, and with tears forming in her eyes, she gently reached out and placed it in my hand.
Joe had died, but not before he had told her that he wanted me to have it.
With tears freely streaming down my face, I looked at Mary, smiled, and told her I was here to help her. We bandaged her arm and took her to the hospital without any mention about Joe. As we turned to leave after getting her checked in, she gently grabbed my wrist, turned me around to face her, and wordlessly gave me a motherly hug.
Sometimes a hug is all it takes to make the bad things go away, if only for a little while.