17 December 2011

A Christmas Miracle?

A reader cannot escape titles like “A Christmas Miracle”’ around this time of year.

There is a formula for those stories. It is Christmas time. Someone is having some sort of really big problem. God intervenes through some kindly agent, and something highly improbable happens which brings peace, love and cookies. Ideally, the reader will smile and tear up a mite.

Hey, I have no problem with formula. Look where formulae got Dickens and Michener.

What I offer you today is A Christmas Miracle with a question mark. I will lay out the facts of what actually occurred. I have always wondered if this was indeed A Christmas Miracle or A Christmas Darn-wasn’t-that-a-bunch-of-coincidences-that-worked-out-really-great.

I almost stuck in a “you decide” there. If you want to, go for it. But you are in no better position to make an objective judgment than I am.

The end of the story: I worked as an EMT and paramedic for many years. Most of that time we were an all-volunteer company which ran about 5000 alarms a year. (Later, that call volume necessitated converting to a career service.) West Virginia was a leader in EMS training and we put people on the street who were, for the time, very well-trained.

(Son Tim the Paramedic made a joking offer for me to go help him with paramedic testing today. The only skill I still have with any competency at all is in reading field EKG’s for dangerous dysrhythmias. But the treatment standards I know for dealing with them are nearly 25 years out of date. Believe me, EMS people today are much better trained than we were “back in the day.”)

It was a in December 1976. Three of us, John, Lee and I, picked up two patients from a motor vehicle accident, a young mother and a baby. We took them to WVU Hospital, the only trauma center in the region. After some weeks they both were released to continue normal lives. The doctors at the trauma center said that we got them there just in time. Had they arrived minutes later, they would have had really, really bad outcomes.

That part of the story really is not a big deal. We did what we were trained to do. When a trained singer sings a song well, that’s nice but not stunning. When a decent golfer makes a good drive, ditto. (When I make a good drive, it’s a fluke.) If an artist paints a nice picture, that’s just what they do. Just not a big deal.

The story, the miracle part, lies in how and when we got into position to do anything at all.

The accident took place at the county line, far from any rescue station. No ambulance could have gotten there within 15 minutes of being called. That would have been too late for these patients. We were on scene within about 3 minutes of the accident, and that’s what made the difference.

Several unusual things had to happen, in order, to put to us on that accident scene at the right time.

a - There had to be a special duty day at the station.

In 1976, the company was only four years old and was still in pretty rough rental quarters. Let’s see, an example of pretty rough – A couple of times, a particularly troublesome rat met his/her demise in the middle of the night by gunshot. If the neighbors called police, they would walk him on a bunch of totally innocent looking guys. That’s what I mean by rough.

We had a new chief, and he called for a G.I. Party to spiff the place up. A dozen of us showed up and were working around the crew on duty, painting and so forth.

b - A random emergency call had to come in.

The on-duty crew went out on a call.

c - A particular type of call in a particular place had come in.

Our station was in Fairmont. The iron-clad rule was that we were to transport any patient to the nearest available hospital, which was almost always Fairmont General. This second call was for a patient with some kind of mental health or addiction issue. The patient was located in the part of the county toward Morgantown, where West Virginia University Hospital is located. WVUH was the nearest facility which treated mental health/addiction issues at that time.

But we had that darn rule. So the way such a call typically would go was that the patient would be transported to Fairmont General, and a half an hour later Fairmont General would call us back to take the patient to Morgantown. But rules are rules, right?

d - It had to be as us who answered the call.

Those who know me might suspect that I chafe a bit over pointless rules. The three of us, dressed like painters (or bums), took the call. John and Lee likewise weren’t total by-the-book guys. I remember nothing about that call other than it was some mental health deal and we decided, screw the rule, we’ll transport this patient directly to Morgantown. We were sure we’d catch hell for it, but we didn’t really care very much. We wanted to get the painting done.

e - The charge nurse in the WVU Hospital Emergency Department was Ann, a member of our rescue company. She had to be on duty.

f - The Emergency Dept. wasn’t very busy. Ann room was a good friend to each of us, and so we had time to talk a bit. She had to be free, which was unusual in a large university hospital.

g - We had to take our time goofing off and talking to her. We sat in the communications room and shot the breeze for about 15 minutes.

Let’s see, that’s seven things that had to happen for the day to end well. From this point, the day was on automatic pilot and things just unfolded as they should.

We left the hospital and returned by the interstate toward Fairmont. About a mile from the County line, a car on the other side of the road flashed its headlights at us. It being a week from Christmas, we figured they were saying “Hi,” so Lee who was driving gave them about five cents worth of red lights from the light bar. Over the next 30 seconds, several more cars flashed headlights at us, and we started to wonder. No random bunch suddenly gets the Christmas spirit, so we figured something was going on. And if it was something that would cause people to flash their lights at an ambulance, it probably was something bad.

So I felt the rig pick up speed and about the time we were approaching Mach 1, John piped up from the back that Lee we might want to flick on the red lights. We crested a hill and could see the bridge at the county line on our side of the road. Traffic was at a dead stop.

A note here – I drive a lot. West Virginia has nice interstate highways. I will come to a dead stop on the interstate maybe twice a year. This is not the Washington Beltway. When you stop on an interstate in West Virginia, something bad is happening.

As we got closer, we could see two mangled cars. I called in to dispatch, asking if they had been notified of a bad accident at the county line. The dispatcher replied in a very deep base voice, “Negative, 23." As we pulled to a stop, I told dispatch, “You do now, send me everything in the station.”

A state police trooper (who became and still is a good friend) was on scene. He was an old ambulance man and he had quickly triaged the five patients. He pointed us to the two who needed immediate treatment and transport. I took the baby, John took the adult, and Lee turned the rig around for a quick trip to the trauma center.

A lady came along who identified herself as a nurse, and I put her in the ambulance with the baby after we discussed what needed done. (The Lord loves a volunteer, remember?) The baby was crying and while that’s disturbing to a lot of people, believe me, it is music to an EMT’s ears.

John had drafted a couple bystanders and was packaging the adult. I helped him finish, we loaded and in something under 5 minutes of getting to the scene, we were hitting Mach 2 going back up the interstate. There were limited things that EMTs could do in those days on a trauma call and we did them like we were supposed to. We arrived, the patients were swept into the trauma service, end of story for us.

But if we hadn’t been on that call or had left WVU Hospital earlier, the happy ending just wouldn’t have happened.

Here, a Christmas Miracle story is supposed to make a firm conclusion of divine causation. I’m not smart enough for that. I’m going to leave it there. I’ve seen no burning bushes nor heard any ethereal voices explaining what happened.

I have my theory. You now have the facts. Make of it what you will.

Pippa passes.

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