I dedicated "Responding" to John and Kellie. Both were students at one of Providence's colleges. I'll never forget either of them.
John, Chapter 1, from "Rescuing Providence."
“Rescue 1, are you available?”
“Roger, what have you got?”
“Respond to Providence College for a student who has fallen off of a roof.”
“Rescue 1, on the way.”
We were worn out, finishing a thirty-eight. Lori hit the lights and siren and changed direction, driving toward the incident.
It only took a minute to get there. The campus was quiet, most of the kids slept or crammed for finals. Lifeless soccer fields, empty administration buildings and classrooms led us toward the brick seven story dormitory building. Twenty-five years ago ten girls jumped to their deaths from one of the dorms here, trying to escape a fire that started when some Christmas decorations lining the walls ignited. The girls couldn’t wait for the ladders that would have rescued them, flames burned their backs as they leaned further and further out their windows. Some crashed to the ground in front of their rescuers, seconds away from salvation. In terms of number of lives lost, it was the worst day in the history of the Providence Fire Department. We have had our share of bad days.
A security guard directed us up a hill to the base of St. Joseph’s Hall. Another guard held a struggling student in his grasp, his primal screams echoed off of the surrounding buildings.
At the crest of the hill, near the base of the building, lying in a crumbled heap was our victim. I got out of the rescue and walked closer, hoping, but knowing better, that this was some bizarre prank. It wasn’t.
I am a firefighter. People look to me when they need help. The crumbled heap was a kid named John. He looked at me through eyes that had popped from their sockets yet miraculously still focused on my own. He tried to speak; blood and teeth flowed from his mouth in place of words.
“It’s bad,” I said to Lori as she wheeled the stretcher close. With help from Engine Co. 12 who had been called to assist we immobilized our patient then loaded him into the truck and headed for the trauma room at Rhode Island Hospital, the area’s only Level 1 trauma center. John fought for life all the way. His broken bones were hinged in multiple places, as he moved his shoulders and hips the limbs went in opposite directions. The hat he wore, a light brown wool cap with earflaps that tie if you want finally fell from his head onto the blood-splattered floor of the rescue. I remembered hats like from my childhood, when mothers and grandmothers would bundle their kids up before sending them into the cold. They have regained their popularity with older kids; it’s funny how things come and go. I picked it up and placed it on his chest, the only part of his body that didn’t appear outwardly broken. Inside, his vital organs were a scrambled mess. He somehow gathered the strength to grasp my wrist as I tried to keep him from moving. I was amazed both by the power still exuding from his broken body and the emotional response his desperate gesture had on me. The mangled mass of flesh and bone became more to me than I had intended, my quest to distance myself from the emotional carnage that lay ahead destroyed. His grip on my arm went directly to my heart, breaking once we become more intimate. I wondered to myself, who am I to be present and in charge as this drama unfolds? I’m just a regular guy who a few years ago couldn’t manage his own life, never mind leading a team of firefighters in this grim effort.
I put aside my self-doubt and marched on, no time for indecision when a life hung in the balance. The responsibility is sometimes overwhelming, but worrying about it doesn’t help anybody.
I’m certain the look on the faces of Lori and the guys from Engine 12 mirrored my own. I saw horror and pity mixed with revulsion in their expressions as we worked. We did all we could, started IV’s, gave oxygen and tried to comfort our patient while we endured what for some of was is the longest ride of our career.
An hour after we handed what was left of John over to the emergency room staff I sat on the floor outside the trauma room, state report on my knees, the empty spaces waiting to be filled. My hand held a pen that I couldn’t get going. The guys from Engine 12 were in the barn waiting for the next alarm. Lori was with the triage nurses who were busy with the kid who had witnessed his best friend fall eighty feet from the slippery dorm roof.
The boys had finished cramming for their exams and were sneaking onto the roof for a smoke. A window in a janitor’s closet provided access to the roof if you were careful. This wasn’t the first time the window was used. A beautiful view of the city was the reward for those daring enough to make the trip. The first boy made it onto the roof then waited for John. Something happened; he slipped and started sliding down the roof toward the edge. It happened fast. John’s friend witnessed him go over, he then somehow made it back through the window, out of the closet and down the stairs to the first floor. He ran out the front door of the dorm to see if he could help. He was the first to see the result of an eighty-foot fall onto frozen ground. John was critically injured, his friend’s life forever changed by what he saw. I can only hope he gets the help he needs and doesn’t push it away as guys his age are prone to do.
From the corner of my eye, a priest appeared at the end of the long corridor we call “trauma alley.” The hospital’s six trauma rooms line the narrow hallway, filled with the most advanced medical equipment available. At a moments notice these rooms can be filled with trauma teams consisting of doctors, nurses, respitory experts and support staff. Now, most were empty. One of the rooms showed signs of activity; a lone janitor mopping buckets of blood from the floor. John had been taken upstairs to surgery.
Two people joined the priest and they made their way toward me under the bright fluorescent lights up trauma alley. They were my age, dressed is sweatshirts and sweatpants, things found at a moments notice, no coats. They clung to each other, the man holding the woman up, supporting her as they made the long walk toward an uncertain future that seemed so bright when the fell asleep hours before, now shrouded with uncertainty and fear. I knew why they were here and the bad news that awaited them, hoping beyond hope that everything would be as it was they struggled past me. I cowardly looked down at my empty report and pretended to write, not wanting to see up close the effects of this tragedy any more that night.
They were a close, religious family from a nearby Massachusetts town, Mom, Dad and three kids. They sent their son to a Catholic college hoping he would be safe. They walked past, never knowing it was me who peeled their son off of the curb at the bottom of his dorm and held him together through the ride to the hospital. I know he would have died on the pavement if not for our intervention. I get some satisfaction knowing his parents will have the opportunity to hold their child once more while life flows through his veins. Whether that will be enough in the hard years to come I will never know. I don’t think he will make it much longer.
Somehow I finished the report, helped Lori clean the rescue and limped back to the station. All quiet there. The engine and ladder company didn’t turn a wheel all night. In my office a stack of reports waited to be logged into the computer. Thirteen runs, I had three hours to go. I hadn’t slept in days; was exhausted, depressed and dirty. Too tired to shower or log the reports into the computer system, I collapsed onto my bunk. Mercifully I slept until my relief woke me at seven. After an hour doing reports I was on my way home. I turned on the radio, hoping to hear some music and clear my head. It was the top of the hour; my favorite station does a five-minute news segment at this time on weekdays. The story of the student who fell from the seventh floor of his dorm led the news. He was reportedly still in critical condition. I listened to the details, amazed at how cold and generic the information sounded when recounted by somebody who was just reading the news. My mind was still full of every minute detail, the smell of blood mixed with diesel fumes from the truck’s exhaust, similar to charred meat cooking on a propane grill, tension from the rescuers, horror from the witnesses and the victim’s pain all mixed together forming a cloud of desperation that can be felt only by those who were there. You could tell the story a hundred times and the people hearing the story will never feel it, can never appreciate what goes on. Only those unfortunate souls who live through such experiences bear the full weight of the memories.
Kellie, The Epilog from "Responding."
He must have been sleeping; the phone rang for a long time before he picked it up.
“Nado, it’s me, are you sleeping.”
“Not any more.”
“Sorry to wake you up but this is important. Do you remember that sick girl we had this morning?”
“The one from PC?”
“Yeah, her. The chief just called me. Turns out she had bacterial meningitis and we were exposed. They want us to report to Roger Williams immediately for treatment."
“Wow, it she all right?”
“They read her last rights, it doesn’t look good.”
“I know. Want us to come by and get you, I’m working overtime, Rescue 6.”
“Nah, I’ll drive, it’s right around the corner."
“All right, see you there.”
Rescue 6 was added to our miniscule fleet of Advanced Life Support vehicles about a year ago. It hasn’t helped us out much, just kept the surrounding communities at bay for a little while. They still come to Providence on mutual aid in disproportionate numbers.
I snapped my phone closed and sat back in my chair, closed my eyes and let the news sink in. Earlier in the day we had responded to Providence College for a “student vomiting”. It was Tuesday morning, the day after a three-day weekend. I’d have bet the rescue that this was a call for a kid with a hangover. It took about five minutes to make the trip from the Allens Avenue Fire Station to the Providence College Campus. Renato was at the wheel as he had been for the last couple of years, filling in for Mike who left the rescue division for a spot on Engine 15 in the Mount Pleasant section of the city. I still see Mike occasionally on calls, at least he stayed on the same platoon. He’s the same, always on, always making me laugh no matter how miserable I might be.
Ladder 3 had been dispatched along with Rescue 1 and gave me their report as we turned into the campus.
“Ladder 3 to Fire Alarm, advise Rescue 6 we have a twenty year old female dizzy and disoriented, have them bring the stretcher.”
“Rescue 1, received.”
Most of the time the students are able to walk to the rescue. This kid must be pretty sick, I figured. I helped Renato get the stretcher from the back of the truck and walked toward the Health Center, located just below the dormitory where a student fell to his death a while ago. I pointed to the spot that he landed.
“That’s where the kid fell,” I said to Renato.
“I know,” he said, probably tired of me telling him again but wise enough to not to remind me that I tell him the same story every time we come to PC. That is one of the many reasons I thank the Rescue Gods every day that he was transferred to Rescue 1 a few weeks after Mike left. Sometimes things have a way of working out.
She looked sick, but then so many of them do after a long weekend. Providence College has its fair share of parties. Inside the health center Ladder 3 finished taking vital signs. Nelson, a firefighter who came on the job years ago with me and still looks a lot like Wayne Newton gave me the story.
"She's 21, started throwing up last night at midnight. No medical history, doesn't take medications and has no allergies. She seems a little confused."
Usually our college aged patients walk to the rescue, not her. Her name was Kellie, her Irish name as beautiful as her face. She tried to answer my questions but her words were garbled. I became worried about her condition; we transported her immediately to Roger Williams Hospital. Renato drove in his usual way, I never felt a bump or turn in the road. En-route Kellie started to have some seizure-like activity. As she vomited I handed her a basin. She didn't understand what it was and threw up on herself instead. She shook as I held the basin to her face, and then fell back on the stretcher when I let her go. Her eyes couldn't focus on mine. I put her on a non-rebreather with high flow 02 and let her rest. I felt that her skin was cool and damp as I swept the hair from her eyes.
The nurse at the hospital took my report and immediately got her into a room where the Doctor on call saw her. I heard them mention a bleed as I washed the sweat and vomit from my hands. I had just taken off my gloves to do the report when she got sick. Five people were working on Kellie as I left. The Doctor said it is probably a head bleed from an injury or meningitis. Rather than a head bleed, I hoped it was meningitis and whatever got on me had been washed away.
The chief called at 2200 hrs and told me to report to Roger Williams Medical Center. Kellie had bacterial meningitis and we were exposed. I had hoped she didn't have a bleed in her brain but I never expected this. Viral meningitis is bad, but not deadly. Bacterial meningitis kills. It seems every year I read in the paper some poor kid who came to college and caught this bacterium somehow and died. Kellie's family was with her in the Intensive Care Unit. She was intubated and fighting the infection, but was in critical condition. I had to wait until morning to see if she would live or die. As for me, I took a big dose of Cipro and let it work. The medicine made me sick, but not as bad as Kellie. I stayed on duty until the morning, poking my head into Kellie’s room whenever I had the chance.
After a long couple of days I got word that Kellie might pull through. She had been extubated and woke up for a little while . She knew who she was and where she was but wasn't quite sure what had happened. She was lucky. Her roommates made her seek medical attention instead of going to sleep, which is what she wanted to do. The infection was caught before doing irreparable damage. Six firefighters and about forty staff and students were given antibiotics as a precaution. Her roommates saved her life. I love a happy ending and hoped things continued to improve.
As things turned out, things did improve. After multiple seizures and days of uncertainty, then weeks in bed, then months in therapy Kellie made a full recovery.
One day, months later I found an envelope addressed to me in the top drawer of my desk at Rescue 1. It was from Kellie’s family, thanking me for my part in saving their daughter and sister’s life. I must have read the note inside the card a hundred times, then a few more. This job has the strangest way of grabbing you by the throat when you least expect it. When I heard how sick Kellie actually was, after I had taken the mega dose of Cipro and was back at the station, alone in Rescue 6’s office I had what I now call a mini-meltdown.
It is said that every critical incident we live through takes a little piece of our heart. We are able to keep all of the pieces stored somewhere, hoping to put everything back together some day. Kellie’s incident took a bigger part of my heart than I realized. Maybe hers was the piece that was holding the rest together. I sat in the office that night, in between Cipro furnished runs to the bathroom and wondered, after all these years, if I was going to be able to hold on for many more. Maybe it was the memory of John falling eighty feet to his death from the roof above us when we carried Kellie out, maybe it was the knowledge of my own two girl’s frail existence on this earth or maybe I had just had enough. Had she not pulled through I doubt if I would have stayed on the Rescue, I had just seen too much. While she fought for her life in a hospital room three miles from my location, I fought nausea, diarrhea and severe depression in a cramped temporary office at the Atwells Avenue Fire Station.
I can’t say that I prayed to God or the rescue gods or even asked for any intervention at all; I will say that by night's end, I managed to sort things out enough to let it all go and let nature, or whatever, run its course.
I met Kellie and her family on her graduation day from Providence College. She’s going to be a teacher.
She’s off to a great start.