Just a headache?

The call came in, and everybody in the dayroom laughed.

“Rescue 5, respond to California Avenue for a female with a headache for three weeks.”

All the way to California I stewed. I’m not big on confrontation, but enough is enough. Somebody has to stop these nonsense calls, it may as well be me.


Our patient waited on the curb, waved to us as we approached, like hailing a cab. We stopped, and helped her in. I followed, taking the step stool with me and putting it back where it belonged.

A lovely lady sat on the bench seat in the back of Rescue 5, insisting that she didn’t need the stretcher, and apologized for bothering us. She was tiny, pretty and absolutely delighted that I thought she was forty-seven, not fifty-seven. My embarrassingly bad math skills do some good now and then, her smile took away the pain etched on her face, her smooth skin creasing in all the right places, remembering a time when laughter came easy.

It was just a second, and the pain was back, worn on her face as if it had never left, new lines forming where laugh lines receded.

“It’s this headache,” she said. “It won’t go away.”

“How long have you had it?” I asked while assessing her vital signs. 144/82, HR 100.

“Three weeks now, I have sinusitis, my nasonex won’t work, aspirin doesn’t work, it’s really killing me.”

“You know,” I started the lecture  in my best almighty voice, “you really shouldn’t be calling 911 for a headache, especially one that has been going on for three weeks.”

“I know,” she said, apologizing again. “ I just worry about the brain tumor they removed in February, I can’t stop thinking it’s back. That and the breast cancer, what with the chemo and all, it just makes me worry. I tried to get a ride, but nobody was home, my son was killed last month, shot in the head at the bottom of my driveway.”

I sat across from her, me in the Captain’s seat, healthy at fifty, nice home, great family and plenty of people to call should I need a ride, and her on the bench seat in and old rescue in Providence, air conditioning barely working, condescending twit across from her, breast cancer, brain tumor and a dead son. The balance of power shifted without either of us acknowledging it.

Tears started, welling up, but not escaping. I saw her dead son a few weeks ago, shot in the head at noon on an early summer day and dismissed him as just another dead body in the ongoing Providence drug war. I remember the hole in his head, and the absence of any sign of life, and feeling no sadness or pity, just relief that he was dead, and I didn’t have to work him up.

“My head really hurts,” she said.

I reached for a tissue and rubbed my eyes.

“Get on the stretcher,” I said. “You need some help.”

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