Monday, August 2, 2010

Laugh or Cry

In my line of work, we have the choice to either laugh or cry. 99% of the time, we choose to laugh. In order to laugh, we develop an incredibly dark sense of humor.

Tonight, I looked death in the face. Not my own death, but someone else's. A complete stranger's. I think I heard that her name was Laura.

It all started innocently enough. As it had been almost two months since Nathan and my last date night, we decided to call in a babysitter and have a date night. We started at the Rooftop Bar, on the top of McMinamin's Hotel Oregon here in town. So-so food, mediocre beer, great location. After a beer and some Cajun tots, we decided to relocate to Golden Valley, the local brewery. Good food, much better beer...and a more extensive wine list.

Not long after we had been seated on the patio and received our first drinks, I noticed an elderly lady a couple of tables away looking like she was struggling to breathe. Seeing as how we were in a restaurant, my first thought was choking. I saw someone I assumed was her son get up, walk to her side, and start talking to her. I could see she was having problems, but the son looked pretty calm, so I kept an eye on her while going back to our conversation.

Next thing I knew, a lady at the neighboring table was rushing to the older lady's side, attempting the Heimlich. Did I mention that the lady's face was blue? I told the son I was a 911 dispatcher and asked if anyone had called 911 yet; still looking deceptively calm, he said our waiter was calling.

As a dispatcher, one of our first thoughts in a medical emergency is to get the phone as close to the patient as possible, in order to give instructions and get timely updates on the patient's condition. I immediately ran inside, found the waiter who was on the phone with one of my fellow dispatchers, and directed him back to the patient. By the time we got back out there, other bystanders were getting the lady on her back on the floor. She was blue. Everything about her was blue. Not knowing if anyone else knew CPR, I kneeled down at her side at the same time a young man kneeled on her other side and asked if we should do CPR.

Thank God for repetitive training...he started doing chest compressions while I gave direction from memory. 30 compressions, 2 breaths. 30 compressions, 2 breaths.

Once upon a time, I thought about becoming a paramedic. Now I know I didn't miss my calling. I like having the phone between myself and the picture that is now stuck in my mind.

There was a point, after the first set of 30 compressions, when the man doing compressions hesitated when I asked him if he would be willing to do rescue breaths. As an Emergency Medical Dispatcher, you don't ask someone if they will do rescue breaths. You just give instructions and then work around a refusal if one pops up. But I saw exactly what he saw. I saw the human being he was about to lock lips with. I had to ask. He only hesitated a moment before diving in, but that moment seemed like an eternity; an eternity filled with the question of whether I would be willing to take his place if he said no.

I didn't know the answer to that question. I only felt relief when he continued. I still don't know the answer to that question. And that bothers me. But I was there.

I was there, pushing everyone to continue when they thought they heard her breathing but didn't have the training to see that it was agonal breathing...the last breaths. I was there watching her color get better when we did continue. Watching the food gradually come out of her throat. Watching her start to come around.

I was there when the paramedics finally arrived. Our instructors weren't lying when they said that two minutes feels like two hours to the person on scene. Once the ambulance arrived, I started shaking.

I was there to watch her being wheeled to the ambulance. Awake. Conscious. Arguing with the paramedics about going to the hospital.

I could have cried.

Instead, I laughed. And cracked inappropriate jokes. That's how it works.

Later, after everything had calmed down and the ambulance had transported their patient to the hospital, I made sure to find the man who had actually done the CPR. I wanted to let him know that he saved a life tonight. It would have been wrong for the night to end without him knowing that, without his help, that woman would have died. I saw exactly what he saw right before he blew into that woman's mouth. It wasn't pretty. It didn't look like the movies. It was messy and disturbing, and I'll probably have nightmares about it. But he kept going. In my eyes, he is the hero of the night. Nathan said he heard that the man was an off-duty officer...I didn't recognize him, so maybe he wasn't one of ours, but it wouldn't surprise me if he was an officer somewhere. That kind of bravery and compassion is easy to recognize.

I think I'll be nervous about eating out anywhere for a while.

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