“New City Ambulance,” the radio crackles in, loud and clear. “Man found unconscious in car.” The dispatcher’s voice echoes through the room. “Nonresponsive.” I hold my breath. “CPR in progress.” For the briefest of moments, the world comes to a standstill as the words take meaning in our minds. Not a soul in the room moves a muscle. There is complete, and utter, silence. But it is only for a moment. The station buzzes to life as EMTs and paramedics rush to their respective vehicles. A surge of adrenaline courses through my veins, carrying me onto the ambulance, hoisting the oxygen bag onto my shoulder and watching lights flash and sirens shriek while the buildings and trees blur and disappear from sight. Police cars come into view as we swerve into the parking lot, marking the spot where our patient lies. Screeching to a stop in front of the scene, we burst the doors of our truck open, pulling the stretcher into position.
I jump down out of the rig, striding over to where I can now see an officer in the midst of compressions on the bare chest of a pale, sickly looking man. Someone calls out for a BVM (bag-valve mask) and I nearly break the oxygen bag’s zipper as I yank it open to find one. I rummage through the bag’s contents, proudly pulling out my prize to hand to the medic. He rips it open and begins to assemble it before frowning and handing it back, clearly aggravated at my incompetence. “An adult BVM,” he growls, quickly losing patience. I flush with embarrassment at my mistake, and sort through the bag again, double-checking this time to make sure the new BVM I found was not pediatric.
The next few minutes pass by in a blur as the patient is moved onto the stretcher and set up in the ambulance, the LUCAS machine taking over compressions as the EMTs and medics work to hook up IVs and place EKG leads over the patient’s frail body. I watch all of this helplessly, beating myself up over my mistake and remembering the medic’s disapproving face over and over. Doubt seeps through me like a poison, and I begin to wonder whether I’d be better off sitting out the rest of the call in the front of the ambulance. Before I can voice this thought, an EMT turns to me. “I need you to take over the breaths,” he says, handing me the BVM. I want to say no, want to tell him I don’t remember how and I can’t do it and a million and one other excuses, but I look up at him and see the trust in his eyes and I find myself nodding and wrapping my hands around the BVM. I sit down and start squeezing the bag, timing the breaths with the thrust of the machine’s compressions. I notice the medic from earlier shoot an apprehensive look at the EMT but he ignores it, gently reminding me to squeeze every 5 seconds and wait for the LUCAS to go up.
The rest of the ride to the hospital continued like that, with the medic continuing to fuss over the patient’s vitals (or lack thereof), and the LUCAS pounding up and down on the man’s chest, and me, sitting there with a BVM, thinking one-two-three-four-squeeze over and over, ignoring the growing fatigue in my hands and watching the patient’s chest rise and fall. After 20 minutes or an eternity, the ambulance pulled up in front of the hospital, and a nurse grabbed the BVM out of my hand as the stretcher was wheeled into the ER. Now (quite literally) out of my hands, the CPR continued. Then, finally, a pulse appeared.
The man was still unconscious when we left. He would never see my face, and he would not know the names of the team that held his life in their hands for those long 20 minutes. But he would live when he otherwise would not have, and that was all I needed to know.