Sunday, August 23, 2009

Every now and then you have to light a candle

You work codes and unfold sheets. You put your arm around onlookers and family members and guide them away. You listen to them in the hallways of the ER. Wiping their eyes roughly with the heel of a grimy hand, going over and over the last thing they said, yesterday morning when they fussed at him for getting into the sugar.

Whether we want to admit it or not every death takes its little dig out of us. Every shattered helmet and flat green line and 'unknown downtime' puts a little dent in the armor, every LODD takes the whole works up and shakes it with a rough, unmerciful hand. So every now and then I just have to sit down and cry for no one and everyone, for the things that could have been prevented and the things that could not be helped. I have to gently place them all in a little paper boat and set it adrift; leave that red pillar shining in the quiet of the church for all the broken hearts and empty places at the table.

This song helps.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Conversations I Hope You Never Have

I drive for a living, and one of the annual annoyances of driving for a living for a trucking company is the ‘random’ drug test. ‘Random’ earns ‘quotes’ because I usually am ‘told’ when its going to be because otherwise it’s a ‘scheduling nightmare’ and I’m not a ‘drug user anyway’ and wouldn’t know the first thing about ‘acing that kind of test’ so its unlikely that knowing affects the outcome.

Today was my special day, and I went to the clinic with my sheaf of pages and signatures and seals, feeling like I was trying to get a priceless work of art out of bonded storage in Bremerhaven for some sort of gala opening.

I slurped down some spring water on the way to the appointment, but realized too late I should have started a lot sooner. I answered questions and showed my photo ID, turning out my pockets to assure the nurse I didn’t have some foreign urine secreted about my person that I intended to dump into the cup while I made convincing ‘I’m really peeing’ noises. I waited for the magic to happen.

Now, I don’t want to blow your mind, but there are some things you may not be aware of. One of those things is that peeing in a cup with an opening 3 inches in diameter when you don’t have an ‘outy’ urethra isn’t particularly easy. Two, its even less easy when you are, as I am, a ‘person of size’. Three, trying to hold a cup down in a space where you are usually very disinclined to put your arm unless there is a wad of toilet paper at the end of it (and there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room to begin with because you are perched on a toilet with handrails for the elderly and infirm), we’re venturing from not ‘particularly easy’ into ‘damn near impossible’. A whole school of yoga might possibly arise from the awkward necessity of maintaining that position while idly wondering just exactly WHERE the cup should be to catch the stream. None of this is helped by the poster situated directly across from the toilet, where a list of ‘how to make a clean catch’ tips is framed by a photo of an amused looking redhead who likely has a much smaller backside and none of these difficulties.

I hunched. I waited. I readjusted. I heard a faint tinkle which suggested everything I wanted was going where it normally goes and not into my shotglass o’ fun. But alas, my bladder was empty.

I pulled out the cup and eyed the line that was supposed to be my ‘target’. I was at least 1/8 of an inch short. I handed the cup to the nurse.
"Is this enough?" we looked at my sad contribution together.
"Hmm. Its iffy. Let me check."
I followed her to the little room where I’d emptied my pockets and signed for my pee. She poured it into the mail-able leakproof pee vial.
"Nope. I’m sorry."
"Okay, so, I guess I have to hang out for a little while."
I was shown back to the waiting room and given a styrofoam cup of water. I chose an eight month old copy of Good Housekeeping and sat down to wait. I read breathless letters from readers about how happy they were to see Jon and Kate and their engineered brood on the cover of the November issue. I found out how to handle too much clutter and too little space. I know how to flatter my waist no matter its size (though I noticed none of the models they chose would have trouble FINDING theirs, as I do) and I got a recipe for healthy loaded nachos. People came in. There were babies, toddlers, college students, a woman wearing kneepads and a helmet accompanied by two handlers. I went back to the window.
"I think I can try again." I said.
"Okay, it’ll just be a few minutes."
"No problem."

I watched Dr. Sanjay Gupta explain what I need to do to prevent macular degeneration. I watched Helmet Woman rock for a while. Just when things were getting kind of urgent and my potential success rate was hitting critical mass I was called back in, we checked my pockets for errant test cheats again, and in I went.

This time there was no doubt that everything was going where it should. Suddenly the cup was kind of heavy and I realized I had enough for my company, the IOC, and the International Cycling Union.
You know what’s hard? Knowing how full a cup is that you can’t see. You know what else is hard? Knowing whether you are holding that cup absolutely level when you are in a position that roughly approximates wrestling yourself, only over a toilet with your pants around your ankles, and removing that cup which (as it turns out) is full to the brim without spilling any.
The cup is a little slippery.

And urine spilling on cotton is ABSOLUTELY NOISELESS.
I didn’t realize the extent of the damage until I pulled up my jeans and felt a distressing wetness. There was a knock at the door.

"You okay?"
"Um, yeah, I had a little mishap," I said, as I handed the cup to her. She followed me to the exam room.
"Yeah, its all over you." She says this like she’s commenting on the weather.
I don’t remember the next two minutes clearly. Some merciful degree of personal mortification generated a buzz in my ears and kept me from being embarrassed until I got out the door. I was still clinging to hope that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, when the outside air hit me and I realized that it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
It was much, much worse.

(Calling the boss. )
"Hi. I’m all done here, but I had a little mishap."
"Oh? What’s wrong?"
"Well, the test is all done, but I had the cup….. and…. (choosing brutal honesty in a desperate bid to minimize questions) I have to run to Walmart and get something to wear that I haven’t inadvertently spilled pee on."
"Um, okay then."
I ran to the store, praying for something that I could ‘eyeball fit’ since trying on anything was out of the question. After paying for my purchases I beelined to the ladies room to change, hurtling past the ‘restroom closed for cleaning’ sign and dodging the surprised cleaner. I figured I had to give her some kind of explanation so I told her what happened while I was changing in the handicapped stall.

She listened to my tale and offered much needed perspective.
"Well, at least its yours."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sew what?

Oh, yeah. I am this cool. In fact, get this going before you read my post. I'll wait.

No, really. I'll wait.

I ACTUALLY MADE A USABLE THING with my sewing machine on Sunday. Threaded, bobbined, patterned, pinned, and cut, and made something. This may not seem like a real big deal, but I've never, ever, ever had my hands on a sewing machine before. I vacillated between grand notions of making a new wardrobe and fear that I'd end up somehow attached to the machine in a way that would require emergency intervention and several sutures. But wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, it all worked and I pressed the pedal and it made appropriate noises and joined pieces of fabric intentionally along lines I had drawn in a way that was neither pitiful nor an embarassment with no personal injury.

See kids, I'm almost 40. Among the great liberations of the age are these:

  • I'm no longer ruled (or in any way informed, for that matter) by fear of what other people think.
  • When I want to learn a new thing, I just do it.
  • My peers are not, by and large (though some of the by AND the large are breaking this rule) gallivanting around in low rise jeans with bits of themselves showing, so the fact that I don't flash my bits about doesn't really matter. (In fact, its a public service.)

Sooo, when I wanted to learn to sew, I just jumped in. My ultimate goal? Skill enough to turn out simple, functional dresses and skirts, which I'll wear. And perhaps the odd curtain. Which I won't wear.

I would also like to learn a musical instrument that doesn't require trunk space to transport. I own a flute, an eBay purchase from some years ago, and I haven't given up the desire to actually learn to play it. (In the meantime, I observe the 'No Stairway' rule.)

I've been thinking a lot about vocation. Asking the question, is this where I belong at this point in time? If not, what should I be doing? Is there a better use of my complicated degree/affiliation situation that I just haven't found yet? (BA in Christian Ministries from a Protestant college & I'm a Catholic.) Will I ever be able to read the college alumni magazine without the sad feeling that I squandered my college career eating ramen noodles and watching 120 Minutes and experimenting with ill-advised hairstyles? Can God still make something out of my missed opportunities and my seeming inability to find a meaningful niche that also pays the bills? Why couldn't the Professor fix the radio if he could build all that other stuff? I don't have these answers. For now, my motto is 'Learn, Ask, and Wait.'

In the meantime, I will sew.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Its all happening on 'The Bus'

Hey y'all....
I finally squeezed a new post out of my busy brain, but its over at my EMT come on down to the station and jump on The Bus.

You know you are in trouble when nurses are apologizing

Kids, kids, kids. Where has the time gone?

Without boring you with details, its 'peak season' in my paying job, which means that most weeks I'm driving hundreds of miles through the New York and Pennsylvania countryside, keeping my own company, practicing show tunes, and deepening my affinity for Jack Link beef jerky while I studiously adhere to the speed limit and handsfree cell phone laws because you can only talk your way out of a cell phone ticket in New York State on account of being a Volley and an EMT once because more than once is bad karma.


Just as I was reflecting on how I hadn't been on a transfer in a while, prayers were answered. (Prayers I didn't exactly PRAY, you have to be careful with that kind of thing.) It was my first night home on time in a while. I'd made supper, there was a batch of blueberry jam in the bread machine, (I'm not nuts, it was in the manual!) and I was looking forward to an evening of pretty much nothing.

Phone Rings. I look at the screen. It says 'Xfer Hotline'. I should change it to 'Change of Plans'

Dicker: "What are ya doooin?" (This is his standard greeting. I like it better than "Let me tell you what you are going to be doing in 15 minutes." Even though that's exactly what it means.)

Me: "Eating dinner," (I'm suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I am actually wearing an APRON. As if I could wrap myself in a second layer of staying-in-ness.)

Dicker: "We got a transfer," (Well, obviously. But something about his tone tells me this one is special.)

Me: "Uh-huh..."

Dicker: "Its to Philadelphia."

For those of you who don't know where I live, visualize the pointy-cornered rectangle that is Pennsylvania. Put a dot in the lower right corner. That's Philadelphia. Now put one on the very, very top edge were the green cow-laden part of New York touches us, in the very center. Now imagine one of those maps like in the old 'Road to' movies where the line goes from one to another. Wheee-doggy, there's tolls and turnpikes and whatnot 'tween here and thereabouts.

I reluctantly took off my apron, changed my shirt, and went on down. We grabbed some petty cash and headed to the hospital. After wrangling the paperwork, arguing about completion, discussing cost with the family, it was time to get our patient and go. That's when the nurse meets us.

"Um, I got some supplies together for you." (Supplies? I'm suddenly in mind of the orderly cabinet in my office, full of notepads and packs of Post-Its. ) Our nursing friend looks unusually penitent, and this is a concern.

"The patient was given a dose of lactulose, because the doctor ordered it." You can go ahead and click on that link. I didn't have the benefit of a link, and had to fall back on my patented blank 'I'm not a nurse so I'm going to stare at you until you explain yourself' look.

"Um, one of the side-effects of it is loose stools." (This, my friends, is called understatement.)

Our nurse friend hands over a giant plastic bag containing a full package and a half of adult diapers, an entire ream of c-fold towels, a couple of random quilty looking things of indeterminate purpose, a bottle of skin cleanser, and the piece de resistance, a giant tube of 'skin protectant', much used, which I am helpfully told is needed because of 'the irritation'.)

Oh, and a gleaming metal bedpan wrapped in a pillowcase. Which would turn out to be useful only if we had the powers of both prescience AND levitation. It would remain nestled in its cheerful pink swaddling for the duration of the trip.

There was nothing funny about the patient's condition; he was the bright yellow color of an old bruise and it was painfully clear that a lifetime of hepatic and renal abuse was finally paying terrible dividends. This transfer was, no doubt, an effort to get him closer to family before his last day. He was reasonably cheerful, though, and we kept things light as we got him on the stretcher for the five hour trip.

As soon as we got going, the patient turned on his side, closed his eyes, and seemed to be sleeping. Great, I thought. Maybe he'll sleep and we'll get away without any major issues.

Oh, the altruism of a silly silly EMT who doesn't want to get pooped on. Somewhere in the Poconos the first alimentary grenade was launched. It was like Mr. Cosby said-- "First you'll say it, then you'll DO it." "Oh, s--t!" The patient said. I believe "INCOMING!" would have been more appropriate. His trajectory was mostly due north but the blast radius was knees to shoulder blades. We pull over. Gown? Gone. Sheets? Gone. Stand up, hose him down, change everything, wallpaper 10-12 square feet of everything with chux, and try again.

This happens three more times, though the volume and intensity, mercifully, decrease. I learned some valuable lessons, not the least of which was, if a large sick man is lying partially on a used adult undergarment, the way to get it out from under him is NOT to take hold of it and hoss it on out. Because it may fly apart. And bits of it may stick to your person. And you will again reset the limits on what you are 'okay' with. By the time we were rolling down Roosevelt Boulevard we could re-Depend faster than a pit crew at Talladega.

We pull into the ER entrance at the hospital and the security guard meets our driver at the back door. I would have chalked this off as an urban stereotype or made for TV drama but the first thing he says is "Do you have the gunshot victim?" "Um, no... were we supposed to?" Jeez.

The ER is a circus. I'm sure our blinking in the blinding light, such a contrast from the diaper changing mood lighting we had going on the bus, made us look even more like we'd just rolled up with the patient on the back of a hay wagon. "Wellsboro?" the guard said to me. "Where's that?" We're pointed to a security door just through the metal detectors and we make our way to the 6th floor. The patient is exhausted and we're just glad he's in good hands. "Youse guys aren't trying to go back tonight, are you?" he asks. "Yep," I said, "The ambulance doesn't fit in the parking garage at the Four Seasons." He laughed. We left.

The back of the ambulance looks like the aftermath of a very messy, very creepy party. I clean up as we 'look for a place to eat' which, given the viability of parking a $177,000 vehicle in Center City Philadelphia translates to 'drive to Allentown'. Stumbling into the turnpike rest stop is immediately disorienting; my beloved high-volume McDonald's with the always blazing hot fries and my Auntie Anne's pretzels has been replaced with a Starbucks and a Roy Rogers. Roy Rogers still exists? Yes, and its staffed with cheerful Chinese girls with a sketchy grasp of English and no patience for your decision making time despite there being no line whatsoever, making the whole food-ordering experience feel like a dream engendered by a warm beer and a bad burrito. I eat a very dubious egg sandwich and listen to the lack of sleep humming loudly in my ears. We fuel up, chatting with a truck driver who is interested in 'What one of them things costs'. I'm too tired for an apparatus weiner-measuring contest. I tuck the toll ticket and $10 under the edge of the Horton light and siren panel and go inside for one more pass at the facilities before we hit the road again.

What? Stuff can fall behind that panel? Oh. Frack sticks. Five miles before our exit I realize that the $10 is still there but the ticket is not. I turn to the driver and explain she will have to employ her winningest smile and we'll see if country charm can get us through the tollgate without a ticket. (Some stats: Times I've ever done this: 0. Number of EZ Passes in our apparatus: 0)
We pull into the only tollgate that is open and, with $30 in my hand, showing my absolute willingness to pay 'The highest toll to exit', I explain my situation.

"The ticket fell behind the panel." (Toll guy shakes his head.)

"You have to have the ticket."

"Okay, but see, I don't know where it is. This doesn't open. I can't feel it."
"You need a ticket to exit."

"Um, I realize that, but see, we DON'T have the ticket, we have our $7.85 receipt from where we came down, but what would you like us to do right now?"

"You'd have to pay the highest toll, $23.90." (I show him the $30 I have in my hand, again demonstrating my willingness to OBEY THE LAW. Trucks began to stack up behind us.)

"Okay, well, um, okay." he looks at the side of the ambulance. "Here's what you do. Give me your driver's license. " (The hell? I give it to him.) As he writes up this mysterious form, he says "I haven't ever done this before, but if anyone asks you, you came through MID COUNTY not Valley Forge and you went through the EZ Pass lane. Okay? You went through EZ Pass by mistake. And its $5.00."

So, lets review. I lost the ticket. I have the money. If we find the ticket later we can get reimbursed. But because this guy feels sad about taking so much money from an ambulance and its 3 in the morning I now have to be complicit in an ELABORATE LIE and deceive the PA Turnpike Commission and get a $2.85 discount on our return trip for NO REASON. But since the trucks behind us are starting to sound like they are idling in a slightly more hostile manner I pay my $5, take my mysterious paper that explains a different error than the one I made, and my license, and we go. I'm still waiting for that phone call wherein I perjure myself to the Turnpike Police and they Come For Me and there are Dire Consequences.

We rolled back in to town at 6:45am. I went home, showered, changed my clothes, and drove to Syracuse NY. I drank a lot of coffee and overshared to a handful of store clerks and the sun was very very bright all day and I sang at fierce volumes to stave off those weird daydreams that feel very much like sleeping with my eyes open.

Mr. D, you were worth a sleepless night and it was a privilege to meet you. I'm glad you got to see your grandson race on Saturday before your tired body gave out. Rest in peace.