In the back of an ambulance we hear stories. As a patient, you’re thrown into a small and intimate space with EMTs who immediately start asking you personal questions. If you’re hurt, sick or just scared; we’re often easy to talk to. A thousand times I’ve asked, “So why did you call 911?,” or, “How long have you been sick?” In return, we often get history and stories that take us far afield from why we’re in the ambulance.
We transported a sixteen year old girl who had been living with her boyfriend. He had attacked her in bed.
On the way in, she told us that it was usually the other way around, she was the attacker and the one arrested. “I have intermittent rage disorder,” she confided to me. She then went on to tell me about her life. Abusive parents. Homelessness. Addictions. I was left amazed that she was alive and could even talk.
An elderly Hispanic woman with pneumonia spent the entire ride talking about her husband. He had died a few years ago yet I think she still saw him as the young man just back from the Korean War. She was so proud that he had been awarded a Silver Star. I think she felt the need to tell everyone lest he be forgotten.
Those Pearl-Handled Revolvers
One of my favorite stories was from an elderly gentleman who we transported for chest pains. When we arrived at his home, he told us that he had an episode of chest pain, but he’d just taken his Nitroglycerin and felt much better. “Nitro” dilates the blood vessels and is used to treat Angina Pectoris.
We thought he should still go in, and he agreed.
My partner Paul drove and I started our normal routine. “How long have you had Angina? What were you doing when the pain started? Have you had a heart attack before?”
Smiling, he answered all the questions. And then I asked, “Do you smoke?”
And he said, “Son, I was in the war, of course I smoked.”
“Which war?” I asked.
“Which war? World War II of course!” he laughed. “The big one. I was in the Third Army with Patton!”
And then he said—and this has been burned into my brain as the most random thing I’ve ever heard in an Ambulance—“Did you know that General Patton was ‘queer?’”
“Um,” I replied, “I did not know that . . .”
He continued, “Yep, queer as the trees! I was one of his aides-de-camp. I mean, the shiny helmet, the fancy uniforms…and he hand picked his honor guard.”
He laughed. “And those pearl-handled revolvers! Queer as the trees!”
His piece of history. His unique and personal story. I wanted to have Paul slow down or drive around the block so I could hear more. But sadly, we’d already arrived at the hospital.
I Was You, You Will Become Me
Sometimes the back of an ambulance is a place that arouses people to tell their story so they are not forgotten. I think this is so for many of the elderly people we transport: They tell us, “this is not me, old and frail. I was you, you will become me.”
For others, they want us to understand that they are individuals, living, breathing and clinging to their one and only life. They are not just another sixty-five-year-old cardiac patient. “I am!” they shout to us.
When we listen to their stories, the small and the amazing, not only are we made richer, but we calm, we heal and we whisper back to them: “You are!”