We were dispatched for trouble breathing. It had been a busy night, back-to-back calls, all kinds of patients. The day had felt rather hurried and frantic. My partner and I were both a few PCRs behind. We arrived on scene at a single family home and a woman waiting out front for us. “It’s my mom…. something’s not right…” she trails off, obviously upset, fearing that we’re going to bear horrible news when we see her mother.
The house is old, with narrow hallways and tight corners. We leave the cot in the hallway leading to the back bedroom because it won’t make the tight turn. I carry my monitor and airway bag.
As I make the turn into the bedroom, my heart skips a beat. The frail, white-haired, quiet woman in bed could have been my Gramma’s twin. When I call her name, she opens her eyes weakly, looks at me, then closes her eyes again without saying a word. When I ask yes/no questions, she is able to nod her head. She indicates her stomach hurts, pointing to her belly. Family members tell me that the patient has been increasingly nauseated all day, has been throwing up occasionally, and about an hour ago started to feel short of breath. I listen to her lung sounds, they’re slow and shallow but clear. Evidence of an ongoing illness is all around. Pill bottles, medication reminder notes, clean and dirty tissues, saltines, a bottle of pedialite (an electrolyte supplement usually used for infants, now helping this frail, 100 lbs. woman maintain her strength). The room smells…. strangely, very pleasant. Sometimes when patients are ill, cleanliness and order go out the window, but not this patient. Even laying in bed, she is dressed casually but smartly, hair coiffed, and even has summoned the energy to have put some makeup on. She reminds me of my Gramma in so many ways.
Because we can’t get the cot into the bedroom, we have to carry the patient out the door and around the corner. Clearly uncomfortable for her, we do our best to explain everything and be as gentle as possible. Once securely seated on the cot, the relief in her face is clearly evident. We roll towards the ambulance, the patient’s daughter in lockstep with me. As I climb up the back step, she grabs my hand. “Please take good care of my mom” she begs. I answer “like she was my own Gramma. I promise.” She smiles and walks around to the front seat. The trip to the hospital is short. I start an IV. I give an antiemetic for the nausea. I turn down the lights in the back because the patient indicated the bright led lights of the ambulance were hurting her eyes. Once the lights are dimmed, she opens her eyes, and although she doesn’t say much, she takes my hand, as if I’m the one needing comfort. I ask if she’s feeling better and she nods yes.
We arrive at the hospital. The daughter is out of the front seat and at the back door of the ambulance before my partner. She’s eager to see her mother again, to have visual confirmation that the ride to the hospital left her unscathed. My partner opens the back doors, and the patient’s daughter asks why most of the lights are off. I explain, and I can see her face relax. She knows I took care of her mom. I tell her about the meds I gave to help her mom feel better. She hugs me as I get out of the ambulance, again, as if somehow I’m the one in need of comfort. We transfer the pt to the hospital bed. If she looked tiny on the cot before, she looks impossibly small on the large hospital bed. I cover her with warm blankets out of the blanket warmer. I tell the daughter that her mom’s in good hands in the ER now, and remind her next time if she has any doubt, to just call us. We’re always available, and always happy to check somebody out, even if they end up not needing to be transported. As I tell the patient’s daughter this, she starts to cry. I grab her some tissues, and, out of instinct, give her a hug. She’s short like her mom, and in my 6’1″ 3XL embrace, she feels frail and tiny. The ER is loud, bustling, busy. For a moment, in this one room, I feel like I’ve helped somebody. Not just the patient, but her daughter, also. I see so much of my family in their family. Again, as I stand there, I can’t help but feel she is comforting me, and not the other way around. She asks me to keep her mom in my prayers, and I promise to keep all of them in my prayers.
I type up my report, get signatures and paperwork, and we’re out the door, off to our next call, our next emergency. That tiny, frail woman and her worried daughter stayed with me in my mind for the rest of my shift. I tell my wife about the call when I get home, tearing up as I describe the parallels between this family that 16 hours before was completely unknown to me, and my own family. It brings me a lot of peace imagining that the paramedics who took care of my Gramma experienced perhaps some of the same emotions as they held her hand, cared for her, brought her some comfort. This is why I do what I do. This is what makes me so proud to be a paramedic.