We are sent for a man with lung cancer difficulty breathing. Visiting nurse on scene. We’ve been going to this house a lot recently. Small one story house in a lower middle class neighborhood. The grass in the yard is mostly dead, the driveway cracked. The house needs painting.

The stink hits you from the door. It is one of the commonest EMS smells. It is the smell of the unbathed. Not the BO smell of a high school locker room, but the smell of people for whom washing and cleaning themselves has become an impossible task when just getting up to go to the kitchen brings on shortness of breath. The smell is in the carpets, in the walls. Some day an out-of-state family member or relator will have to tear out the carpets, strip the walls, and give the house a professional cleaning and airing out if they ever hope to sell it, after its decades old occupants are passed on.

But for now, the husband sits in the old armchair, an oxygen cannula in his nose. From his build he looks like he was once a large powerful man. Now speaking more than a few words at a time leaves him weak. His tee-shirt is stained yellow. I can see fungus growing on his feet.

The visiting nurse sits at the kitchen table looking at her lap top computer. She is on the phone talking to the ER, telling them how she is sending the patient in because he has become increasingly short of breath. She tries to tell the person on the other end of the phone the names of the patient’s medications, but the person on the other end of the phone has other patients to attend to, and has probably just scrawled “74 year old male, cancer, dsypnea” on a pad, and that suffices.

I want my partner to hurry up and get the stretcher set, so we can get this man on it, and out into the fresh air. We get the clean white sheet spread out, and while the man wants to stand and take a step to the stretcher, I say no. I remember how short of breath he became the last time. I tell my partner we have to lift him. I reach in from behind, giving him a bear hug, my arms under his, grasping him by the crossed forearms, while my partner, with now gloved hands, picks up from under the knees, and we lift him over. Both of us trying not to breathe more than we can help for fear we will gag.

The man’s wife, using her walker, comes over and kisses him goodbye. She is crying.

“I’m not dead yet,” he jokes.

We switch the cannula to an oxygen mask.

On the TV the newscaster reports another 60 people are found dead in Bagdad.

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