Winter's Fuel

As my contribution to the Handover’s forthcoming Christmas issue, I have combined two old Christmas posts.


Fifteen on the Scale

It’s Christmas eve. We get called to one of the local nursing homes for rib pain. The room number sounds familiar. As we wheel our stretcher through the lobby, “Good King Wencelous” plays through the speakers.

Gently shone the moon that night, thou the frost was cruel.
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter’s fuel.

In the East Wing, the nurse hands me the paperwork. “Mr. Ryder says he needs more Percocets. He’s requesting transport.”

Mr. Ryder is a tattooed biker, an emaciated COPDer with a long white beard. Almost sixty, he can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. He sits in his wheel chair, in his Rebels motorcycle jacket, wearing an oxygen cannula.

“I’m in real bad pain,” he tells me in his whisper of a voice. “Fifteen on the scale.” He nods as if to say it is the truth.

“Well, we’ll check you out when we get you out in the ambulance,” I say.

It seems he fell a couple weeks ago and cracked a rib.

I have taken him to the hospital at least ten times over the years. The night medics have taken him more. Nearly every time it is self-dispatched. He agitates the nurses until they call his doctor who after several calls relents and tells the nurses to go ahead and call an ambulance just to get him to stop pestering them. He gets pneumonia a lot and complains of the chest pain. It is always “real bad,” he says. He goes to the hospital and gets sent back a couple hours later. He is rarely admitted, and in those cases it is usually for a COPD exacerbation.

While I don’t like to categorize patients in this way, he does fall into the “pain in the ass” category. But a patient is a patient, and none of my paychecks has ever bounced, so I’m not really complaining. They’ll be turkey with all its fixings on my feast table tomorrow. And besides, there is always something to be said for the familiar.

I see Jimmy nearly everytime we go into the nursing home. He is usually sitting out in his wheelchair in the main TV area. I say “Hey Jimmy! How’ya doing?” as I push the stretcher past going for someone else on the wing.

He lights up and says, “Not too bad, hanging in there.”

That’s the jist of our relationship.

Today in the ambulance, I have an EMT student do vitals as we start toward the hospital.

She chit chats with him.

“You’ve got all your Christmas shopping done?”

“Yeah, I just bought stuff for myself,” he says. He tells her Dial-a-Ride took him to the Mall. His favorite store is Spensers where he gets a lot of novelty gag items.

“I buy presents for myself sometimes,” she says. “How about you?” she asks me.

“I’m pretty much done.”

“Well, unless you’re going to the drug store when you get off, you’re out of luck. Time’s run out.”

“I’m in good shape,” I say. I think to myself if I get out in time, I’ll probably make a quick stop at the liquor store where I’ll buy myself some Christmas beer — a case of Red Stripe. I always ask for a case of a specialty beer for Christmas. Last year it was Presidente from the Domminican. This year I want Red Stripe from Jamaica. My girlfriend was going to buy it for me, but she is still hung up at the hospital. I told her not to worry about it. I’d get it myself. There is a liquor store that doesn’t close till eight on my way home. I’ll drink the beer slowly over the course of the year, taking one out every now and then and drinking it slow. I’ll buy other beer during the year, but this case — my Christmas beer — I’ll stretch out.

The patient looks up at the EMT student and says, “This guy over here, me and him go back a long way.”

“He’s taken care of you before?” she says.

“Yeah.” He nods at me and then says, “He’s probably one of my best friends in the world.”

I melt a little inside at his words. It also makes me terribly sad. I think of all his biker buddies — Hoss and Snake and Big Steve — and wonder if they are enjoying their winter’s fuel at the Iron Hog without him tonight or if maybe they are all either in the cold ground or solitary in nursing homes themselves.

Jimmy looks up at me now, his eyes locking on mine. “I’m in real bad pain,” he whispers urgently. “Fifteen on the scale.”

-Christmas 2006-


Last night I watched Scrooged, the Bill Murray version of “A Christmas Carrol,” where Murray is the bah humbug head of a big TV network. Bill Murray is a very funny actor, and Scrooged always chokes me up at the end, when the little mute kid speaks for the first time and says “God Bless us Everyone.” Then they all start singing “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” with Murray singing like his old Saturday Night Live lounge singer character.

Sometimes I feel like I am a Scrooge. I am always working on Christmas. My brother invited me to go to New Jersey and have Christmas with him and his family this year. Of course I couldn’t go — I had to work.

What kind of a bah humbug am I? Working on Christmas all the time. But working in EMS on Christmas is different than working a regular job on Christmas. I have always been proud that when my name is written in the book, I can be counted on to be there. It is not like we can just close up shop on Christmas. Christmas falls on my day to work, I work it. I like being reliable.

I read an interesting article — “Will Words Fail Her?” — about a young Chinese fiction writer, Yiyun Li, who wrote a great collection of short stories called A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. One of her teachers, James Alan McPherson, who was also a teacher of mine many years ago, was quoted in the article as saying in American fiction, we have lost the community voice. It is all about the self, but that community voice still exists in writers in Japan and China, writers like Li.

In this job over time you can lose yourself. You become a part of the community, the blanket of watchfulless over the cities and towns that you cover, and that becomes more important than who you are as an individual. People say it is bad to lose yourself in your job, and I don’t disagree — you need balance in your own life. But at the same time, I don’t think it is neccessarily all bad.

In Scrooged, Murray’s ex-boss, who comes back as the dead Jacob Marley, says his work, his life should have been that of mankind, not TV ratings. While I am not knocking the fact that today I am getting paid double time and a half holiday pay, I think you can make the arguement that our work in EMS is not the work of material advancement, but the work of mankind. There is a certain privledge in looking out over the community, in being its protector, particularly on Christmas Day.

There are some sacrifices in this job, and I am not advocating putting it before everything else in your life, but if you find meaning, even redemption in your work, that is no small thing.

-Christmas 2005


This year 2009, Christmas falls on Friday so I am off work. I will spend it gratefully with my family.

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