Monday, February 14, 2011

before dawn

Low down and dozing in the seat, my knees wedged up on the dash. The interior lights are off but the engine is still running, the radio tripping quietly in the background. Dark figures move around the hospital forecourt, smoking, chatting, making calls, occasionally hurrying out from the lobby into taxis. The night is warmer than it was and a fog is coming in from the sea, rising up over the wall in hectic, luminescent rags. I watch the perimeter streetlamp; it darkens and dims, darkens, dims, as the fog rolls around it; and after a moment it’s easy to imagine that it’s not the fog moving but us, and that this is the deck of a ship, and we are its crew, standing or sitting, alone or in groups, all lit by that fitful orange lamp, sliding inexorably together into dissolution.

I am fading. Lain down and done. I see rather than feel my mouth slackening, my breathing becoming heavier. I am the ghost of an ancient photographer asleep behind the drapes of his tripod, dreaming images onto the plate:

a man shouting and crying, raising his arms; a police officer swiping them aside and speaking sternly;

a Community Responder kneeling in the hallway, bobbing up and down like a beam pump;

the livid red marks around the young girl’s neck from the dressing gown cord she hanged herself with;

the lightless pits of her eyes;

the co-ordinated mess of the effort to save her; the tubes, chemicals, syringes, pads; the paramedic coolly speaking to himself, watching himself – sharps away - the right thing done, the right order;

outside for more equipment; faces on the verge, watching and shivering;

the inconsequential weight of her as we snap the scoop stretcher into place, top, bottom; can we use the dressing gown to lift her hips a little? thanks.

the slick, blue fury of the drive to hospital; a car, pulling over to the side of a deserted street, putting on its hazards and watching as we pass;

the faces gathered round the trolley in resus all looking in our direction as we push through the doors; taking over compressions, thank you;

the facts; the flock of gloves efficiently following their appointed movements;

the police officer outside resus, opening a notebook;

liaising with the second crew; swapping back equipment that got mixed up on scene; tidying the back of the truck;

retrieving the scoop from resus; the doctors and nurses have dispersed now, the few that are left in the room are detaching lines, moving apparatus aside, finishing off, insulating themselves with banality;

the immature line of her hips as we ease the scoop stretcher apart; and on settling again, the gentle tipping inwards of her toes;

a cup of coffee, a sheet of paper, picking white fluff from my trousers;

climbing into the cab, turning the lights off, sliding down into the seat, the fog flowing up over the perimeter wall, the lamp beginning to move, and letting myself be dragged along behind it, irresistibly out to the very furthest line of that black horizon, the limit of the world, where the sun must surely rise again soon, as it always has, and people wake to see it.


Jane Brideson said...

This is incredibly moving and so beautifully written.
You stopped me in my tracks with this and I'll return to read it again.

Mrs M said...

oh god, how awful. Beautifully described as ever Spence, but I kind of wish you hadn't, or more accurately that it hadn't happened for you to describe it.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely gorgeous writing Spence. Shame it's that sort of subject matter that really brings it out* :(

* Not that your writing isn't usually gorgeous, but this one's extra special

SarahFrancesYoung said...

That is written very well, it describes the atmosphere perfectly.
It is also written in a different style to normal, which kind of makes it seem as if you are dazed, maybe trying to treat the scenario as just your work and trying to keep emotion at bay.

Karen Martin Sampson said...

I don't comment every time but I am reading your posts and just full of awe for what you do day in and day out. Thank goodness there are people in the world willing to do your job. And you are a wonderful writer.

Lynda Halliger Otvos (Lynda M O) said...

beautifully evocative ... her toes brought my tears.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks very much for all your comments. I must admit I hesitated before writing about this one, but it was so disturbing I really wanted to try, just to work it out for myself.

I suppose it's more of a prose-poem than a straight piece of writing, an attempt to get across the intense and horribly fractured feeling of the whole event. I think it was made even tougher by coming at the end of a long and busy shift, so our emotional resources were already quite depleted.

The fog felt very appropriate - quite dreamlike, smothering everything, making it difficult to think straight.

Such a deeply shocking end to a young life. I've just dealt with a few scrappy images from the scene, but really, you could write about this for a hundred years and never come close.

Thanks again for the comments and support. :)

BB said...

Truly moving and so damn sad. Doesn't that just make you go home and hug your kids and wife tighter than ever?

Miss Adventure said...

This is, by far, your most emotive piece of work yet. It's interesting how we perceive things differently. To me, you surpassed yourself in describing the events of that evening. You did and don't, need a hundred years. It feels perfect now.

Molly Jones! said...

Beautifully written!

Spence Kennedy said...

When I came downstairs and saw my girls playing in the front room around lunchtime the following day, it felt like an enormous privilege / blessing. The sense of loss when someone young dies is absolutely overwhelming. I mean, life's not always easy, and sometimes it's downright painful, but there are so many wonderful things to outweigh all the difficulties it's dreadful to think of losing it all.

Thank goodness these jobs are few and far between. As it is, I think my days are numbered in the ambulance. A couple more years then I'll look around for a new job. Maybe I'll be Count Duckula at Alton Towers or something.

Thanks v much for your lovely comments & support! x

Mark Spencer said...

Bruised, brutal yet beautiful story told from that brief surreal state between slate grey night and dawn. It made me catch my breath and brought back memories from many years ago when I rode the squad in those quiet but sometimes desperate hours before dawn. Thank you for the story and take good care of yourself.

jacksofbuxton said...

A very haunting piece Spence,and as always beautifully done.I think you've managed to capture the initial shock of such an awful event.The loss of a child is every parent's nightmare,especially in such a terrible fashion.

Very sad.

It's seems almost flippant to add that if you do take a gig at Alton Towers we only live about 4 miles away so the kettle is always on for you.

Anonymous said...

omg that poor family
as ever you have painted the picture so clearly that I feel like i'm there with you

Anonymous said...

Tears welling up in my eyes just reading this.
Stick with it Spence, some of us appreciate what it takes to do your job.

Blanca said...

Wow. I've been reading the stories you share for a while and this one breaks my heart. I agree that in emergencies that are this emotional, sometimes your mind blocks out any emotional response like if your emotions are fogged. You're feeling so much at one time but you can't get it out. And when that fog lifts is when you see the severity or the importance of what just happened. I've noticed that I work that way too - I guess it's my body's trick for survival until I really have time to process waht just happened. The story you shared is the best way to share that feeling.

Thanks for sharing this - I am really glad you did.

Jill said...

Become a full time writer, Spence. This piece is so wonderfully understated and controlled it just heightens the tragedy. Love your stories!

Spence Kennedy said...

I've always found that pre-dawn time particularly fraught. It lifts when the sun rises, but just before - it's a struggle - how I imagine working at extreme depth. A link shift is so much easier, simply because you get to bed by three and miss that low point! Any job that comes in during those hours is always much more difficult - but then a young death is always going to be the worst.

Thanks again for all the comments. It's incredibly supportive and encouraging. I really appreciate it.

BTW - JoB - I'm not sure why I thought Duckula would be a good choice. A friend of mine did a summer season there - he got pushed over and had half a dozen E-numbered infants dancing all over him...

Unknown said...

Wow. Just wow. I've never felt the need to comment on your work before, but that hit a nerve. A stunning piece of writing - thank you.

Mark said...

Hi Spence,

Glad you mentioned First Responders. Until recently I was a Responder and I shall be later in the year (a bit of a cock-up on my part over requalifying!).

About a month ago I was called to a patient "not breathing". As expected, he had no pulse either.

A crew arrived just after I'd tried the defib and been given the "no shock" comment. They quickly got in an airway and we started chest compressions, taking it in turns.

The ECA was a young woman who must have weighed 4 stones wet through, and was trying to do compressions with her finger-tips!

On the other hand, the paramedic was exceptionally capable. He was not "just" a paramedic but what he was I'm not sure - he had so much writing on his shoulder tabs (in small script) that I had the wrong specs on to read it - and no time to swap them!

We worked hard on the patient for quite a while, taking it in turns to do the compressions, but eventually we realised that we weren't going to be successful this time.

The paramedic called it. He then insisted I join him and his crewmate when he told the family because "You're part of the team".

Immediately afterwards I had to leave to collect my good wife from work (I was already late!), so we had no time to discuss the case. However, about 50 minutes later, I received a call on my mobile - from the super-paramedic.

He was full of praise for my chest compressions! It also appeared that I'd impressed him with my professional manner, but the supposed excellence of my CPR was his main topic.

Embarassed - but chuffed to hell and back - I told him that if I was any good at CPR, it was down to observing people like him, true professionals. Classroom teaching can only prepare you so much (but everyone should take the opportunity to learn when offered) but being involved when professionals are doing the job teaches so much more.

May I also get in a plug for CFRs? If anyone would like to assist patients, with acute serious illnesses, on behalf of the ambulance service, then they should think about becoming a Community First Responder. We are trained by St John, Red Cross etc (depends on the area), use our own vehicles, and kit from the unit but when on duty we can be called to any serious illness where there has been a 999 call. We usually arrive before the ambulance, even though we don't have blue lights, as we will only be sent to local calls.

The pay is lousy (£0.00 per annum) but the job satisfaction is simply amazing!

Unknown said...

Such a lilting, rolling prose.

The glimpses of the day reaching toward you, touching you and then sliding away. Everything blurred but real, even so.

I certainly did picture a ship on a foggy morning.

What a perfect way to write about such an imperfect ending.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks very much. I'm glad you thought that way of writing about the job worked. A horrible situation - hopefully my next post will be something a bit lighter. But I'll try to mix up the way I write these things, just to keep it fresh. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

Mark - Comm Responders are a great resource. I'm always glad to see them on scene - well done for doing the job. Shame you don't actually get paid!

Tony Van Helsing said...

Brilliantly observed, the 'gentle inward tiping of the toes' brings home the reality of the situation.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much TVH. I have to say it's those little movements & moments that haunt me the most!

VM Sehy Photography said...

I'm surprised anyone can do your job for very long. I imagine it can be quite emotionally draining at times.

Spence Kennedy said...

I think when you're at work doing the job your approach is very different - focused on what needs doing, the practicalities of the task. It's after that, when you're back at home often, that you feel the full impact of what you've been to.

It is an emotionally draining job over time, but your colleagues and the positives of the job - and there are lots - buoy you up!

saffy said...

Thankyou for the picture painted, it brought back memories of the night my daughter decided that she would "leave" home and the hours that followed with the police looking for her and us as well . ( she was leaving btw not for anything bad but to make a point that she wanted to go out with her friend and we had said no) Later on the next day one daughter was back having spent the night round a friends :-( and was grounded..... how i wish that the girl in your story could have had the chance to be grounded and her parents/help could have found her.
ty for the writing .

Spence Kennedy said...

That must have been a dreadfully worrying time for you, Saffy. It's one of those occasions any parent dreads. I can't imagine how awful it must have been. But as you say, at least it turned out all right and you had the chance of a reconciliation.

If only the incident I described had never happened. Sometimes I joke with the patients that I wish I had a magic wand I could wave and make things better. God knows I could've done with it that night!

Cheers for the comment :)