All sable and sleekit, the raven was perched upon my mount today as I did leave to toil. He mocked me with his open eye and cawed as he took flight. I tried to dismiss it as I threaded among the behemoths of the perimeter for advance toward the battle which awaited. An old crow wouldn’t slow me down.
The first call of any day sets the tone, and we were posted to the nearest hospital for a brief moment before receiving an out of town call for transport to hospice. Our destination was a small place near SC I had heard of but never visited, named for an ancestor, whose grandfather, an Englishman from Ireland, had established one of the early indigo plantations in Charlestown, Carolina. My paternal great grandfather had ran away from his family more than a century ago and never returned, though my grandmother, his daughter in law, referred to it occasionally, and my father’s oldest brother, Joe, my last remaining uncle, had once spent a weekend there. And I still could not shake that old crow. He was waiting for me at the hospital doors, one beady eye and a tremulous screech.
We found our patient underneath a mask, a non-rebreather, on 15 liters per minute of oxygen. For comparison, if an RN sees fit to put you on oxygen immediately, she will put you on 2 liters via nasal cannula. She was swollen, edemous, and completely unresponsive to the most noxious stimuli. Her daughters and son were with her in those final moments before we loaded her, and her oldest daughter followed along for the whole ride. Nothing was in our favor. Her heart rate was elevated, her blood pressure down. It took all my skill to keep her oxygen levels remotely acceptable. She had long suffered from a rare vascular disease that only recently became impossible to resist, leaking serum into her interstitial spaces, leading to the acute congestive heart failure I found her experiencing. The same death my father experienced, and his twin brother too. The death I feared most of all. And if I closed my eyes, all I could see was that same old crow, mocking me all the morn.
It was 2 hours to our destination. Her daughter rode in the cab, but several times I thought I’d be screaming for my partner to stop, so I could bring her back with me. Her mother was a DNR/DNI (Do.Not.Resucitate) and, at any moment, that life would slip beyond my grasp. Many EMTs love DNRs; less work. Me? I hate having my hands tied, my options limited; forced to share a compartment with the dying, when I have the knowledge and equipment to force them to live, God willing. They say DNRs are easier, less work. I find if you take seriously the calling to preserve life, DNRs are so much harder. It’s the difference between the rhythm of a miner’s hammer and a maestro’s baton.
But we made it to our destination, with no stops. No wailing. No gnashing but my own. We transferred her gently to a hospice bed, reported to the nurses, got our signatures and slinked away, knowing we had done our best but that this light would very soon extinguish. I was distracted but my partner engaged the staff while I gave report. He later told me all that remains of my ancestors’ memory is a country club. The doctor at hospice called it a “Gem of the South”. High praise with Augusta not 45 minutes away. And as I burst through those doors into the dying light, my old friend was there on the bumper.
“Loser! Git on outta here!”
“CAAW!!!” and I was alone in a ruffle of ebony feather.
I had a chicken sandwich with a new friend I had recently made who lived nearby. We talked. I asked him for prayer for my patient. He asked prayers for his family. And we parted. I had cheated death, that old crow, and made a fast friend to boot! The rest of the shift passed in a pleasant blur, like a heroin addict before he realises he is hungry and constipated. And morning came, and I returned to my own life. I checked my voicemail and heard my sister’s voice, that voice of strength and power which runs our whole family, so reassuring…
“Uncle Joe had another stroke and died tonight in Houston…”