He was lying in the dark under suicide watch when I first saw him. He wasn’t old enough to drink. He didn’t look old enough to shave, truth be told. One eye blood red from his encounter with the curb, half his face was hamburger. His only question was “Are you cops?”. We assured him to the contrary, but it is understandable. We showed him the Star of Life on our shoulders and that seemed to reassure him. While his nurse gave me report, my partner gathered vital signs. All stable, to be expected. According to his nurse he fell while drunk and he told someone he wanted to run out into traffic. Thats all it takes for a diagnosis of SI (suicidal ideation.) His choices, now that he was well enough to leave, were not his own. He was now a 1013. He didn’t know though. Almost none of them ever do.
You can learn a lot about a 1013 from how he greets our arrival. Most are just resigned. Some cease being calm or cooperative when they realise I am there to collect them for a psych ward. But this kid jumped at the chance. Jumped out of bed, in his hospital gown, grabbed his only possession he was allowed to keep, a bible someone had brought him, and strolled out into the hallway, not confidently but still with purpose. We waited for his other belongings from security, gave him a chance to verify it all was there, and we were off.
During transport, I have to ask some delicate questions in these cases. Apparently, he thought he was voluntarily entering an alcohol rehab. And the facility we were going to is known for that.
He opened up a lot more than most patients in his shoes, and told me far more than his nurses knew. How he’d been partying with friends a week ago. How he was out for a cigarette run when he hopped the curb at QuikTrip, and would have taken out a fuel pump had he been able to just get his car through that brick column. He was so drunk that even though he saw the 3 cops across the parking lot, he just walked in, shirtless and unshod, and bought his Camels. Walking out, he heard them call. And he ran.
Toward his car.
He made it there about the same time they did. And when he spun to run elsewhere, his blood pressure couldn’t maintain, and down he went, out cold, onto the curb. They made his passenger blow, and took that girl, his girlfriend, into custody for underage drinking. They called a colleague of mine for my patient. Had it been a day sooner we might have met under far worse circumstances.
He crashed en route. Acute respiratory failure. In laymen’s terms, the boy was too drunk to breathe. Entubation is painful in the best of circumstances, even more so at the hands of a green paramedic in the business end of a Mercedes ambulance doing 80.
He told me his blood alcohol level was 4.72. I corrected him and explained it was .472 or 47.2% (yes, 95 proof blood.) I added, for a point of reference that the butt-chugging frat boy in Tennessee only had a .42 when he arrived nearly dead at the hospital. He was awed in the negative. He should have been.
He told me how his parents didn’t want the embarrassment of a son in rehab, but that it was time he made his own decisions.So they probably won’t be there for him anytime soon. How his girl came to end things, and when he immediately endorsed it for her good, she wouldn’t leave his bedside until forced by his nurses.
And I had to ask when he started. Regularly at 16, 4 years past. But, he said, when his younger sister died 3 months ago, he bought a handle jug after her funeral, then another, and on and on without stopping, until that brick column stopped him. He told me how this was the end of his drinking. He expressed a firmer purpose of amendment than I have ever had, but I also know it takes more.
I tried to sound casual when I said, “that book on your lap is a good start.” And he began to tell me his plan was to read it without ceasing, especially when his old buddies come around. He knew they’d leave him alone just by reading it.
I changed tactics suddenly. “Thats just an old book by itself. If we are Christ’s body, then we’re his hands and eyes and ears. Without a face to look into, one which knows you better than you know yourself, that book may as well be kindling.”
And we arrived, in the middle of the night, at his destination. I said the Memorare to myself, and when we rounded the corner, 3 ambulances were ahead of us. That bought us 40 minutes sitting on the ramp.
I moved around so we were face to face, and I broke every protocol of my profession. We talked of Screwtape (The most disgusting thing about the Enemy is how he loves the vile little creatures. If only the will to love Him is there, He loves even their stumbles.) And of Augustine (“I love even my sin” and what a partying dude he had been.) About John (how he was still a boy going to have sport with the prophet and instead wound up asking the Lamb of God, not “How can I do right?”, but “Where do you stay?” And how 60 years later he could still remember it was about 4pm.) And I honestly don’t remember more than the highlights. It was so real to me that He had taken over. They were no longer my words,it was no longer my gaze. I do recall challenging him to read all 4 gospels and watch closely how our Lord dealt with sinners, by just being there, and that the Church is no country club, but a hospital. Before we exited the truck he said “No one says these things!” He really was astonished at what I take for granted.
And for the first time in a long time, I was too.
I passed him to a social worker, but I gave him 16 quarters for buying cigarettes from fellow patients until his girl could come. He wanted to shake my hand. I embraced him. I have never hugged a patient.
Later I called back and left my number with his nurse, in case he ever wants to reach out. I have never given out my personal number before. I don’t really care if he calls though. He is in God’s hands.
And the proof for me that Christ was there isn’t in whether he changes. It is that the encounter changed me.
My step is lighter this morning. I feel alive!