THIS WEEK IN DEAD PEOPLE

Lord my blog is morbid! i forget sometimes, because it all’s become a pretty harmonious aspect part of my everyday life, but then I scroll down the past bunch of entries and make boggly eyes at some of the shit that’s come up. Anyway, for an ongoing collection of stories that are so much about death, the thruline really is Life: sustaining life, living life amidst death, letting go of life when the time is right. Alladat.
aaaand, this week is no different. It was a morbid ass week, i won’t lie, but only in that tumultuous, joyful, challenging way that it so often is in my job.

Started with The Stench. Never a good job to get. I think PD gets it as the FOUL ODOR, for us it’s a CARDIAC ARREST because if something smells SO bad you have to call 911, it’s probably dead. Fire trying to get themselves canceled the second they get there- “Um, you really gonna need us? It says Possible DOA in the job descrip…” which is an absurd excuse to leave because “possible DOA” can mean anything from dude taking a nap to…well, to what we ended up finding.  So i tell Fire no, y’all comin up there with us, possible DOA or not. As I’ve said before, the main thing you need on a Cardiac Arrest is enough hands to have CPR ongoing while we do the other stuff, and I wasn’t about to be the jackass that cancels Fire only to have a just-died dude on his hands and no one to pump the chest.

When the elevator door opened on the third floor, the whole Fire crew literally took 1 step into the hallway, did an about face and went poof. And at that point, I couldn’t blame ’em. The smell of human decay is singular, unmistakable, unshakable. Some EMT showed up out of nowhere acting all cocky and loudmouthed about something, I don’t remember what, so we let him go in first. He opened the apartment door and then we all had to move out of the way while he ran retching in the other direction and then was never heard from again. Poked my head into the apartment, not breathing through my nose at all. Didn’t see anybody, just a dingy old onebedroom, cluttered with old magazines and piles of clothes. I peeked alittle further in, but the door was one of those swings shut quick behind you joints so I kept one foot blocking it. The air was thick and nasty and ahhhhh yes, there on the couch was the gentleman, lying peacefully on his back in a state of total Indiana Jones style decay/damn-near mumification. I hadn’t noticed him because he was so perfectly still, obviously, and so many different colors that a human being should never be. 
It’s possible that I said “Where’s the dead guy? Oh.” But I can’t confirm that.
Anyway, we made a quick retreat, ganked PD’s paperwork so we could write the guy’s info down from the safety of our air conditioned ambulance and then went out to breakfast.

The next night we started out with a 55 year-old dementia patient who’d turned up dead on the floor of his nursing home room. He was on the young side, but otherwise, it was the same nursing home “we just saw him alive 5 minutes ago” routine, when clearly he’d been down much longer. It’s maybe one of the saddest parts of my job that I’ve come to expect that kind of utter-incompetency and negligence from nursing homes, but that’s what it is. He probably didn’t have a chance but we did what we could. The family showed up halfway through, and we tried to have them stand outside but the son, a tall cat in his late 20s who was fasting for Ramadan and had been an EMT for a few years, just stood there shaking his head and saying he’d seen it all before. Family reactions are hardest when the death comes out of the blue, there’s no time to brace for the impact and it just seems to sweep people up and knock them over like some angry wind. The son stood there solidly while the patient’s wife bawled on his shoulder. I don’t like prolonging the uncertainty. As long as we’re working on him, all that maybe maybe shit gets drawn out, when really, it’s not a maybe maybe situation. So i call, get a time of death and that’s that. The son thanked us and then swooped around his mom like a big bird and the true mourning commenced.

Then some lady called us because her back had been hurting for like 18 years and she just couldn’t take it anymore.

At six or so that morning, an asthmatic woke up barely able to breathe. He told his brother to call 911, put himself on a treatment and died. We got it as a DIFFBREATHER first, “…unable to speak in full sentences…” (never good) and then as we approached it became a CARDIAC ARREST. The brother had started CPR right away, and the EMTs were doing those real good ribcracking compressions, and the guy was only fifty-something, so everything was basically in place for him to pop back around, but still, he was flatlined, which is the deadest rhythm your heart can possibly be in, and he didn’t change in the first 20 minutes of working on him. I did a round of compressions, felt the crunching of breaking ribs beneath my hands, then handed it off to fireman and stepped out the room to call Medical Control.
Passed the guy’s ancestor shrine on the way down the hall. I was on hold with telemetry, so I just gave them a nod and mumbled ‘go take care your homeboy,’ and then the doctor picked up. Laid the presentation out to him, got a few more medications to give and came back in the room. The EMTs are still pumping on his chest. I push the meds, we do some more CPR and then stop to check a pulse.
“Pulse!” the EMT yells. “Strong one!”
Indeed it is – a good solid pounding up his carotid artery. His blood pressure’s a healthy 148/72, his heart’s a little fast, but that’s to be expected considering everything. Okay. now we have to move. People that come back like that can look really really good until all the sudden they’re not, and then there’s a tiny window when you might be able to get ’em back stable but it’s real touchy, and really, they need an ER at this point. So we scoop him up, gather our shit, carefully carefully lift him on the board, because if we dislodge the tube right now it’s a wrap, and bustle him off to the ambulance. Downstairs we recheck everything: his heart rate is still good but his pressure’s diving. The recently-undead can be so finicky and unpredictable with their blood pressures! It’s not low enough to intervene yet, and given said finickiness I tend to be a little tentative about putting major gamechanging medications on board prophylactically, which is what the lieutenant on scene thinks we should do.
So i hold back on the dopamine, and sure enough when we get him in the ER and they take his pressure it’s through the roof high, 180/100 or something, and any kind of intervention would’ve skyrocketed it into guaranteed stroke territory. We give the report, the doctors are always a little wideeyed that such things happen outside of hospitals, and they take over. Before the shift ended we check on him up in the CCU and he was in an induced coma, his body being inundated with cold fluids to preserve the tissue, but he was still alive.

¡ECLAMPSIA!

I was working BLS this weekend, which basically means I’m lugging 30 lbs less equipment and they send us the stupid nonsense calls on purpose instead of by mistake. Except this one: comes over as your average boringass ‘SICK’ call, which can be anything from ‘My nose hurts’ to ‘I’m upset.’ This one was 23 year old female with headache. No further information. Fine. When we get there a dude’s flagging us down from outside the building looking real urgent. “She’s having a stroke or a seizure or something! Come quickly! Please!”

I’ve already mentioned that people love to hurry us along for even the lonliest little toothache or whatever, but as time goes by you can kinda distinguish between the guy that is just wants to someone around and the person who really and truly fears for their loved one’s life. This guy was definitely the second. Then he mentioned, as we hustled through an outer open area and up some stairs, that his wife had just delivered a baby five days ago.

Now here’s where any medic or EMT worth their salt should have the word ‘eclampsia’ dancing through their mind. Not as a definite, cuz we gotta wait till we see the patient and all that, but between the call information and the husband’s story, you have a pretty textbook eclamptic patient. What it is is an obstetrics disorder where the blood pressure shoots through the roof causing blurred vision, massive headaches, edema in the extremities and sometimes blood backing up in the lungs. All that is pre-eclampsia, when the patient actually goes into a full tonic-clonic seizure it becomes eclampsia proper, which is gets its name from the Greek word meaning “shining forth.”  It’s rare we see even a pre-eclampsia in the field and rarer still to see a fully seizing pregnant woman, but sure enough when we walk in we find the patient just finishing her last convulsion and settling into a postictal stupor complete with snoring respirations, drooling, rolling eyes and occasional tremors. (I’ve heard varying reports but apparently it can happen up to 4 weeks after delivery.)

So, like I said, I’m BLS and don’t have any medicines with me and really there’s nothing worse than being at the scene of some magnanimous disaster and utterly helpless to do anything about it (See previous posting for more on that…) The family is going through all the motions of utter freakout, from screaming that she’s going to die (her mom) to trying to shut the gloomy screaming lady up (her husband) to bawling and pointing (her nieces and nephews). The pregnancy wasn’t high-risk, plus it’s over, and she has no medical problems so you can see they were all taken totally off guard when she suddenly seized after complaining of headaches and blurred vision all day. I call for a medic bus to back us up and my partner and I start getting her ready to go. Baby’s sleeping quietly in her crib the whole time.

The medics are waiting for us downstairs. I give the story as I’m fighting the stairchair with the lady in it over some bumpy pavement, praying she doesn’t seize again and topple. We’re on the bus and let me tell you, when I’m working BLS and medics show up I generally make it my business to be quiet and stay out the way, mostly because the worst thing in an emergency is three alpha medics yelling three different things. Plus, the guy working was a friend of mine and knows what he’s doing. HOWEVER, just when it seems like we’ve fallen into the whole swing of the job and everything’s moving along smoothly, he goes for an utterly different medication, Dextrose in fact, which would infer a treatment modality for a whole other situation than what we’re dealing with.
“Wait!”
I really don’t like doing that, especially when there’s a student, another medic and an EMT all right there. The guy looked at me cock-eyed. I ran down the list of symptoms and watched it dawn on him. “Why didn’t you say all that when we got here?”
“I did!” I had!
“Oh! I didn’t hear you. And I figured my partner’da given me the story.” She hadn’t.
A moment went by where we all kinda looked at each other. Then I don’t know if anyone said anything or what but we all just fell back into the business of treating the patient, now truly on the same page. Magnesium Sulfate relaxes the smooth muscles and can ease/prevent the eclamptic seizures. We also treat asthma with it and a rare form of v-fib called Torsades de Pointes. You have to mix 2 gms of it up in a 50 ml bag of saline and set the drip rate to deliver it over 10 minutes, which is a little project unto itself, so while the other medic is doing that I get on the phone with our telemetry doctor to get clearance to give the medicine.
Talking to telemetry can be an outrageous experience. There’s a medic that you have to get through to actually speak to the doctor and he’s always angry about the fact that he’s wasting away in an office while you’re out there having fun in the street and he always manages to find something to pick a fight over. I brush through him as quickly as I can, doing everything possible not to take the bait of his irritability. Then some absurd pop song comes on, because I’m on *&*&#^#*! hold of all things and finally the doctor gets on. I spit the situation out quick to him and make it very clear with my tone that I know what I’m doing, because certain doctors enjoy verbally shredding medics when they smell uncertainty. “Alright give the mag,” he mumbles, hangsup and returns to his cave.
When I get back in the bus I see the medic has asked the student to draw up the 2 gms of Mag, which he’s done, but now he’s got the syringe full of medicine and is reaching for the patient’s IV, about to mainline it. I can’t say for sure that his would kill her, but anytime you dilute a medicine in saline and drip it over 10 minutes it’s for a reason. Both me and the other medic yell “NO!” and lunge at the student who realizes his mistake and cringes. We gank the syringe from him. “Sit down,” the medic says.
“But…”
SIT.
he does.
We put the mag in the bag and I hop in the driver’s seat while they set the drip rate. Get on the mic to give our notification as I peel off into traffic. She saves her last seizure for when we roll up into the ER bay, which makes getting her out of the bus and into hospital but we eventually manage and the doctors swirl in on her as we yell out the story once again. After some messiness, they break the seizures and she’s sleeping quietly when I leave, her worried husband holding her hand and shaking his head.

EMS WTF FAQ

Okay people- I realize as I’m scratching out all these stories that a lot of folks don’t have much idea what the this whole EMS thing is all about. So here’s a primer for those that’re interested.

Q: What the hell is EMS anyway?

A: EMS is the Emergency Medical Services. That’s the whole system. There’s the transport side, which is mostly when nursing homes, dialysis centers, etc have contracts with private companies and call an ambulance to get their clients towed back and forth inbetween, and then there’s 911- which is when you call 911 and someone at 9 Metrotech in downtown Brooklyn directs your call to EMS and a GPS system tells them which 911 ambulance is closer. 911 has private ambulance companies, hospital ambulances and FDNY ambulances in it, all doing the same job and each claiming the other is full of useless skells and lowlifes.

Q: What are you- EMT? Paramedic? What’s the difference?

A: There’s Basic Life Support and Advanced Life Support. EMT means Emergency Medical Technicians; they do BLS, which includes bandaging, immobilizing, bleeding management, delivery of oxygen and a few medications and transportation to the hospital. Paramedics (that’s me) do ALS, which involves more invasive procedures like giving IVs, intubation, needle cricothryoidotomy (putting a HUGE ass needle right below someone’s adam’s apple when they have an airway obstruction) and chest decompression (putting that same hugeass needle inbetween someone’s ribs to let the air out of their chest cavity when their lung collapses.) We also give medications, about 50 of them from Adenosine to Vasopressin, and are equipped to do for an asthma or heart attack what any Emergency Room would do in the first hour of treatment. If you call 911 and say you stubbed your toe they’ll send you EMTs. If you say you stubbed your toe and your chest hurts, you’ll probably get medics. If you tell them you stubbed your toe and now you’re dead, they’ll send both. It’s happened. Sometimes EMTs will get called for the sick and get there and find a heart attack, so they can call for us. You get shot, it’s EMTs unless you get so shot up your unconscious or dead. That’s why sometimes we medics keep an ear to PD radio and take a quick ride over when there’s a shooting. If you “feel weird” you get EMTs unless you’re especially old or diabetic, then you get us. It’s all a little ridiculous but also there’sa weird logic to it. I’ll just say, when the man called the other night to tell 911 that he was unconscious, they made the job an “UNCONSCIOUS” and sent us. If you just had a seizure it’s EMTs but if you’re having one, even if you’re the one saying you’re having one, it’s a “STAT EP” (status epilepticus) and it’s medics. Even the guy that calls every other weekend because he feels like he’s about to have a seizure, but never actually does, even he gets medics, even though he’s actually an EDP and EDPs get EMTs.

Q: What’s an EDP?

A: Emotionally Disturbed Person. Aaah we could go on for hours about the many wondrous events that happen when folks don’t take their psych meds or lose their shit for one reason or another. Any of us could go EDP at any given moment, far as I can tell, cuz they range the range across all borders. Many jobs will start as DIFF BREATHER and end up as EDP when we get there and patient says something like “I haven’t been able to exhale for like three days,” or “I haven’t taken my psyche meds and I want to fucking kill somebody.” Sometimes EDPs hide behind locked doors, which makes them BARRICADED EDPs, or hide weapons places (“that’s just my rock…i keep him in a sock…” which makes them VIOLENT EDPs. They can also stand up on high places, when they become the JUMPERUP, and then fall, when they become JUMPERDOWN.

NYPD is always getting into a hot mess over EDPs and then having to get retrained on how to deal with them. Usually its cuz they get confrontational with em, and the last person you need to argue with is someone who’s completely disengaged from reality (“Sir, you need to go to the hospital.” “I am in the hospital…” “uh…”). It’s like arguing with the last drunk guy at the party. (most recently see: Iman Morales, who was screaming naked on a Bed Stuy fire escape before PD tasered him, causing him to fall to his death.)

Q: Do you really drive the ambulance?

A: We do and yes it’s really cool but blowing lights and parting traffic jams like the red sea is really not nearly as cool as some of the shit that happens in the back of the ambulance. But people are usually more excited about the woop-woop.

Q: What’s like the craziest shit you’ve ever seen?

A: Why do people always ask that like they’re the first person to think of asking it? I dunno, depends on when you ask I guess. I’ll probably blog about it sometime…

Q: Do people really call for stubbed toes?

A: Stubbed toes, runny noses, burning genitalia, crying babies. “I feel: tired, sick, lonely, strange, different, okay, weird…” “I have an appointment at the hospital.” “I just needed to get out of my house for a while.” “I was bored.” “I hate my husband.” “Can you look at this huge cyst I have on my nuts?” “My tooth hurts since like, three weeks ago.” “I don’t want to talk about it.” “I’m bleeding from vagina, same as i was about a month ago.” “i can’t get out of my chair but i don’t want to got to the hospital, just help me…get…unstuck…”

Those are really the vast majority of our calls. About 80% let’s say is freakish dumbshit and then 15% is like mildly important medical situations and the last 5 is really good urgent crazy shit. Depends on the week though.

Finally, I’ll end with this one:
We were called for the CARDIAC- 78 year old with chest pain. We arrive to find a dapper little elderly gentleman sitting calmly in his East New York apartment.
Whats the trouble today sir?
My heart is broken.
Excuse me?
It’s broken I say.
Does it…hurt?
It hurts a lot.
How…long has it been going on?
Oh quite a few years now.
You want to…go to the emergency room?
Yes please.

And away we went.