Sunday, May 16, 2010
We get called to a "Difficulty Breathing" patient at an Atlanta bus stop, only a mile or so from where we are in the ambulance. These calls I normally encourage the EMTs to take, as its more often than not well within their scope of practice.
When we arrive an old, apparently homeless man sits on a bench with an oxygen mask on his face. He's being cared for by the Atlanta Fire Department that arrived moments before. He's thin, worn, deeply tanned. His grey hair streaks down past his shoulders, aged tattoos color his emaciated arms. He tries to speak under the clear plastic mask that is covering his nose and mouth. "I want to go to the VA", he wheezes out.
"You're a veteran?", I asked him. "Damn, straight", a bit of swagger now in his voice. I look at the EMT and motion to her that I'll take this call. We help him into the back of the ambulance, collecting up his used oxygen cylinder that he's been towing around the city behind him on a little aluminum dolly. It's empty.
In the back of the ambulance I fix his breathing issue and motion to the EMT to drive to another hospital but take our time about it. We set off.
My new friend spent several years in the post-Vietnam era Army, having served in Europe during the Cold War. I introduced myself as a retired "Army-guy" and then the conversation began. We talked about places that we had known, units that we served in, and friends that were all-but forgotten. It occurred to me that my friend probably doesn't get this sort of attention very much. Then he told me… he's been thinking about killing himself.
The conversation turned sad and grave. I struggled with so many things that I want to say to him. I want to help, to listen. In the back of my mind I made a note to let the hospital staff know, maybe they can do something for him.
In the end, I ensure that he's comfortable in the ER room. I shake his hand and give him a subtle, little salute. He smiles and thanks me. Later that night I watched him exit the ER, dragging his new oxygen bottle behind him into the night. I wish him well.