Beads of sweat were trickling down both sides of my face. I was panting heavily and my heart was rapidly thundering in my chest. Somehow, I did not notice. I was down on my knees. The world seemed to be moving in slow motion as I stared down at my hands, fingers interlaced and stacked one on top of one another. I was counting in my head when the second round of vomit caught me by surprise.
I had just enough time to turn my head to the side to avoid the chunky orange substance that exploded upwards at me. Still though, I continued counting, thankful for the safety glasses and nitrile gloves I was wearing, but even more thankful that I was not experiencing dry heaves again.
I am a public school teacher and I was sleeping peacefully in my bed until the tones went off at 0430 hours this morning. I jumped into the clothes I always left on my nightstand and drove through the silent streets to the firehouse. Minutes later, I was here. She wasn’t breathing. There was no pulse. It was just my partner and I and we were both rookies. I started Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) immediately while he prepared the Automated External Defibrillator (AED). Only two to three minutes had passed and I was sweating heavily, despite being in great shape.
I reflected on the CPR class I had recently taken and realized that sitting in class, I never thought I would be the one giving someone CPR. Sure, I volunteered at the local fire department, and went on calls once in a while. But this was a first for me. I had never seen CPR given live. I wasn’t prepared for the chaos. My adrenaline was so high that I was shaking. I realized that I had the tunnel vision sometimes talked about in First Responder classes. By this time, my partner and I had switched positions and I saw that the paramedics were arriving. I was relieved, but also very anxious. The woman hadn’t become responsive, despite the high quality CPR we were forming.
My partner and I continued performing CPR as we watched the paramedics get to work. One attached a heart rate monitor to the woman’s chest and the other was preparing to gain intravenous access in the woman’s arm. I watched them work, still sweating profusely as I performed chest compressions, but incredibly relieved to have their direction. They seemed much calmer than the two of us unpaid volunteers.
I read their shiny namebadges. “Carl” was now opening a skinny box that read “Epinephrine” on it. “Lucy” had ripped open a package with a plastic tube in in and she was calling for suction. My partner was ready, inserting the rigid tip into the patient’s mouth and removing as much of the secretions as possible.
Carl had given the medication and was writing times on a white strip of athletic tape he stuck on the thigh of his pants. Lucy had placed the tube down the woman’s throat and now it was my turn to squeeze the bag attached to the tube. I couldn’t believe this was really happening. I was breathing for this woman. She was having a heart attack. My shirt was soaked with sweat. I had bits of vomit on my pants. My mind was running all over the place. It was then I realized that we picked the woman up from the floor and placed her on the stretcher and were fastening the straps. Somehow I had just lost a moment or two.
That’s when I looked back and saw the husband. His face was grayish-white, almost as bad as his wife’s. Lucy told him to get in the passenger seat and asked me to drive. In the back, the two paramedics were with my partner, still providing CPR to the woman as I fastened my seatbelt and shifted the ambulance into drive. The nearest hospital was in the next town, 20 minutes away. I focused on the road and drove as fast as I safely could. Ambulances are big clunky things and I was going as fast as we could go. Suddenly, in all of the commotion in the back I heard Carl say, “We’ve got a rhythm!”
The husband was twisted around in the seat and asked if she was going to be ok. I did my best to put on a confident face and told him that the paramedics were doing everything they could and they had gotten a heart rate back, but that the doctors would be able to tell him more once we got to the hospital.
Four minutes later, I backed into the ambulance bay and opened the rear doors. We unloaded the patient and wheeled her in to Trauma Room 2. My partner and I were helping Carl and a nurse unpackage the patient from the stretcher and move her to the hospital cart while Lucy was giving a report. My head was spinning with all of the information being exchanged in such a short period. Which drugs at which times, what the heart rates had been, patient responses, etc.
The doctor and several nurses took over and the paramedics took their stretcher, cleaned it and left to write their report. My partner and I got comfortable in the employee break room, waiting for someone from our volunteer firehouse to come and pick us up. I saw it was 5:43 am and I had to be at school in about an hour for breakfast duty. I looked at a few donuts on the table. Not today.
It was only now that I allowed myself to think about Mrs. Fields. She was my school’s beloved part-time librarian. The kids loved her. The teachers loved her. I felt a wave of emotion hit me and the familiar tightness in my chest. I wanted her to be okay, but I knew the statistics. I silently prayed for a miracle.