A medic who used to work for us a decade ago died the other day. He hadn’t yet turned fifty. He worked as a medic for many years, but then got hurt and had to find other work. He’d had some hardships and hadn’t been particularly healthy of late. We weren’t close, but when I started as a city paramedic twelve years ago, he was my opposite. I had the car during the day, he had it at night. Every morning he’d radio in the list of supplies he needed – large gauge IVs, bags of fluid, maybe an ET tube and suction supplies, trauma dressings. The city was wilder at night, plus he was what we called “a shit magnet.”
As a new paramedic I used to wonder about all the people who had died or bled in our ambulance, all the scenes of struggle – the battles of life and death that went on as the ambulance raced lights and sirens through the city’s night streets. I craved experience then, and I wondered about the things I would see if only I just stayed in the ambulance all the time, instead of going home at night. I was in the ambulance 36 hours a week, but the ambulance itself never rested. I’d hear about shootings and horrific car wrecks on the news and find out when I came into work that the patients had been transported in our car. I’d sit alone in the back and try to picture the calls that had played out there.
Sometimes I felt the ambulance was full of ghosts. They had a particularly bad call one night – a traumatic arrest, the type of a call where the wounds were so severe the a body bled out in the ambulance. The medic’s partner apologized that he had done the best he could to clean up the blood. He hoped he hadn’t missed any. We found some spots, which we cleaned up during the day. I wasn’t the neatest person myself, so it wasn’t hard for me to cut them slack.
The next week, the medic pointed out that we had left the ambulance bloody. My partner and I protested we hadn’t had any bloody calls. On another day, we mentioned that they had left blood on the floor, but that made no sense to them. They had a quiet night. Their only bad call — a cardiac arrest — had been bloodless.
The phantom blood continued for months – not just with us, but with the other crews that used our car on the other end of the week. We finally figured out that it was old blood that had seeped under the floor boards and fittings. We didn’t know what caused it. Blood had flowed where we couldn’t clean it and now it was just periodically flowing back out. We called it ghost blood.
Quite a number of years ago now, our company was bought out by a large ambulance corporation. All our ambulances were renumbered. For awhile we referred to cars as “the old 451” or “the old 472.” Over the years the ambulances would get replaced. I lost track of the old cars. Soon after they took over, the company also did away with permanent shifts, with everyone working three twelves and with four regular crews sharing the same car. Most full-timers now work two twelves and two eights. Shifts change every six months. So do partners. I got posted in the suburbs so when I work the city now on overtime I am in a different car every shift.
Still though I like to think there is some kind of history that gets passed from crew to crew. Just as their gear and narc keys are passed on, so are tales of the night and day, some tragic, some inspiring, some frustrating, some just funny.
Battlefields and sports arenas have their storied histories, but so do the ambulances in which we work. Ambulances have their ghosts of battles won and lost, of blood spilled, and of men and women who did their best. Those men and women shouldn’t be forgotten. Godspeed.