Below is an excerpt from my novel, Mortal Men: Paramedics on the Streets of Hartford, that came out in 2012, and is still available on Kindle. In the book, while the main characters had fictional names, I used the names of real people who worked the streets as extras. I did it because I wanted to reward and acknowledge their worth, and so that their names would be remembered.
In the past couple of years, we have lost a number of those. I count six, who sat in the front seat next to me as partners on many a long shift, who have passed on. Some died among their loved ones, others died alone. I Googled one of their names looking for obituary information and came up with a link to this chapter which I had posted online in 2009. It describes a night we all drank together. The evening was well-made.
I went out for a beer with Victor a few nights later at the Brickyard Pub on Park Street in West Hartford. He’d lost his medical control to practice as a paramedic pending investigation. He’d had an asthma patient go into respiratory, then cardiac arrest. He’d been unable to get the intubation. They suspended him because he’d spent too much time on scene. Medical control said if he hadn’t been able to get the tube on his second try, he should have just bagged the patient with a face mask while his partner drove to the hospital.
At the bar, Victor told me how the first two times he went in for the tube, the chords were closed in a bronchospasm. The third time they were open, but he couldn’t maneuver the tube through the chords. He thought about cricking her – puncturing her throat with a large bore needle – gaining an airway, though a small one to ventilate through — but he held off. The fourth time he was sure he’d get the tube, but it just wouldn’t go in. Same with the fifth. By then it was too late. Even though he was ventilating her with the bag mask in between attempts, he wasn’t getting enough oxygen in. He’d made his stand and lost. He finally got the tube on his sixth try.
With the aid of an IV in her neck and several rounds of epinephrine, he got the woman back, but she suffered brain injury from the hypoxia. No one would have thought anything of it, but she was the wife of a neurologist at one of the local hospitals, and he was making a case about it. He’d watched Victor’s struggle along with the other members of the dinner party. Of course none of it would have happened if she’d gone to the hospital when she first felt short of breath. Or if her husband had called 911 when after several puffs from her inhaler she wasn’t getting any better. But her husband didn’t want to leave the bigwig function they were attending. He’d waited till she was on the verge of collapse. She stopped breathing two minutes before Victor even arrived. He just didn’t get the tube in time. He admitted he screwed up. He should have cricked her, or at least reshaped the tube or repositioned her head when he went back in, something to give him a better chance. He was playing with no margin of error, and he’d let himself get rattled. That was the thing about this job. A major leaguer strikes out with the bases loaded or let’s a ground ball go through his legs on national TV, and he’s a goat, but a paramedic makes an error and someone dies or is disabled for life.
Victor would have been all right if he’d just packaged her and bagged her and pumped on her chest as he made his way to the hospital. He never would have gotten her back, but he would not have faced the same scrutiny. Now with the suspension, he could still work on the ambulance, but not as a paramedic. Victor had to wear masking tape over his paramedic rocker. Many medics would have found the experience humiliating, but Victor didn’t let anything show. “Long as they’re still paying me,” he said. “Besides I don’t even think I’m going to fight it. I need a life change anyway.” He nodded to the bartender to refill our mugs.
“You shouldn’t do anything rash,” I said. I tossed a twenty on the bar.
“That’s the same thing Ben said to me, but I’ve always been rash, and my problem is I haven’t been rash enough in my own life to be true to myself. I need to be rash. That’s who I am. That’s how I have to live. I should have divorced my wife two years ago when I fell out of love with her and I should have quit this job when I got tired of it. I’m thinking about becoming a bounty hunter. You can make some real money at that work.”
“Yeah, you use your brain and your brawn. You’re your own man, all you have to do is bring in the bad guy. There’s good money in it. And you’re helping to keep the streets clean.”
“Why don’t you just become a cop?”
“Not with my past. Wouldn’t happen. They’d say thank you, and here’s the door.”
“You should stay here. You’re a good medic. People will stand up for you. Maybe at worst you’ll be suspended for a few weeks. We need you out here.”
“No, its time for me to move on. Times are changing. The old people — the people I started here with — are all leaving. I don’t want to end up like Nestor, with nothing else to do but remembering how it used to be. Life’s full of opportunities. I look on this as a break — a good one.”
Pat and Denny Creer and a couple other guys who used to work for Capitol showed up and joined us at the bar. “I hope you don’t mind we invited some other people down,” Pat said.
“The more the merrier.”
Word of the party spread. As the night went on we were joined by more and more of our fellow workers and friends. There was Rick Ortyl and Howard Rapacky. Kim Quinn and Quentin Babbitt. Chris Dennis and Rod Furtado. Darren Regini and Melody Voyer. Aaron Dix and his wife Penny. Greg Berryman and Bob Mosebach. Craig Walton dropped by with his new girlfriend. Wendy Albino was there and Annette O’Callahan and her sister Kelly. Alan Goodman, Butch Fetzer, Alan Sklar and Dan Leger all came down along with others as they got off their shifts.
We ordered beer by the pitcher and had trays of hourdevers, buffalo wings, french fries, and nachos spread out on the tables that we pushed together.
A DJ played requests and people danced.
In the newspaper that day they had run a profile of twenty of the city’s movers and shakers – all telling their experiences of Hartford. But I thought that night as I watched my coworkers live in their moment, that in this room, in this bar, was a collective experience of Hartford that dwarfed what the papers had. These people’s lives were inextricably linked with the life of the city. They had been in its mansions and its tenements. They’d been to the top floors of the city’s tallest buildings to treat sick executives and they’d taken care of homeless men under the highway. They’d been on center court at the Civic Center to take care of injured athletes before crowds of thousands, and they’d been behind the counters at fast food restaurants for injured workers. They’d been to city hall, and on the floor of the state legislature and in the dinning room of the Governor’s mansion. They’d worked thousands of morning rush hour MVAs and evening rush hour MVAs and lone car crashes in the middle of the night. They’d been in barbershops, nail salons, and massage parlors. They’d carried old men out of their lifelong houses for the last time, been in high school gyms and classrooms, seen card games in back rooms, done shootings in hallways, alleys and on street corners. Rich or homeless, it didn’t matter, your name got written on their trip reports. South End, North End, West End, Dutch Point, Bellevue Square, Barry Circle, Asylum Hill, Downtown, Charter Oak Rice Heights, Stowe Village — this was their territory, their town, their ground, their land. Pick up the newspaper. Read about the accidents; they got the patients out of the cars. Read about the shootings; they were with them on the race to the hospital. Read the obituary papers; they were the ones who touched their cold stiff bodies and pronounced the time. They were the ones into who’s arms came the crying infants, struggling to an uncertain future.
I sat with Pat, Victor and Brian Sajack, who told stories of medics who hadn’t worked the streets for years, but who still existed as legends.
“There was Joe Lancaster. He was a handsome guy; looked a lot like Troy, except he was six-foot ten, two-hundred-sixty pounds of lean muscle, arms like tree trunks. He played basketball in Europe for a couple years. A gentle giant. He could pick up a two-hundred-twenty pound woman in his arms and carry her down the stairs like she was a baby. He could rip a car door off like it was made out of tin foil. And you think Troy can sweet talk madmen, Lancaster could sweet talk a psych just by whispering soft words in his ear, and touching his arm. It was like he had Haldol breath.”
“Then there was Jim Harris. He once intubated eight people on a single call. Guy tried to kill himself by sitting in his garage running the engine. He succeeded, but he also almost killed his wife and seven kids. The Fire department dragged them all out of the house unconscious, several not breathing. Harris went right down the line. 8.5 for the husband. Number 8 for the mom. 7.5 for the sixteen-year-old. 7 for the fifteen-year-old. 6.5 for the eleven year old. 6 for the ten-year-old. 5.5 for the five-year-old. 5.0 for the four-year-old, and a 4 for the two-year-old. He had the fire department doing CPR on five of them that were in arrest. Between his rig and the fire department they only had five ambu bags, so he was switching in between patients to keep them all ventilated. I was in the first ambulance that arrived to back them up. Amazing sight. He was calm as can be. Five of them made it. Harris’s in computers now, somewhere up near Boston.”
“What about that animal guy?”
“Michael Fink? That guy was crazy. He was always running into strange animal calls. Pythons, bats, bulls, bee swarms, baby alligators, spider monkeys and even once a pet tiger. He was like Marlon Perkins. It got so anybody had to deal with any kind of animal on their call, they’d call for Marlon Perkins for an intercept. Michael Lambert and Kelly Tierney are at a call. They find a guy rolling around on the floor with an iguana trying to bite his neck off. The iguana’s clamped down hard and the guy is in serious pain and looking a little dusky. Mike and Kelly tried beating the iguana with a stick. They just couldn’t get him off. Fink takes one look at the iguana, goes in the garage, comes back with some motor oil, and pours it on the guy’s neck. The iguana lets go as soon as that nasty oil hits his lips. Amazing. Believe it or not, Fink works for the Cleveland Zoo.”
“Davey Nestor was something too. A whirl of energy. You know when you get tired in between calls, you dog it a little, take your time cleaning the rig, finishing your paperwork, catching a breather. Not Davey. One call after another. He was always on the go. He loved this job. Only one I ever saw run to calls. He was always taking the stairs two at a time. He hurt his hip, and then he had to wobble to calls. He had bad eating habits. I think he suffered from depression. He was a lesson in how even the most fit body can fall apart and that you can’t take anything for granted. You’ve probably all heard his stories. He told them all a hundred times, but what you don’t ever hear is just how sweet he was with his patients. That man could hold an old lady’s hand. He was a charmer, one that could put Rhett Butler or even Pat here to shame. I was on a call with him once. An old woman fell, hurt her hip, shit herself. She was so embarassased. Davey completely cleaned her before we left the house, got a warm towel, and when he was done, put a little dab of perfume on her, so she’d smell nice and feel like a woman again, instead of a broken down sitting in her diarrhea lost soul, contemplating her decay and approaching death. It’s a shame anyone who only knew Davey in his last days, didn’t see the man he was.”
“I’ll second that,” Victor said. “He did become an ass in later life, but only after life beat the goodness out of him.”
“Whatever happened to Joe Lancaster?” I asked.
Brian and Victor looked at each other and I saw a bit of sadness there.
“No one really knows,” Brian said. “He just didn’t come to work one day. Disappeared. There’s more to it than that of course. He was in love with a woman who worked here, Susan Holden. Susan was married to another paramedic, and they had a tempestuous marriage. They loved each other, but they were always fighting over money or one thing or the other. They had a child with cystic fibrosis and he was a strain on them. I think she may have seen in Joe another life. He never acted on it – at least that I know of it — but they were close. He’d been her preceptor. She could talk to him. They were lovers in conversation. What happened was this. They got called to back up her husband on an overdose. They get there and find the junkie puking because Scott Holden has just given him some narcan. The junkie is angry and cussing. He grabs his syringe and confronts Scott like he’s going to stab him. Joe steps in, but before he can even say a word, the junkie stabs him with the syringe. Time stops. The needle is sticking out of Joe’s stomach. He’s looking at it like maybe he’s looking at his own death. Joe takes it out, drops it on the floor, steps on it, then out come those sweet words, and he sooths the junkie down. Even talks him into coming into the hospital and seeing someone about detoxing. The man does go to detox and is one of the rare ones who actually makes it. He’s a well-known city minister today. He’s even been on the Oprah show. But Joe six months later starts to get night sweats, starts losing weight, looking real gaunt. We told him he ought to get checked after he’d been hit with that needle, but he wouldn’t even report it. One day he just doesn’t come to work, sends word that he’s quitting. He moves out of his apartment. Never seen again. What we know is this. The minister has HIV. Its one of the things he champions the cause of, is very up front about. Susan and Carl Holden get a life insurance check in the mail, made out to them. One afternoon, not long after, I see the minister standing up on Zion Hill with a little urn. He’s throwing ashes up into the wind, tears rolling down his eyes. I asked him what he was doing, he says, ‘Bringing home a good man.’”
We were quiet.
“I like that story,” Pat said. “I’ve heard it before. I can see that, I can see him doing that. I think that’s nice.”
“Your ashes over the city, I want to be as far away from here as I can when I die.”
“There is more to life than work, but there is something to be said for doing a job well, and being proud of who you are and what you’ve done. Maybe he was that way.”
The DJ announced a dance contest and people paired off. Audrey Davis dragged Victor to the dance floor. The DJs tapped the pairs on the shoulder till there were just three couples in the middle and the DJ had us shout for who we liked best. Victor twirled Audrey around like she weighed fifty pounds. The crowd loved it. Hooping and hollering. They played it for everything. They danced like they were all making love.
When they announced Victor and Audrey as the winners, they bowed and the DJ gave them a coupon for a free pitcher of beer, which the waitress brought and Victor held it a loft like it was a golden trophy.
“I’ve got to go,” Pat said. “Allison’s waiting up.”
“You’re whipped!” Victor said. “Look at him. He’s whipped.”
“I believe I am. Yes, I believe so.”
“Well, here’s to you then. We all wish we were whipped again ourselves. It beats not giving a fuck.”
“I appreciate that.”
“The guys here want you to tell Allison to send us our socks back now that her door is no longer open.”
“Well, since they were all too small for my feet, she already donated them to the dwarf orphanage.”
“Good one! Here’s to you compadre!”
“Hey before you go,” Victor said. “We’ve got to have a last round of toasts. Everybody get a beer and get your drink and stand with us now.” He raised his beer aloft. “To a night like night’s past, a night we will always remember if not in the morning, then maybe deep in our failing hearts on dark lonely nights years from now when we’re rotting away in the nursing home or freezing on the city streets. Or in your case Pat, smoking a pipe with a brood of grandchildren playing around before you and the Mrs. in front of the grand fireplace in your big white house on the hill, you lucky bastard.”
“Here’s to you Pat.”
“Thank you,” Pat said, “And here’s to you Victor. We hope you stay with us.”
“Here, here,” people seconded.
“And let’s drink a toast to Troy. May he join us again.”
The toasts went on.
“Here’s to Joe Lancaster and his ashes swirling about us.”
“Here’s to Davey Nestor. I miss the old grouch.”
“How can we forget the old man himself. To Sidney!”
Everyone went about the room and proposed toasts to those among us, those departed, and those we might yet see again.
“How about you, Lee, you have a toast for us.”
“I do,” I said. “To all of you here. You are as fine a bunch of drunks as I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’m glad to be among you. Here’s to you. This night was well made.”
And we all raised our beers and drank. And the music played and we drank some more. People left and others stayed. Victor slow danced with Audrey. Andrew Melnick made out with his girlfriend in the corner. I saw Kim watching me from our table and I smiled back at her. I gave the DJ a twenty-dollar tip. He played Louis Armstrong for me. “Wonderful World.”