WASSERMAN: An EMT in the blizzard

“I’m not going to make it.” I looked down at my patient, bundled in a down comforter, and assured her, “Ma’am, you’re in good hands; your only job is to focus on taking deep breaths: in through your nose, out through your mouth.” That’s what I tell my patients when I know they’re right: They are not going to make it.

In the EMT class I teach at Yale, I talk about the “impending sense of doom” that accompanies shock. When your patient says she is going to die, always take her seriously — she probably is going to die. This time, however, I wasn’t within the comfortable walls of Yale; I was outside, stuck in a blizzard in Bridgeport, attempting to drag a critical patient almost a mile through waist-deep snow to my waiting ambulance. I had been on the same ambulance for 48 hours, and unbeknownst to me, I had another 24 hours of sleepless work ahead of me before I could collapse. So my partner and I kept pulling, pulling this 55-year-old woman to the warmth and safety of our ambulance. Getting to the ambulance, however, was only half the struggle.

Thirty hours earlier, at the height of the blizzard, I was transporting a 2-month-old baby boy with worsening respiratory distress. After successfully freeing my ambulance from three snowdrifts en route to the hospital using nothing but backboards, I finally was unable to liberate us from the impassable drift at the bottom of the hill leading up to the hospital. Covered in snow, I climbed into the back of the rig and looked at my partner: “We have to walk.” The baby was getting worse. And so, abandoning our useless ambulance, we bundled the infant up in our protective clothing, giving him our hats and oversized coats, and began the trek through the blistering wind and snow up to Bridgeport Hospital.

That night, our entire fleet of around 20 ambulances was stuck in various locations around Bridgeport and Fairfield. Hundreds of calls for help went unanswered; lacerations, asthma attacks, strokes and cardiac arrests were met with silence. “We cannot make it to you,” was the response that many 911-callers heard that night.

My partner and I were trapped in a neighborhood we knew well. A shooting or stabbing was run-of-the-mill in this part of town. Assaults, robberies, even homicides were commonplace. It could be a scary place even when the sun was shining. By the time we returned to our ambulance after having gotten the boy safely to the hospital, we were exhausted. Sleep overtook us both as we collapsed in the back of the rig.

Suddenly, we were startled awake by the sound of frantic pounding on the vehicle. My partner and I exchanged worried glances. I opened the door of the ambulance and peered out. Standing there, in the unplowed street, was a group of residents from the neighborhood. Someone shouted, “Are you guys okay? Can we bring you anything?”

I was floored; I had only experienced the worst this community had to offer. For the next few hours, however, until the National Guard arrived and freed our rig, our new neighbors cooked for us, entreated us to use their bathrooms and showers, and showed us altogether more hospitality than I’ve ever known. The plight of a largely broken city was unexpectedly ennobled by the blizzard. The storm was more than just disaster: It brought out the buried humanity of a neighborhood that pulled together to take care of each other, and us.

I will always remember both the solidarity and the suffering. About a quarter of a mile into our trek from the patient’s house to the ambulance, about 10 minutes after her despairing premonition, our patient stopped breathing, and her heart stopped working. We knelt by her side, started CPR, intubated her and delivered a round of cardiac medications. Pulses were back. We resumed our journey. After three more pauses to restart her heart, we made it to the ambulance. She did not.

So I will always remember that woman, and all those who died during this blizzard. Thank you to all the emergency personnel who gave their patients a fighting chance at life, and thank you to the residents for sustaining us in our time of need.

Isaac Wasserman is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at isaac.wasserman@yale.edu .

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