His VFW jacket is deceptive on his small frame, and the corresponding ball cap on his head is similarly boxy. He’s currently occupying a ditch alongside a small pickup truck where a few moments ago he was a passenger. Now he’s meeting my partner and I, so obviously his day has gone downhill. Literally.
They go up this hill every day, he’s telling the passerby who is seated next to him in the tall summer grass, keeping him company before all the sirens went from distant to loud, then finally silent here at the scene. The garish lights are strobing up the countryside but they are held to a dim minimum on this sunny summer day. Him and his buddy go down this hill every day to see another buddy, and then back up the hill to the ridgetop they call home. He never thought this would happen today. They were headed up the hill when the gentleman in the VFW jacket thought the engine sounded funny, “Like it was slipping gears, ya know”. Soon the driver told my patient, “I got some bad news for ya. I think we’re gonna crash.” My patient thought it best then to click on the seatbelt he’d removed to access his smokes in an inner pocket of the VFW jacket, and no sooner did the seatbelt click home than the engine did die. Within short order the steering and brakes left as well and they ended up somehow going back down the hill backwards. As my patient tells it, “after about five minutes, we rolled over. Just once I think but it’s hard to say, ya know.”
More turnout gear is accumulating next to me in the ditch throughout the retelling of this saga. I’ve taken report from the passerby who turned out to be a nurse driving by on her day off, I’ve attached the three leads and assisted an arm out of the jacket to place a blood pressure cuff and I’ve got the pulse oximeter on a nicotine stained finger. But I’m not having much luck slowing the flow of words, or guiding it. All of us are wearing grins and all of the data my equipment is supplying is pleasing, however. So I ask the firemen to bring the cot if they would be so kind. My partner reappears and states that the driver is refusing all medical evaluation and treatment, and she returns to him for a refusal signature AMA. Through sheer force of will, though I cringe at the necessity of interrupting this intriguing gentleman, I manage to evaluate him for injuries, perform palpation and range of motion checks and all the usual things we do for an MVC.
The firemen and I get my patient seated on the cot and secured with all the straps. We encounter a concerned looking lady on our way to the back doors of my truck, and he calls out to her by name. He starts the story one more time for her, adding that he left his cell phone at home and would she mind calling his daughter? She reassures him she will and after a short time I’ve managed to verbally edge my words into his dialog with a gentle reminder that we really must get him inside and start working our way towards transporting. I assure her we will take very good care of him.
Once inside the ambulance, secondary assessment reveals no additional findings. I start an IV as he tells me about Vietnam, and I thank him for his service as I connect the tubing. Inspecting his shoulder where he indicates “just a little soreness, ya know, just a little, just starting” I see no visible injuries. My partner returns and we begin transport.
Up the hill for the second time in a short while, he expresses his relief that this trip was successful. He tells me of his years after Vietnam, after the head injury saw him live out a few decades in a “VA home, cuz the USAF owns me, ya know” he left Chicago for the beauty of the ridge in the Coulee Region that he now calls home. He’s in love with the breezes, fresh and smelling of sweet hay, and the lack of mosquitos. He tells me with dead earnest eyes that he’s seen some pretty bad mosquitos in his day but this third summer on the ridge has him believing there’s no mosquito that could fly in the ridge wind.
He tells me of his children, his grandchildren who are the loves of his life and as we wind our way from the rolling fields of the ridge into the concrete and traffic of the city, I realize that as much as I can talk – and it surely is a lot – I have nothing on this sweet veteran who is now clutching his VFW coat under his elbow as he tells me about how good his life became after he gave up alcohol. He tells me stories as we wait and then proceed through stop lights, as I get repeat vitals, as I switch the IV bag from the hook in the roof to the pole on the cot. As I give radio report to the receiving facility the stories continue to swirl around my head in the air as his quiet voice patters on. We park in the garage and I explain the privacy act notice, offer him his own copy (“now why would I want that? Those politicians, ya know I think they are behind all of this paperwork everywhere. Well, them and lawyers, ya know”), explain that his signature will allow billing of his insurance company (“well the VA will get it I guess, the USAF owns me ya know”). He signs while telling my partner about that hill they go up every day, who would’ve thought that today of all days…
We walk in; give the name and DOB to registration who is waiting for us at the door. Stories continue to spool still unimpeded as we walk to the room, give report to the staff there, transfer him from my cot to the ER bed, and finally I interrupt again as I offer my hand. He breaks off, mid story, shakes it. “Thanks girlie, keep a listen on your engine, won’t ya”. I assure him I will. The nurse signs my prehospital care sheet, takes her copy and I head out the door with my copy in hand. Up ahead my partner is wheeling the cot. My boots squeak, always on this floor. It’s the only sound I hear. For a moment, it’s a beautiful thing.
I think of the young man who would’ve made that coat seem small. I think of hurtling backwards down a hill, then rolling over, a slight man in a big coat unable to see what was coming. I think of the small pickup. I’m sobered by what might have been, and I’m glad I got to meet this veteran, that he was here to tell his many stories. Such a vibrant soul might’ve been lost and I am certainly grinning as I walk to the truck, spirits lifted by this loquacious veteran who I realize may very well have made my day.
Don’t ya know?