By Crystal Wallin, NREMT-P, CCEMT-P, Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance
In Wisconsin, our lights are red and white. Other states use some blue lights, but we leave those to law enforcement in our state. No matter the weather, lights are always our companions on each shift.
I always feel like a navigator of a spaceship when we're making our way through the dark winter nights with the strobes picking up falling snow. Anyone who's ever driven an ambulance in the wee dark hours is likely nodding in agreement right now. There is a boggling monotony after a matter of minutes as the dancing snowflakes pick up the white strobe lights. It begins to look as though the flakes are stars, and the ambulance is passing through a foreign landscape in the far reaches of space.
There are the many outside lights of homes and businesses, and one of the beauties of working for a company with system status management in an urban environment is that as you rotate throughout the dark cold winter nights, you get to see a lot of lights. There are the streets with the large ornate homes and those are the streets where it is truly a winter wonderland. But there are also cozy bungalows with winking lights that emit a sense of peace and harmony of their own. One house south of the main town where my company is located is renowned for its lights. The house is pretty but blends into its companions during the rest of the year. But when the season of lights comes, this house draws cars to stop and park to look at its beauty. Luckily for the sake of traffic safety, there is a wayside just across the highway, and this is where the cars park. I wonder every year if the owners light this house, or if they pay to have it professionally done. The house has a round room which extends from the ground up to the top floor, and porches. When the lights are woven about the exterior of this home, it looks fit for a Juliet to ponder where her Romeo may be. Not just the sheer quantity, but the exquisite attention to detail is truly unlike any other home I've ever seen.
I've written about and forever remember the lady we walked through the adjacent glow of neighbor home lights. The lady who was wearing footie pajamas and had eyes that could see twenty years in the past - but not a gift, not to her. She had overdosed in her yearly attempt to forget the things that were done to her as a small girl, beneath the Christmas tree, by her father. Every year Christmas is a nightmare, a time of year from which she cannot escape, echoes of a past not alleviated by therapy. I think of her often, think of the beauty most of us find in the season. A beauty robbed from her that I wonder if it is possible to ever return.
My first year as a paramedic we worked a code with a family looking on, remnants of the holiday meal no one had any desire to eat, cooling and congealing on the table behind us. The family patriarch had gone down not long after they all sat around the table and now the array of faces, whenever I involuntarily looked up in between interventions or pulse checks, ran the gamut from grim to stricken to weeping copiously. The enormous tree stood an imperious observer against the two story windows, it's perfect white lights steadily regarding the scene. We got ROSC, and our red and white lights danced victoriously off the homes in that upper class neighborhood as we bore our hard fought battle of a patient into the hospital. I remember being giddy, and it seemed as if the lights watching through each window and eaves trough were congratulating this save.
I responded in the grey light of early almost morning out into a rural home where the tree was modest in size and there were no ornaments down where small arms and hands might reach. A febrile seizure and a terrified mother and father, as well as a serious sentinel of a toddler brother watching us. Those lights were multicolored and danced to a tinny series of metallic sounding Christmas carols. That one turned out all right, too.
Dearest to my heart when I think of paramedic Christmas lights, however, has to be our ambulance decorated for a holiday parade. You might well imagine what a bunch of tired paramedics & EMTs, sometimes disillusioned and distant-eyed themselves, turn into when wrapping Christmas lights around mirrors and the interior hand rails in the patient compartment. It is truly enjoyable to see how many lights one can get onto a truck with built in plugins and backed up with inverters. The grins and jokes between the work family members while decorating are full of shouts of laughter. But inevitably when all is complete, and we stand back to survey our work, the banter slows, the smiles grow quiet and eyes pensive. During the year that truck may see heartache, anger, residual remnants of what humans do to one another with weapons, hands, or words - even with a diet that slowly is killing so many Americans.
Ah, but during the holiday parade, that ambulance is a beacon of beauty, driving through the night and surrounding the ground around it in a soft glow. I like to think that Christmas lights soften the edges a bit, not only of homes and yards, crew quarters and waiting rooms, but of hearts and minds a little, too. Sometimes as the season is upon us, we may find ourselves rushing everywhere whether at work or even more on days off. Trying to get all the things done that we think we should do. When really what matters is to perhaps sit in those lights on a sofa with a sleeping child, or at a wayside along the highway, and reflect on all that is important. I've never yet cared for a patient who wistfully told me of a time they should've cleaned more, cooked more, shopped more or worked more. At the crux of the moment, when heartbeats and respirations become work, what matters is always the things we take for granted. Time with the people we love.
May this holiday season find you looking around a little more, slowing down a little more and reaching out to the people that matter. May we remember that the holidays are hard for some, that some are alone and hurting. I am trying hard this year to include those who seem a little on the periphery. Who says a family has to share a last name or the same uniform?
Happy holidays to you and yours - however you identify the holidays to be. Let the lights take a little of the rough edges of every day off and allow you to enjoy the calm pools of clear or colored lights, leading the way towards a coming new year.