By Crystal Wallin, NREMT-P, CCEMT-P
It takes a little more in some houses to find the magic. It takes a little vision, to see what used to be instead of what is now.
I was driving near a little cul de sac recently in the bigger city where I was a full time paramedic – long before I got the idea to go to nursing school. I hadn’t thought of her in years, but it was the lights that did it. Something about that neighborhood, in this time of year, and suddenly it all came back.
We were called in the dead of night for a female, unknown medical. Updated dispatch information en route didn’t do much to clear the ambiguous initial dispatch, “35 year old female, sore shoulder area”. The house was small, tidy and neat. Its bricks were sedately earth toned in the dark and unlike the houses around it, dark. It was nestled neatly in one of those post-World War II neighborhoods where the houses look like they are all from the same family, close in age. The roof line near the front door resembled an upside V, with the left arm of the V in a sloping sort of what a roofline might be if it were cursive.
My partner and I were working the nighttime power truck then, and we hadn’t had to come from far. We were posting in those days, at the Y parking lot and the trip wasn’t far. We gathered our monitor, the bag and took the cot as far as the front door. Locking the brakes, we left it there and as my partner raised his hand to knock, the door opened. A man stood there. A weary man with a sad face. He smiled the most small of polite smiles and, putting one finger to his lips, gestured us inside with a short sideways move of his head.
Two small humans were sleeping on the L-shaped sofa in the living room, with a Christmas tree nearby. There were lights on the tree, and no other lights we could see on that level of the home. He indicated we should follow him, whispering as we went up the stairs to the left of the front door, “it’s my sister. She lost her husband about six months ago and we didn’t know this whole time, well, who knows how long she’d been dealing with , well. You’ll see” and his eyes grew moist. We were at the top of the stairs then, and turned left. The first door on the left stood open, and since I was up for patient care, I went in behind him. My partner brought up the rear.
I can see her still, sitting there, pretty and gaunt and holding a towel to her right breast. She looked at me calmly, greeted us. Thanked us for coming. My assessment was ready in my mind and I sat down the monitor, beginning the usual words which formed most introductions. She responded to my questions; she had been dealing with this for a while, how long well, months. She’d had a lot going on…her voice trailed away and I followed her gaze to a framed photo of a happy couple. I could see the lady was her, and the man was handsome.
She looked up again, and said, well, here, and took away the towel. I was speechless at the oozing open dark skin that was what remained of her breast. My eyes came up from the cancer to her face, and she nodded with lips pressed together and replaced the towel. She said, “I can’t walk and I’m weak and I think I need something for the pain, now”. I nodded, my partner who had witnessed the exchange helped and we got her down the stairs to the cot, past those sleeping two small humans next to the Christmas tree and into our truck. The brother followed, stopped at the front door, looked at the two toddlers, said hoarsely, “I guess, I guess I’ll stay with them”. She nodded, her head fell back and she just kept holding that foul, wet towel over the horror underneath.
I started a line, I think. I gave pain medication, radio report, took her inside the hospital upon arrival. Gave bedside report. She didn’t offer any clarification, didn’t indicate any desire to speak of the backstory or even the now story.
My partner and I cleaned that truck in silence. Radioed back in service. Drove to the red light at the corner. Waited. I concentrated very hard on holding my eyes wide open, looking at the sticker on the dash on my side that warned of the height clearance for overhangs. Held our Toughbook, trying to imagine writing a heartache like that one, like the one coming to those toddlers on the cough – writing it down in orderly black and white words.
We didn’t speak for a long time. I don’t remember what we said when we spoke again, or who spoke first. I can tell you that neither of us spoke of it at all.
Some things are too terrible to put into words and you push them down and go on to the next patient and try not to think about What Happened After the Call.
Until years later and Christmas lights in a cul de sac with one dark house. With a sloping cursive kind of upside down V roof.
Hug your loved ones. Enjoy your time with them. Extend kindness to everyone you meet. Everyone.
Because it takes a lot more in some houses to find the magic. To see what used to be, instead of what is now.
And some dark houses with a Christmas tree hold more grief than any holiday should hold.