Warning lights unlit, siren silent, Ambulance #60 careened down fog-drenched streets in the pre-dawn autumn darkness. Some unseen radar directed the drier as she deftly maneuvered the ghost-like rig down West Madison Street through a maze of shattered liquor bottles and discarded syringes. The ambulance soundlessly streamed past derelicts pasted on a backdrop of scarred buildings. Replenishing supplies in the back of the rig, paramedic Beth Riley stole a glance at the driver. She grimaced as her paramedic officer pulled a sandwich bag from her jacket. Angie often relied on that white stuff in her baggie to anesthetize herself against an avalanche of shootings, beatings, and vehicle collisions.
After five years as a nurse in Viet Nam, followed by 22 years as a paramedic with the Chicago Fire Department, Angie Ropella seemed to delight in all forms of human trauma. Knuckled in-between 24-hour stints of stabbings, multi-vehicle collisions, and assaults was an assembly line of little old ladies forgetting their insulin, yuppies jogging into cardiac arrest, and winos urinating in the doorways.
Beth quickly averted her glance as Angie smirked at her through the rearview mirror. Her face still felt hot with shame at the tongue-lashing she’d received tonight. She had efficiently resuscitated a drug addict lying half-dead on his bungalow porch as neighborhood kids hopped over his unconscious form in a midnight game of tag.
But the last fiasco had completely unnerved her. A scrawny seventeen-year-old kid in an oversized leather biker jacket had been weaving his motorcycle back and forth across four clear lanes of traffic when his luck was stolen by a black Toyota traveling southbound down Lake Shore Drive.
“Where’s the body?” Beth, the former librarian, had asked.
“The kid must have been a human slingshot. Probably hit a tree and bounced into an oncoming lane of traffic. Let’s check out the median strip,” Angie said, grabbing a backboard. “Don’t forget your gloves.”
Extracting a pair of gloves from her pants pocket, Beth scurried to match Angie’s long strides. Six weeks into her job, she had no intention of contracting AIDS.
About fifty feet north, a tree lay broken in half. The limp body of a kid in a motorcycle helmet sprawled across the adjoining median strip. Carefully, the paramedics lifted the broken body onto the backboard and velcroed on a Cervical Collar. Upon applying a tourniquet to halt the bleeding from his leg and splinting several broken bones, they gently placed the boy on a stretcher and boosted the gurney into the ambulance.
“Oh, man,” Angie said, groaning. “Check out this bone sticking through the kid’s thigh. As if he won’t have enough grief with a fractured pelvis, severe neck and back injuries, and a fractured skull.”
After one look at the mangled body, Beth vomited all over the back seat. Angie just grinned.
“You gonna be a medic, Riley? You can;t keep having these little accidents. Clean it up. Then keep the kid company back here. I’ll drive.”
Up front, Angie picked up the radio. “This is Ambulance #60. We’ve got a trauma bypass and are en-route to Masonic.”
The early morning weekday scramble had already kicked in as Angie switched on her illegal boom box to some old Led Zeppelin. Flipping on the siren and lights, she expertly weaved the red and white rig through a maze of congested traffic. She zigzagged around buses that suddenly jutted out in front of her onto Halsted and Clark. Cab drivers leaned on their horns while joggers sprinted off to work and the unencumbered meandered home from all-night bars.
Lights and sirens still whirring, Ambulance #60 finally pulled up the ramp to Illinois Masonic Hospital. Angie jumped out and ran around to the back of the ambulance, yanked open the doors, and wheeled the gurney into the ER where the trauma team waited.
Beth was wiping down the back of the ambulance with peroxide when Angie poked her shoulder. “Listen, I got to take a pee and get some supplies. Why don’t you jump start the paperwork, then we’ll split for tacos?”
“Sure. Meet you back on the ambulance. I mean the rig.”
Pushing the empty gurney out through the double doors, Beth considered confiding in her best friend Sue Dotson about yet another of Angie’s cocaine breaks. Nix that plan. Sue’s familiar refrain was “The woman has sinned against her body and should be reported.”
After fourteen years as a medical librarian for the University of Chicago, Beth could spout drug statistics in her sleep, but she’d already memorized the fire academy’s unwritten code; never pimp on your partner.
Whenever she felt guilty about not squealing, Beth reminded herself that Angie was a dedicated professional whose performance was always top notch. Her uncanny ability to accurately diagnose a patient’s physical condition with little more than a glance and a few physical probes was firehouse legend. Probably the reason no one had ever reported the veteran paramedic’s coke habit.
Unfortunately, Angie’s sarcasm was also legendary. It took all of Beth’s emotional strength to not disintegrate when Angie would zap her with a searing retort coupled with a disgusted shake of the head and rolling eyes. Many nights she would climb into bed feeling as though her soul had been ripped from her body. Yet she somehow continued to endure, feeling blessed to inhale even one daily air bubble of knowledge from the former Vietnam nurse whose heroic performance in saving lives could fill a textbook. So, she remained silent.
Once in the hospital laboratory, Angie allowed herself a whiff of congratulations from the white stuff in her Baggie. Only two years from retirement, adrenaline still rushed through her every pore. What a high it had been to save that kid’s life! Amazing he’d survived at all, considering the damage done to his kidney and spleen. Angie grinned as she grabbed another backboard and more peroxide from the ER supply cabinet and then headed back to the rig.
Firing the ignition, Angie glanced into the rearview mirror; Beth the Barfer was straightening supplies. In compliance with the Equal Opportunity Act, the fire department had to hire female trainees, but hiring this wimp was really taking it our-of-bounds. Being a paramedic meant quick reflexes, a b stomach, and the ability to instantaneously analyze a life or death situation. Pretty similar to the emergency nursing she’d done in Viet Nam. Yet there was so much to learn. As a trainee, she had devoured every tidbit of information her paramedic officer would share regarding procedure, medical conditions, and firehouse protocol; Totally different scenario with Riley.
The former medical librarian was as silent as a turtle, her reflexes not much faster. Riley acted spooky, always at her elbow, watching her every move. But what really blew her mind was that even though Riley was textbook knowledgeable about some of the medical emergencies they encountered, she shied away from actually working on a patient; and the constant barfing! Definitely not paramedic material. She’d do her best to make sure this woos didn’t become a firehouse fixture. Confident with her decision, Angie was sailing high when her rig slam-banged into something, nailing her against the wheel.
Beth was straightening supplies in the back of the ambulance when she felt a thud. What had they hit? Stomach churning, the paramedic trainee struggled into a sterile set of rubber gloves and leaped off the ambulance.
A young woman, about eighteen or nineteen years old, lay sprawled out in a pool of blood, which also oozed from her ears. Attempting to still her panic at the sight of so much blood, Beth focused on clamping the pressure cuff onto the patient’s arm. Noting the danderously low blood pressure, she flipped back the girl’s eyelids; unconscious, seizing, bloated belly. Palpitating her patient’s abdomen, a sudden gush of fluids spurted out. Lifting the girl’s dress, Beth gasped as a tiny head emerged through the girl’s vagina.
Tentatively rubbing her ribs, Angie jumped from the ambulance and squinted through the fog “What the hell’s going on? Did we hit a pothole? A dog?”
Beth ran back to the ambulance and grabbed her OB kit. “We hit a young mother whose baby is crowning!”
“Oh, my God,” shrieked Angie. Running toward the patient, she was at the young woman’s side, checking her vitals.
“What do we do now?” Beth asked nervously, peering over Angie’s shoulder. Her head felt as though it was gripped in a vise and that nauseous feeling was threatening to overcome her.
“Check for ID.”
Beth felt around the girl. No purse, no wallet. “Nothing.”
“Probably a run-away.” Angie paced, pounding her fist into her hand, trying to erase the vision of Vietnamese women and children being blown to smithereens as they tried to outrun the bombs. Countless lives lost which she couldn’t out back together. Now, thanks to her own recklessness, this new mother would die, too.
Beth knelt to check the girl’s blood pressure again. “She’s fading. Should we radio the hospital?”
Shaking her head, Angie briskly stepped toward the rig. She was too close to retirement. No way could she get called down on this accident.
Beth ran to catch up. “Angie, I need your help! She’s unconscious.”
“Well, that makes it all the easier. She’s not going to move on you.”
Frantically, Beth tugged at the paramedic officer’s sleeve. “We can anonymously call 911 from the all-night diner!”
Slapping Beth’s hand away, Angie climbed onto the rig. “And risk being recognized? You’ve been on the job for six weeks. You know what to do.”
Beth’s insides fluttered with a powerful urge to flee, yet her feet seemed glued to the concrete. “I can’t work on the mother and deliver the baby at the same time!”
“Look, the girl’s hemorrhaging through the ears. She’s gonna croak any minute. You want my advice? Save the baby.”
A thin, steady rain framed each step as Angie hurried back to the ambulance, then climbed aboard.