Authors: Courtney Moreno
I’m hired. Vincent gives me a tour of headquarters, the offices, the supply room with its stacked oxygen tanks. We walk outside so I can admire the fleet of ambulances and the mechanics’ shop before circling back to the hallway outside his office. And Vincent tells me what I already know: A & O Ambulance is the best company in the Los Angeles area, with widespread coverage, the most 911 exposure, and a killer reputation. My field training officer will be Ruth McCarthy, who is also, I see, employee of the year. Her ferocious grin on the placard hanging in the hallway looks more like she’s gritting her teeth than smiling. I know she must have proved herself many times over to earn that plaque, but mostly I’m just relieved I don’t find her attractive. Field training will be hard enough already.
Vincent points at a large map, big enough to cover the side of a bus, as he explains the company’s basic operations. A & O has twenty stations throughout the Los Angeles area. They cover east to west LA, as well as Long Beach and as far north as Pasadena. I find the
YOU ARE HERE
sticker, which represents the Gardena headquarters we’re standing in. I’ve lived in LA my whole life and haven’t spent an hour in Gardena before today.
“We need someone in the busiest area, so I hope you’re ready for this.” He points at a yellow circle representing Station 710, at the intersection of Normandie Avenue and 65
Place. “South Central, 24-hour shifts. You’ll do your training there, too.”
On my way out of the office I run into a kid, maybe ten years younger than me, who even as he’s washing down an ambulance gives the sense that he’s seen everything. He probably wouldn’t get nervous if his own mother was flopping like a fish in front of him. Maybe his tattoos remind me of my ex, or maybe it’s the way he works over the wad of tobacco in his mouth before letting loose a stream that lands near my shoe, but I take an instant dislike. After the obligatory cool appraisal, he asks where I’m going to be working and nods when I tell him. “Get ready to grab your ankles,” he says.
Home is a two-story apartment in Echo Park, with a view of downtown even from street level and the constant white noise of the 101. “Guess who got her dream job!” I shout to my roommate. Marla turns off the TV and waddles into the kitchen to join me. She’s wrapped in so many blankets that if it weren’t for the familiar soft face jutting out of the multicolored cocoon, she would be unrecognizable. I blame her new layering habit on her recent breakup—freshly hurt hearts run cold.
Grabbing her leftovers off the stove, I slop them into a bowl as she rummages through the bag of my recent purchases. She sniffs a cookie before biting into it, retrieves the bottle of rum, and starts mixing us drinks. I show her my new Thomas Guide and the A & O Ambulance handouts that cover what to bring to my first 12-hour shift, the pages obviously photocopied over and over.
Marla helped me get through the EMT program so I know she’s almost as excited as I am. For months I made flashcards with signs and symptoms of different medical or traumatic injuries; she’d choose one and follow its prompts while I tried to figure out what was wrong and how to treat her. When we practiced the emergency childbirth scenario, she grabbed a cantaloupe from the fruit bowl and put it under her shirt, shrieking so convincingly a neighbor knocked on the door, phone in hand, ready to call the police.
But instead of asking me about the job, she asks about last night’s date with her friend Nathan. She’s made me promise to go on at least five dates with him because, according to her, I never give anyone a chance. I’ve secretly nicknamed him NutraSweet. To me, he’s only a sugar substitute.
I don’t tell her that last night, our third date, NutraSweet took me to an expensive Italian restaurant that had tiny lights embedded in the ceiling and a whole lot of fake foliage. Or that he tried to hold my hand and asked for advice about an old wrist injury—because now that I’m an EMT, I must know about things like wrist injuries. For four weeks, all I did was listen to lectures on life-or-death situations and study from a textbook thick with pictures so gruesome I wanted to think they were fake. At no point did we discuss carpal tunnel. Grabbing our glasses, I get up to make us another round of drinks. I tell her if she was really my friend, she would have set me up with the girl at the grocery store, the one I’ve had a crush on for months.
“Yes, that would have gone well. ‘Hello, grocery store girl, will you please go out with my roommate? Perhaps you’ve seen her here, skulking about?’”
“I do not skulk.”
“You’re filling our apartment with fennel toothpaste and organic tampons.”
I wrestle with the ice tray. “Don’t be a hypocrite. You went berserk over the heirloom tomatoes.”
Marla takes the drink I hand her, looking up at me from her cocoon. Together we flip through the pages of the Thomas Guide. I tell her that I have to learn how to map the driver when we’re responding to a call. “We’re required to give correct directions in less than sixty seconds,” I say with awe.
She scoffs. Marla is a mechanical engineer. “That’s easy.” She jabs at Hollywood. “Map me to the wax museum from Elysian Park.”
It turns into a drinking game: map your partner from point A to point B in a minute. You can’t use freeways. If it takes you longer than a minute to figure out the best route, you drink. If you map your partner in a circle or into a dead end, you drink. We quickly figure out which parts of Los Angeles do not run in a simple grid, and we quickly get drunk.
Toward the middle of the night, traffic dies down on the freeway and everything gets quiet. The DKA scenario has been replaying in my head all day. When a real person and not a mannequin lies in front of me, I’m going to have to be much faster. As if she knows what I’m thinking, Marla looks at me, resting her chin on a drunken fist. “Are you scared?”
Terrified. “Scared of what?”
“Scared of the kinds of things you’re going to see. Scared of what you’re going to be asked to do.”
The objects in the room seem to narrow into focus, and their edges sharpen. Marla’s blankets mushroom up around her face. How long have I been absentmindedly twirling a shot glass in my fingertips?
“I’m pretty sure I have this in me.”
Marla pokes me.
“I was a total idiot today,” I say. “I’d think the right thing but couldn’t say or do it. It was like my hands were working at a different speed than
my brain. I actually told the interviewer I’d be crying if the mannequin were a real person.”
“Well, not exactly.” I tell Marla that I refuse to work in a bar again, or as an extra, that I don’t want to eat cheese while a bitchy actress complains about her lighting. “But what if I kill someone, or, worse, what if I get shown up by some crusty little know-it-all ten years younger than me?” I’m thinking about the tattooed kid outside Vincent’s office, how he reeked of capability. The one thing I haven’t felt for a long time is capable.
Marla hiccups. “Did you just say it would be better to kill someone than be bad at your job?”
I think for a moment. “You know what I mean,” I say.
Ruth McCarthy gives me a tour of Station 710. My new headquarters is a small, beige, one-story house that looks out of place sitting in a large concrete parking lot with no plants or yard. The interior has been converted to mimic a fire station, and all the windows have thick iron bars. Ruth tells me Station 710 operates with two crews of three rotating shifts: A, B, and C. “We’re the A shift,” she says. Her copper hair is pulled back impossibly tight; she wears no makeup and stands erect with big-boned shoulders. “Carl and I are partners on the one-car. J-Rock and Pep are the two-car. They’re on a call but you’ll meet them later.”
She points out a workout room with lockers and a shower and marches me through the sleeping quarters, where four twin beds are pushed against the walls. At the station’s entrance, the communal area includes a pseudo-kitchen, as well as a dining table with mismatched chairs and four brown recliners circling a giant television. She reminds me that every room has a
phone. “If it rings with a call for 7102, do
go sprinting for the parking lot. Just yell it out so the other crew knows they have a call. We’re 7101. As in the
. Get it?”
I nod, trying to look determined and thoughtful. Perhaps if I look determined and thoughtful she will stop talking to me like I’m a golden retriever.
“That’s my partner, Carl Hagan, by the way.”
From the dining room table, Carl blinks at me before returning his attention to a surfing magazine. He’s younger than her, about twenty years old, and has an impish face: ears that stick out, close-cropped hair, and eyes set a little too close together. I can tell that these two finish each other’s sentences, though Carl has said nothing to me while Ruth, every inch the training officer, has been instructing me in a clipped tone from the moment I walked through the door.
“This is your first job in EMS, right?”
“Not exactly—I used to be a lifeguard.”
“Oh, over at County?”
“No, in high school.”
From the dining room table, Carl makes a noise but doesn’t look up. Ruth pinches her lower lip before letting out a sigh.
“Okay. Here’s how it works. Each call takes about an hour. Average of five to eight minutes to get on scene, ten to twenty minutes to run the call, then drive to the hospital either Code 2 or Code 3. Obviously, you’re not
until you’ve transferred care, which means giving a report at the hospital and getting your patient a bed. Okay so far?”
“I’m going to run your ass off, and I don’t want to hear any complaining. The best way to learn how to be efficient in the field is to run as many calls as possible. This is a busy station, so that won’t be hard to do.”
My first task is to fill out the daily ambulance checkout. I sit in the back of the rig with my new clipboard and the checklist, going through
compartments one by one. Triangular bandages, Kerlix, blood-stoppers, emergency childbirth kits, biohazard bags, isolation kits, gloves, tape, dressings, splints, trauma shears, suction catheters, airway adjuncts, oxygen masks, emesis basins, linen, backboards, portable oxygen tanks, soft restraints, cold packs… Ruth may assume I’m an idiot, but I was top of my EMT class. I got the highest score on the final my teacher had ever seen. And while I don’t picture myself running out of a collapsing building with a baby under each arm—at least not on my first day—I do know what compassion looks like. Even when I’ve been working in the field as long as Ruth has, I bet I’ll be able to spare a few words about the importance of helping people. Everything with her seems to be about paperwork, supplies, and protocols.
About halfway through the checkout we get our first call. I look at the vibrating pager. It’s gibberish, a tangle of acronyms and numbers. I start to panic. They didn’t teach us about this in EMT school. As I climb into the passenger seat, Ruth shoves my map book at me. She’s sitting behind the wheel, the engine is running, and she’s already spoken to Dispatch over the radio. She is waiting, not so patiently.
Carl sits behind and between us in the captain’s seat, his chin resting on his fists, his face a becalmed smirk. He obviously knows exactly how to get where we’re going. All I’ve been able to gather is that our call is somewhere on 82
Street, which zigzags east to west across Los Angeles. I scramble with the map book, flip pages, look desperately at my pager for some clue. Someone called 911 and I’m no help whatsoever.
“Time!” Ruth says, indicating my sixty seconds are up. She throws the rig into drive, flips the lights and sirens on without so much as a glance at the different switches on the panel, and takes off. “We’ll talk later,” she adds over the scream of the sirens.
* * *
Later is relative. At the twelfth hour Ruth sits me down at the station’s dining room table. A single hair has come loose from her ponytail, and it sticks straight up. As I sink into the chair across from her, I notice for the first time she is so pale she’s almost translucent, and despite being five years younger than me, the dark rings under her eyes appear to be permanent. Then again, as she stares at me, I’m suddenly aware of what I must look like. My hair is a frizzy mess and my uniform disheveled. Because I kept breaking out in a sweat on scene, because I burned through my deodorant hours ago, I smell bad and my undershirt is sticking to me. She looks exactly like she did twelve hours ago except for the one errant hair. She didn’t break a sweat once.
Ruth can do anything. Ruth hates me right now.
My hands were shaking when I tried to get a blood pressure on the first call; I forgot to get the appropriate signatures on my paperwork three times; I put a tiny pediatric oxygen mask on a 250-pound man, snapping its elastic and almost giving myself an eye injury; and only on the last call did I map Ruth in somewhat the right direction. I didn’t handle the gurney properly and mistook a distraught woman experiencing anxiety for a person dying of a heart attack.
Nothing has been what I thought it would be. Vaguely I remember a pale patient with shallow breathing who had a thin sheen of unnatural sweat over his face and neck, and whose fingertips looked kind of blue. There was a drunk guy, too, with yellow eyes that Ruth whispered were a sign of jaundice. He grinned blearily at me, and smelled like a mixture of dumpster rot, sewage, and formaldehyde. For the rest of the day I kept catching whiffs of him like he was standing right next to me.