Penance /ˈpenəns/ voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.
It felt like the Amazon outside, or at least every stereotype I’d have imagined it to be. I got out of the shower and toweled off, but was wetter than when I was in. It was just like any other night; I woke up in time to get the kids from school, prepared an underwhelming dinner, waited long enough to eat with them, and then left for work. The A/C in my car couldn’t compete with the sweltering humidity outside. I purposely packed an extra undershirt and more deodorant; let’s face it, I wouldn’t want to sit in a truck with me for twelve hours smelling like that. My bloodshot eyes stung with the air blasting in my face. I turned up the radio as it struggled to out perform the air conditioning.
I swear to God, if I hear twenty-one pilots on my radio one more time this week…
Asphalt steaming underfoot, I reluctantly exited my car. It had been a long week, and I wasn’t in the mood to come back for my fifth shift in a row. Walking into the break room to clock in, I recalled the previous night’s interaction with a certain supervisor that told me I was on mandatory overtime for tonight. He chuckled when I relayed some anatomically difficult advice, got into his chase car and left. Still seeing red over the incident, I grunted as he expressed his evening salutation. Flipping through the crew lists, I saw a name next to mine that I didn’t recognize.
Fan-fucking-tastic. Another rookie that got booted from FI too soon. Hooooray.
She was a deer in the headlights, going through the jump kit for the seventh time, trying to memorize the position of everything.
“Don’t worry, rook. Blood pressure cuff is on the left. That’s all I’m going to let you touch tonight anyway. Get in the truck. Let’s go.”
I pulled my sunglasses down trying to block the blinding reflections off of the chrome spinners across the street. It was futile. I slumped into the passenger’s seat, turned on the radio and began to close my eyes. The demon in my ear began to buzz.
“Medic 18, can you take a call?”
Fuck off. My shift hasn’t even officially started yet.
“As soon as Monk gets done touching everything in the truck we can.”
And just like that, we were part of the circus. She sat at ten and two, white-knuckling the steering wheel, nervously asking me if I could clear her intersections for her.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
She nervously nodded in the affirmative. Putting it in park, I looked up and saw one of our frequent fliers waiting on the porch with her bag packed, ready to go. Rolling my eyes, I jumped into the driver’s seat and yelled back to see if my partner was ready to get going to the hospital. Lacking any confidence whatsoever, I didn’t wait for to answer and started to drive.
“Don’t forget to call in, rook. Nurses will crucify you if we walk in without warning.”
We dropped off at the hospital; I listened with morbid curiosity as she gave the handoff report to the attending physician, laughing inwardly at how flustered she sounded. I wheeled the cot back to the ambulance bay and threw it back in the rig. Despite the sun beginning to set, I could have sworn it was getting hotter.
Hurry up, rook.
She nervously climbed back into the cab of the truck. Parched, I was determined to find a beverage that could quell the heat. My irritation level was growing with every bead of sweat that passed down my forehead and every tap of the keyboard in the passenger’s seat.
“Is there anything I could have done differently on that last call?”
“Do I look like your training officer?”
“Well, I figured-”
“No. I’m not here to be your mentor. I’m here to get paid double time and survive twelve hours of this hellhole while simultaneously not killing someone.”
I swung into the 7-11 parking lot. The rook started to say something, but I didn’t bother hearing what it was while I slammed the door of the cab. Walking inside, I was blasted by the cold air. Oh, sweet baby Jesus. Nirvana. After paying way too much money for a pair of energy drinks, I begrudgingly went back out to the ambulance, holding one of the cans to my neck. I slouched in the driver’s seat and closed my eyes. All I wanted was to be in my own bed.
“What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen?”
“Hmmm… I’d have to go with the newbie that, despite zero signs of reciprocated interest, continues to talk until they got dropped in the middle of the ghetto with no ride home. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a steaming hot date with the inside of my eye lids.”
“Priority one on a 23 year old with chest pain.”
23 year old with chest pain… they’re going to have some fucking chest pain when I’m done there.
The rumble of the engine flying through a residential area added to my irritation. Carrying the monitor, I walked over to the crew and told them to disregard before even seeing the patient. This is going to be bullshit. Knocking on the front door, I heard a weak greeting permitting our entrance. Rocking back and forth, she looked hysterical. Great. Another case of ghetto Friday night drama.
“What seems to be the problem tonight, sweetheart.” The condescension was dripping with every word that came out of my mouth.
“I can’t breathe.”
“Sure you can. You’re talking to me now, aren’t you?” I had all of the confidence of Holmes, minus the smoking jacket. “Why don’t you just calm down. Which hospital do you want to go to tonight?”
“Uhhh… I don’t know.”
“Stellar. Memorial it is. Let’s go. I wouldn’t want to bother the other four people here that could have easily driven you to the hospital, so let’s not waste any more time”. I rushed her out the door. No assessment, no compassion. We got out to the truck; mind you, I made her walk. “Just sit on the cot, and we’ll get going.”
“Do you want me to get you a set of vitals or give you the medication list her mom gave me?”
“Settle down, rook. This ain’t Johnny and Roy. She’s having an anxiety attack, let’s not get crazy.” We started to rock down the unpaved drag; I grabbed the computer and began furiously typing my narrative, hoping to catch a nap as soon as we were done with call. The hyperventilation continued, and the carpal pedal spasms began to start. “You know if you keep breathing like that, you’re going to pass out, right?” She didn’t seem to hear a word I said. “Sweetheart, you gotta calm down. You’re getting yourself all worked up, and for what? You boyfriend break up with you or something?” She shook her head and began gasping even faster. “If you don’t chill out, I’m going to have to sedate you. Seriously, you need to calm the fuck down.”
That’s when it happened. She started to thrash around violently. Foaming and thrashing. Thrashing and foaming. The seizure hit with animalistic rage, like a raccoon back into the corner. She couldn’t stop. I dashed up to the narc cabinet to grab the midazolam. I was too late. By the time I had unlocked the cabinet and pulled up the syringe, it stopped. But so did she. Fixed. Dilated. Absent. I felt for a carotid and it was gone. We were pulling into the bay when I looked up. Pounding on her chest when the rook opened the back doors, I knew I screwed up.
“What the fuck does it look like happened?! She fucking died.”
The next ten minutes were a blur. I’ve tried to remember them countless times, and I genuinely can’t. I can’t remember what I said to the docs or the nurses. I hardly even remember walking back out to the truck. But there it was… the rook’s notes. The medication list that showed she was on birth control. The fact that she was a smoker. The mom’s story that she just got back from a long flight… If I would’ve stopped for two seconds and looked at the signs…
The rest of the night passed in silence. No music. No sleep. Just the burn of my red eyes staring through the passenger’s window at a city that I come to hate. A city that I felt stole my optimism and integrity. Or at least that’s what I was willing to tell myself at that moment. Pulling back into the base, the supervisor met us by our truck.
“Sounds like you had a rough one tonight. Doc thinks PE. 23 year old, huh?”
“Why’s it any different than any other one we’ve had lately. Only difference was this one didn’t have a needle sticking out of her arm.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“I’m good, but I’ll let you know when I need it, Dr. Phil.”
I clocked out, and slung my bag over my shoulder. I could hear nervous footsteps approaching me in the parking lot.
“Anyone could have missed it.” She nervously expelled.
“Yeah. I guess so.”
0345. My whole body hurt. I couldn’t even drive. I watched the soft red glow of brake lights in the parking lot during crew change. Mustering enough energy to put the keys in the ignition, I felt a sudden wave of nausea. Hold it in. For the love of God, just hold it in. The five minute drive back to my house felt like five hours. Getting out the car, it was like someone hit me the stomach with a bat. I dropped to all fours and lost all of the contents that I had stored up. I felt the irony. Me. On all fours. Hyperventilating. Panting like a dog between retches. All of my pride. All of my confidence. Gone. For every life saved, it felt like this call took all of that away. Spitting the remaining bile out of my mouth, I tried to stand. My legs shook like a new born calf, wobbling with uncertainty. I staggered inside. Their pictures of my refrigerator were illuminated by the moonlight. Two perfect boys. Untainted the world. Reminders of the person that I had become and hated. Hopefully a parable of someone that they will never be. Grabbing the bottle of Jameson from atop the fridge, I snuck up the stairs, hoping that treading lightly would not wake them. Planting myself in the rocking chair in their room, I couldn’t help but stare. Innocence. The whiskey burned, but not as much as the tears that started to roll down my cheeks. How do I protect them from this? How do I keep them from becoming like me?