Five Years Since One of My Worst Calls

For the past five years, each New Year’s Eve I am sadly reminded of a call.

During that holiday season we had a series of busy nights.  It seemed like call after call was for a nasty patient who combined his or her stupidity with alcohol and violence.    Around 4 AM on December 31 we went to a well-kept suburban home, similar to one I grew up in, for difficulty breathing.  We were greeted by an anxious woman in her bathrobe who led us into their bedroom.  They were about my parents’ age, and their  living room was filled with pictures of grown children.

Her husband did not look well.  He had been taking several courses of antibiotics for cold-like symptoms that would not go away.  His skin was gray and ice cold, and he had no blood pressure.  We gave him oxygen, started two lines, and gave him as much IV fluid as we could.  For the last five minutes of the transport there was nothing left for us to do.  I kept my fingers on his wrist and hoped I would feel a radial pulse.

They were about to intubate him at the hospital when I droped my paperwork off.   Nothing about the patient’s anatomy indicated this would be difficult.  I stood outside the room to watch, and to my left I saw his wife sitting alone in the waiting room.  A nurse pushed Etomidate and Succs, and a new attending put the laryngoscope blade in his mouth.  One attempt went in his stomach.  The bougie didn’t work.  The patient’s heart rate dropped.  The doctor started barking orders, and everyone in the room panicked.

I looked to my left and made eye contact with his wife.  Her expression changed after she saw mine.  I looked back at her husband  The doctor had done a surgical crich, but it was too late.  My gaze shifted back and forth from the patient and his wife.  Now she looked even more worried.  She stood up and marched to the reception area.  They started pumping on his chest when the receptionist asked if his wife could come back.  The doctor was sweating now.  He yelled no and to tell her to wait a minute.  I felt sick and walked away.

I passed the waiting room on my way to the truck.  I saw his wife sitting alone again, and I wished her luck.  She asked if I knew anything about her husband.  I said they were still working on him and that someone would be out soon.  She knew I wasn’t telling her everything, and I was glad she didn’t press it.

It doesn’t bother me that he died.  I expected him to.   I hope that the doctor can apply lessons from this airway disaster to another patient.  What bothers me most, and what I still think about, was his wife sitting alone in the waiting room while I watched her husband die.

The next night was New Years Eve.  I thought about the call while watching the festivities on television at home with my wife.  I wondered what she was doing then.  I wondered if they had plans to go out, and I wondered if she was alone again.


  1. Your story, is my story from another perspective and I am the patient. You arrive, I don’t look well, and worse, I am your neighbor and if you are fireman #2, I did your mortgage. I have no radial pulse and I have no blood pressure. The difference is, I am here this New Years Eve to remind you that even though you remember the worst, I plead with you to remember the best. People like me survive. I don’t know why. My life since my body’s attempt at death has been difficult and confusing. I remind you, I defied the statistics, I am alive. But, you thought I was dead. In fact, you asked my friends, in vague terms, what is my status, thinking you know the answer is my demise. No, I’m here. Every time I see you, I hug you and I cry sometimes. The reason I am different from the New Years Eve story is that sometimes, the unexpected or statistically unprobable happens. I am no different from the man in your story. The wife in my story is my 23 yr old son. He sits watching from afar as they work on me. He thinks to himself, I can’t watch my mom die too. My brother died and I saw his dead body in the emergency room, brought in by the EMS almost 10 years to the day I am watching my mother die.

    Every now and again, EMS are hit with the blunt reality that is us, your last run. You don’t always know who I am. If you do know me, you know my life has been one run after the other with an assortment of beloved dying. I identified my dead son’s body after he died in an auto accident, a childhood leukemia survivor. I held my godson’s hand as he died from liver failure resulting from a mixture of epileptic drugs, acetomeniphen and alcohol. I held my brother’s hand as he read the autopsy report of his wife’s death from a drug overdose. I am the mom who was called to pick up her son at the emergency room as he survived the auto accident on the way back from the concert that killed his good friend and caused brain damage to his close friend.

    I am the run, you are glad you do not know because, you would never go on another run again if you knew how hard my life has been. I am the person, for the rest of my life, loves you and lives in admiration of your courage and strength.



    • emspatientperspective says:

      Thanks again for a great comment, Regina. Compartmentalizing trauma is a necessary coping skill for us, but I’m afraid it causes us to forget why we do what we do.

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