Becoming a first responder seemed to make disaster fall into Kendall Ruth’s path with greater frequency.
Did anyone notice that once Superman showed up there was an ever-increasing need for his services as trauma and catastrophes seemed to rise with his presence? Aside from the “super” part, that is how it seemed to go once I was certified as a Wilderness First Responder. Maybe it was awareness of what I used to pay no attention or maybe there were just that many more accidents now that there was someone nearby to respond.
I used to be able to drive from one point to another with nothing more than the usual stops for gas or food.. Then accidents seemed to happen in front of me so regularly that I started keeping the first-aid kit stocked at all times and rehearsing airway, breathing, circulation protocols on the drive. The common denominator in all these incidents was the odd experience of helping save a life only to be followed by a quiet slip off stage, back into my car and on with the day.
The most dramatic of these experiences was a head-on collision on the open highway between Austin and Houston. I pulled up on the chaos moments after it began and right behind a state trooper who was driving a squad car so new it lacked a first-aid kit. So we split the gauze and gloves in my kit and took care of the two drivers—one screaming all out from the broken hip and legs to which she just awoke and the other was a linebacker of a man still out of it.
Over the next two hours, I helped with landing a helicopter on that double-yellow lined highway so precariously crossed by these two drivers, while a National Guard unit flew a second helicopter overhead as backup. I saw a rural EMT get his first taste of true trauma and only turn pale, failing to make the critical decisions for which he was authorized. And once the sirens drifted away and the sounds of rotors disappeared toward the closest Level 1 hospital, I climbed back into my truck, leaving without a notice; hungry for the lunch I missed by stopping. No papers to sign. No stories traded over drinks off-shift at the local bar.
On the rest of the drive, as the adrenaline passed, I understood the value of the off-shift storytelling so common among paid, official trauma response units. It is then that you get to verbalize your perspective, talk as much or as little about what it felt like to see that and be a part of saving a life. Like comrades at arms, there is a shared intimacy that comes from an elevated, unified focus experience. We are all in this together… except when we are no longer together.
In the telling you relive the trauma, but you also come to understand rightly or wrongly what happened and maybe move on with the rest of living. Saving a life shouldn’t mean you lose the ability to keep living yours. In the 15+ years I’ve carried my certification, I’ve assisted in backcountry evacuations, made the difficult phone calls to parents and still covered more than a few rural car accidents.
I was the guy that brags with no remorse, telling the story with as much flare as the group can handle. I was the dismissive guy, coming off abrasive when talking about the injuries I’ve seen, bandaged, or bones I’ve put in traction. I have stood in hospital ORs and smirked at the wry sense of humor from a surgeon when talking about a patient’s cancer. It’s all a ruse.
The jokes, the bragging, and “could-care-less” postures are nothing but coping mechanisms that fail to be honest enough about the disturbing aspects of trauma first response. The reason a gouged leg or broken arm or life-threatening hemorrhage makes a normal person cringe is because we know in our souls something it shouldn’t be like this. Bodies, and so souls, aren’t supposed to go through that kind of shit. It is incongruent. It reveals fragility while testifying to resilience and pushing us to consider our mortality.
The first time I had to evacuate a kid in the backcountry because of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, it shook me to the core. It didn’t help we were surrounded by lightning storms and our radio kept static-ing out with each strike. Once off the trip and in base camp, I sat on the deck with my boss and wept. I wasn’t crying for the kid, he was fine once we got him to the hospital. Hell, he even went on to be a Navy SEAL. My tears on the deck that day were about the realization that I was in control of so much less than I originally believed.
There was a time I pursued being a full-time paramedic. Then I heard the stories from those that had been for some time. Stories about the domestic abuse calls and finding children barely alive after a beating from a drunken dad or mom. Or the kids raped by a mom’s boyfriend and brutalized. I knew then I could never do the job without losing parts of me not worth losing.
From all these incidents I learned a bit what it takes to be human. While it requires the ability to go out of your way, and sometimes suck it up enough to help keep someone alive, or even comforted until better help can arrive, it doesn’t mean you become less human in the process. Real men cry. As my friend Nigel is fond of saying, “We are mostly made of water. It’s a wonder we don’t cry more.” Being tough is more about being honest about what you can’t control. I can talk about what I’ve seen without the braggadocio. I know it’s not my job to save a life, but simply help when I can and know when I can’t. Maybe that is what separates us from Superman. Well, that and the whole flight, x-ray vision, speed, other planet stuff, too.
See Kendall Ruth in 5 Guys Talking: Men of Action.
Image credit: Monica’s Dad/Flickr