I sometimes write about my fantastic experiences as a volunteer medic. Yet sometimes the experience isn’t so fantastic.
All emergency responders put themselves at great risk whenever they go on a call. This is a story of not beating the odds (but it could have been a lot worse).
Thursday night there was a really hairy ambulance call right on top of a less-serious one. We normally have two — two — ambulances on duty in our 550-square-mile county. I had “the feeling” I would be called out while the two ambulances were busy, and stayed dressed for quite some time, but things settled down without another call, so I went to bed. It was 2:30 by then.
Happily, I wasn’t even awakened by my pager all night.
But “my” call still came — while I was in the shower Friday morning. Luckily I was all rinsed off already; when my pager went off I turned off the water to listen. Yep, it was for me. I quickly dried off, jumped into my clothes, and got going. (Nice I didn’t forget that middle step, eh?)
Since I’m the Captain of the First Responder team, my SUV is decked out with lights and a siren — perhaps, when it started its job in late 2007, it was the first hybrid emergency vehicle in the state. I roll on every call I’m able to: most of the other volunteers have much less experience, and it gives them confidence to know that backup is on the way.
In a rural area like this, where there aren’t that many ambulance calls, volunteer medics tend to get a bit …excited by a call. After many years as a police cadet and a medic in an urban area (including downtown San Francisco), then as sheriff’s deputy and again as a medic in a rural area, I don’t get excited by calls anymore.
Sure, I find them interesting, challenging, and satisfying in that I can help someone, but I remain, as a colleague once remarked about my demeanor, “supernaturally calm.” That just may have saved my life this day.
There was more traffic on the road than usual, and while it was a potentially serious call — a relatively young person possibly having a stroke — I didn’t feel like I had to be in too much of a hurry. I pushed a little, but not too hard, watching the other cars carefully, and passing only when totally safe.
There’s a long stretch of nicely paved, straight as an arrow road on the way to where I was going. It was clear, sunny, warm, and dry, and, on that stretch, no cars! With those sorts of conditions you can go pretty fast and not worry too much about the risk (but we always know that risks are there).
One increase in the risk: there are a couple of small hills that cut off the view ahead as you’re rolling up them. I usually slow down by taking my foot off the gas as I go up those hills, get a look to see what’s on the far side, and then make a new decision about how fast I want to go. I followed that pattern Friday morning.
After getting to the top of the first rise, I got a look, and it was an immediate “Uh oh!” moment. There were three deer on the right, in the roadside ditch, feeding on the weeds below road level. The two does, startled by my siren, went over the fence — away from the road. But a two-point buck went the other other way, leaping right in front of me.
My “new decision” was to brake hard, but I was going 55 mph (the road was designed for a 45 mph limit), and barely had my foot on the pedal before impact. I’m surprised my little SUV was as hardy as it was, and stood up this well to the assault:
I had long ago made the decision that I would not swerve to avoid animals, whether on a Sunday drive or on an emergency response: I’ve seen way too many people swerve in hopes of missing an animal only to roll over, often with catastrophic injuries resulting. Had I swerved, especially at that speed, I would likely have hit the ditch the deer were in and rolled, and I could well have been killed.
Instead, my “supernatural calmness” served me well: I held the car straight and essentially made a panic stop on the clean, dry, pavement. Anti-lock brakes made it a lot easier to keep it straight. The buck, coming from the right side, took quite a forceful impact from the right-front of the car in the early part of that stopping effort.
The buck, a two-pointer (I didn’t count them at the time, but I did notice at the time that his antlers were covered in nice velvet), was clearly killed instantly. While I could see from the driver’s seat that my SUV sustained quite a bit of body damage, it was still driveable.
I advised dispatch (and the sheriff’s deputy rolling from the other direction to the same call) of the incident and, knowing I was still closer than anyone else to the serious medical call, I drove on. I didn’t even take the time to stop and assess the damage: I had a job to do, which also helped keep me calm after a pretty serious accident. (I like calm!)
It took a few more minutes to get to my destination. As always, I grabbed my stuff from the back and headed in, taking only a quick glance at the damage. I was about 10 minutes ahead of the ambulance, and was able to start treatment on the patient, get their history and list of medications, calm down a very upset granddaughter and, when they got there, help the ambulance crew get the patient down a flight of stairs to the ambulance. It was a “good call.”
Once the ambulance took off with the patient for the hospital, the deputy and I returned to the crash scene, where I took the photos on this page.
The Colorado State Patrol, which investigates crashes in the state (even on County roads), often won’t respond to deer-hit calls — there are a lot of them in this state. But an emergency vehicle in a crash while responding? Yeah, they definitely want to come out for those, especially when there’s significant damage. (My top-of-the-head damage estimate to my SUV: $3,000 worth.)
When the trooper arrived, he asked me what happened. “I was going well over the speed limit and then left the scene of the accident,” I quipped. “Sounds reasonable,” he replied.
The “good” news for me was: the trooper said I did “everything right.” He was satisfied with my speed, and with my decision to continue on to the medical call.
It’s good to have that sort of backup. Often, troopers will cite the driver who hits a deer that jumped in front of them out of nowhere, and that always angers me when I hear about it. What, exactly, could the driver have done differently to avoid hitting the deer?! But I didn’t have to protest Friday: he did not even mention the idea of giving me a citation.
I know some will be upset that a deer died. Why go “so fast”? What if I, or someone else, got hurt?
Go back to the first paragraph: there’s definitely risk involved with every response. I’ve driven on literally thousands of emergency responses of up to an hour long. Responders take those risks knowingly (and they’re stupid if they aren’t aware of the risks!) because it’s our job to get there in time to save lives. Being legally exempt from speed limits has, again and again, enabled us all to save many, many lives, and reduce a lot of suffering.
And if that doesn’t hit home with you, maybe this will: if your child is choking to death, exactly how slow do you want me to go? I have the training — and the “supernatural calmness” — to do something about that. So does the ambulance crew, and so do the firefighters, and so do most cops. We often go to such calls en masse because we can’t say who might get there first to thwart the grim reaper. And if one of us has a problem en route, well, there’s someone else already rolling who can get there. (Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can continue, and still get there first, even if there is a problem.)
With my thousands of responses, this was my first crash. The odds caught up with me. While many would be greatly upset being in this situation, I’m actually fine with it: I’d much rather my SUV got banged up than my body! As a volunteer, the damage comes out of my (and my insurance company’s) pocket. I’ll continue to do it anyway, even though the risks are ever more real to me now.
On Friday, my patient was short of breath, and I was able to give oxygen within 30 seconds of walking into their bedroom. If you or your spouse were gasping for breath, terrified and turning blue — now how slow do you want me to go? It took the ambulance more than 20 minutes to get there; even with my crash, I got there in about 10. Think about how long three minutes is when you can’t breathe.
That’s why we go fast, moderated by the calculated risk to our own safety. And that’s why you need to get out of the way when you see flashing lights behind you, or hear a siren. The life we’re rushing to save may be someone you know or love. Be alert: help us reduce the risks.
(Just as I was finishing up this page, I heard a dispatch in the next town: “a 2-year-old toddler, unresponsive.” Yeah, some fast driving will take place on that call. I hope other drivers — and the deer — get the hell out of their way! Those parents want help there right now.)
I took my SUV to the body shop on Friday. The professional’s top-of-the-head damage estimate: $3,000 worth.
(Update: the body shop found more damage as they took things apart. Final bill: more than $8,000.)
Oh and yes: our patient survived.
This is sort-of what it looked like. (He’s not a jerk for riding on the wrong side: it was a closed road for a rally in West Virginia. This is a doe, not a buck, and he’s apparently not going all that fast….)