Being There - Celebrating EMS Responders

Hand ClaspBy Thom Hillson

Although three-digit systems in several nations predated its claim, the town of Haleyville, Ala., claims to be the site of the first 911 call ever placed. That was in 1968. The red telephone used to answer that call is still preserved in a small museum there.

Three years later, Carole King and James Taylor produced a little song called "I'll Be There," which could well be an EMS anthem. In part, its lyrics go something like this:

You just call (out my name) (insert "911"?) and you know wherever I am
I'll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall
all you got to do is call
and I'll be there...

Even if Carole never intended it that way, the promise in her lyrics has always been our promise. When you need a friend, we'll be there.
Teresa Brown has lived alone for 60 years in her small non-descript little house on Fourth Avenue in a small town whose name would mean nothing to most of us. Her two kids moved away years ago, so after burying her husband in a cemetery down the street, she filled her time by working for 12 years as a volunteer at the local hospital. Now it's 11 degrees, and she's shivering on her front lawn. She says she slipped on a single icy step while going for her morning paper. A passing motorist calls 911, and soon she's back in her armchair.  She's not hurt, she says, so don't take her to the hospital. She's just cold. There's no railing in front of her home, and this is not the first time she's fallen.

The next morning, two off-duty EMTs show up at her front door. By noon, they have constructed handrails not only for her front door, but also for the door on the side that ac-cesses her driveway. The EMTs absorb the costs themselves, and accept the liability.

Marie Hildreth tells a similar story. Marie weighs about 400 pounds, and at 30, her health is a mess. She has several conditions that have either contributed to or resulted from her weight gain over the years: hypothyroidism, diabetes and osteoarthritis. She lives in a jumbo-sized lift recliner. Her small town's EMS crews groan when she calls 911—often for lift assists, and occasionally for myxedema coma. But they always try to be nice, and sometimes they're a lot nicer to her than she is to them.

Now it's early on a Saturday, and Marie needs to empty her bladder. But the lift mechanism in her big chair grinds loudly and fails with a loud cracking sound. She can't stand up, so she calls 911. She really has to go to the bathroom, and in her urgency she's cranky. The crew's had a long night, but they patiently help her up, seat her on her commode and tilt the big chair forward to assess the trouble. There are several cracks in its wooden frame, where the lift mechanism is at-tached. The $1,200 chair came from the Red Cross, and the crew calls them, but nobody answers on weekends. So, with the help of their relief, they pick up some hardware and use carriage bolts, clamps and Gorilla Glue to fix the chair. It's afternoon when they finish.

Ralph Jennings's wife died in her sleep a couple of weeks ago. They were married for 53 years, and he's lost without her. He's spent the past two weeks with family visitors, and today the last one finally headed for home. He sits for hours at his kitchen table, not bothering to turn on the lights. Finally, at about 11 pm, he picks up the phone and dials three digits.

"I can't breathe," he whispers, and in no time he's sur-rounded by volunteers. They apply a mask, take off his shirt, listen to his chest and look into his eyes. Then, as he talks, they switch gears. They turn down their radios, sit with him, brew him some coffee and offer him tissues. For three hours their ambulance waits at the curb outside, its faithful diesel growling at neighborhood cats.

These kinds of things happen daily and worldwide. They're more about kindness than medicine, and probably more valuable. Has anyone told you lately that what you do for people matters to them? Well, it does.

Thank you for being there!

Thom Hillson is nationally recognized for his nearly four decades of service as an emergency practitioner, leader and award-winning EMS journalist.

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