In the spring of 1989, I was working in emergency services at New York Hospital: my blistering first immersion into the world of life-and-death; of quick, forced decisions and extreme teamwork, of breath-stealing opportunities to palliate suffering, and of the day-to-day practice of service.
It didn’t matter that some of it meant being a taxi service for those who felt entitled to a free ride to the hospital (call EMS and wait downstairs with your suitcase packed). In each day there were slices from every domain of life. Distant, uncertain, imminent suffering was around every corner. And if not suffering, then the surprise of a great new restaurant at meal-time; on the ambulance (bus) we never got parking tickets…
To be able to be participating in every aspect of life in any given day, with no calendar appointments was, for the uninitiated, a staggering new way of life. I had spent my first forty years in unreality and fantasy and narcissism and denial. The move to this new life was more distance than I had ever covered; in my perception, it happened on a lightning bolt.
I was on duty when a call came from my six-year-old’s school: he had fallen and taken a true “help needed” gash. I was given time and on my way out, I stopped in the ER and asked my new friend, David Fischer, if he could sew Eddie up if it became necessary. He said he would be there whenever I could get back. An emergency medicine resident in his early thirties, he had introduced me to several severe experiences which no person ever needs to think of. Emergency was an extreme pressure cooker. Me in my forties, doing my first EMS work, married, with a very active six-year old, now living in an opportunity of a lifetime, and somewhat freed from non-contributing aspects of what many people call “the cooker;” aka the average fast-lane N.Y.C. life.
This life – what a radical change. Just a year before, a big day meant getting together a flight to Detroit, hiring an assistant and producing a color-balanced photo of a robot-car-welding-line and later, making “working” photos of Lee Iacocca in a Chrysler design studio. He was the new man brought in to “save” Chrysler from certain death.
From that life, in less than a year, I’m in the emergency room of a trauma center in New York City, watching a man who was crossing the street at Carnegie hall (just an hour ago) undergoing having his chest “cracked” so someone in a last-ditch life-saving effort could get a hand in there to massage his heart. Looking back, I can’t think of a chasm that could be a greater leap to attempt. From here, it seems like it happened in the span of a three-minute egg-timer.
I drove down to the World Trade Center neighborhood, where Eddie was waiting in a corner of the principal’s reception room. A giant cotton ball was held in place with cloth tape; I had to look: the tape came off with minimal pain and yes, this one wasn’t going to pull together without some thread and a needle. Raw, reddened tissue in a gash, opened about an inch by a quarter inch deep.
I packed him up and drove back to the hospital. David was still there:Thank God! “Take him around the corner to the second room: I’ll get there as soon as I can.” He was there in about a minute.
As sweat rolled off my head and tingles went down the backs of both arms, I relaxed into that great trust which I’d been able to enjoy only a few times in my life. Nothing mattered now: David would take the best care of Eddie. Instead of sitting in an ER, getting triaged and waiting for a disconnected, tired young resident to parrot: “And how are we doing?” – I had someone I liked and trusted, in this giant city hospital. And all I needed to do was ask.
Edward was so grown up and accepting at this tender age, that simply in bearing witness I was in tears, holding his hand as he lay on his back, chin to the spotlight, a small hole in a drape centering attention on that gash. He didn’t jump or scream when David gave him a lidocaine (numbing) shot – right in that so-sensitive spot. One tear ran from his eye down into his right ear.
Perhaps a year later. He was my son’s hero. Though Eddie couldn’t comprehend it, Jim Henson filled his well of joy to overflowing. I wasn’t raised with Sesame Street and the Muppets, but the glow from Eddie’s total involvement during his formative years was infectious. When we would watch together, I was swept up by the patchwork of lovable characters, repeatedly baptized by their “cookie” innocence.
One day Henson walked in to the ER under his own steam, at 4 a.m. A call from a woman with a California area code had come in to the nurses’ station; he was to arrive soon and “Please take care of him.” He arrived weak and short of breath and alone. He was immediately given a nasal cannula and low-dose oxygen. A few minutes later his nurse found him breathing loudly through his mouth. She asked why he wasn’t using the oxygen. “Sorry – you didn’t say I was supposed to breathe through that thing!” We laughed with her retelling of the moment: the extent of his no-experience-with-medicine endeared his caregivers to his innocence in the face of a fulminating, no-holds-barred sepsis. He died later during the night of that same day.
On that other-worldly morning of all days, I was off-duty and Eddie was off from school, so he was getting to see the hospital; the 60th Street landing pad and the life-flight helicopter, the great library, the EMS room with our cots, the chapel, the ER. Standing near the station with new friend Pat, a seasoned and caring veteran nurse, we talked with Eddie about “the life” and its always unexpected turns, while the father of the Muppets lay behind a curtain only feet away, struggling now with a non-rebreather (a pure-oxygen delivery mask which can frighten some people).
That evening at bedtime, we never knew that one of Eddie’s beloved heroes was losing everything on that warm Spring afternoon, as we passed so close.
To listen, click white arrow
“Bein’ Green” – by Joe Raposo, sung by Jim Henson
“Sing” by Joe Raposo, sung by The Carpenters
Terry Hourigan, R.N.