INto the Ditch: 10 seconds that saved my life

Author’s Note: I wrote this memoir in Fall 2012 during my first semester of my Masters program.  It was the first time I explored my feelings about that event.  The capitalized  IN was done on purpose and reflects the entire episode.  While I am not proud of some of the language, it shows where I was on January, 24, 2010 at 1:34pm (ish)The regular font is the narrative.  The italics are my stream of consciousness, or my thoughts… aaron


You have a lot of time to think about things when you’re upside down in a ditch.  And most of that stuff don’t really matter!

But I have gotten way ahead of myself.  I need to start at the beginning.  I never intended to become a Paramedic.  This whole adventure started when my friend invited me to join the Gilmer Volunteer Fire Department back in ’94.  For the next two years, I continued to play firefighter and first responder.  Around Christmas 1996, we responded to a wreck with EMS.  There were 25 patients and only two ambulances.  I responded with the volunteer fire department.  They needed help.  Being an Eagle Scout, I knew how to bandage and provide basic first aid.  The medic, who had three critical patients, threw me some supplies and said to get busy.  I did.  I loved it.  I realized helping others was fun.  February 1997, I started Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training.

January 24, 2010, started out as normal as going to work on a Sunday could be.  I was excited because instead of a 48-hour shift, I only had to work 24 hours. (A normal EMS shift rotation is twenty-four hours on duty followed by forty-eight hours off duty.  However, at the time the company was short-staffed; so, a shift was 48 on- 24 off). I looked forward to a “normal” shift on the ambulance, because on the previous shift  several tornados had hit East Texas- Waskom, Noonday, Whitehouse, and Harleton were the closest to us.  We ran eight calls that shift…six during the torrent.  I had enjoyed my day off, but really needed to go back to work to rest…Sundays at work meant no calls and lots of nap time.

I woke up at 0457- three minutes ahead of the alarm.  I fired up the computer and checked the obituaries.  I always did it back then… I had seen many of my emergency friends die…one from cancer, two in off-duty motor vehicle accidents, and one in the line of duty- Trooper Todd Holmes.  After each death, I planned my funeral.  My poor wife endured the whole process and often just shook her head… how our marriage ever survived those years I will never know.  To this day, when I think about my time in EMS and when I talk about it, my thoughts become more erratic than a fat kid with ADHD in a candy store on a sugar high… Oh yes… the funeral plans…  Bagpipers and drums leading the procession.  My beloved Boy Scout Troop 311 would form the honor guard, and my EMS and Fire buddies would be the pall bearers. I figured I would die in the line of duty because I was working 96- 120 hours per week.  Music would be Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust and AC/DC’s Highway to Hell…  ETMC Air One and Mother Frances Flight for Life would hover overhead as the slow, silent mile-long procession of fire trucks, EMS ambulances, and police cruisers drove to the cemetery.  The pipes wailing Amazing Grace as I was carried from the hearse to the gravesite.  The final call over the radio and the bell ringing…it was going to be awesome…a scene straight from the movies…

I got my gear ready and food packed for the day.  Kissed my sleeping wife on the head and left for the shift…I always kissed her before I left.  Even though we had some marital issues at the time- due to the long hours at work and the huge stress it was on our time together-  I just did it…whether she was awake or not.  One last kiss- because I never knew when or if the next would come…

“The Green Turd”- my 1995 Subaru Legacy Outback Wagon- was in fine form, as usual, and wouldn’t start that morning.  The battery was dead…Only 38 minutes into my day…good grief… I drove the van around and got the car started easily enough….Maybe one day I would spend a little bit of all that money I was busy earning to fix the damn thing… It took a few minutes to get her blowing and going.  It was a 23-minute drive to work.  The only redeeming thing about the “Green Turd” was the Alpine stereo system in it.  I cranked it up and was jamming to opera and show tunes on the way to work… I was about five miles down the road when I got a page from Dispatch… I had a special ringtone for them- the klaxon alarm from the TV show Emergency…I looked down because at that time of day it had to be important…Yes, I was driving and texting… and yes, I ended up running off the road and down into the ditch.  After a lot of cursing and swerving, I managed to get the car back on the road.  I promised to never look at texts from anyone while driving, especially Dispatch.

After the above incident, my heart rate had just gotten back into the under 7,000 beats per minute range when I saw it…a huge wild hog in the road.  Seriously???  Was this a “try to kill Aaron” day?  I had heard that anti-lock brakes don’t lock up…but the amount of smoke produced from skidding and swerving that would’ve killed mosquitos in five counties says differently.  I ended up in the ditch for the second time in less than 10 minutes. This day was not getting any better…

Even with everything that happened, I still made it to work on time.  After washing our brand new $150,000 ambulance, we settled in for our Sunday morning routine.  We counted every supply in our unit- every medication, every bandage, every intubation tube…every everything …then we had to ensure each had not expired.  If that was not fun enough, then we had to do the same for the stock room, too…I think we had over 10,000 items to check and each had to be 100% correct with inventory control numbers sent out by the main office- called “par level”…if not, we had to fill out quadruplicate requisitions for replacements and complete a discrepancy log and get them taken care of before our shift was over- which eventually meant a trip to Tyler.  Good grief… it was so NOT worth the $11.24 per hour I was getting paid.  It was so slow and tedious…and all I wanted to do was take a stinking nap.  And of course, during the process, we found three out of date medications and six more needing to be brought up to correct par level … Four and a half hours later at 1130, it was finally naptime…

Exactly eleven minutes later…just as I had gotten my boots off and fairly relaxed…the emergency alarm sounded.  “Dispatch, 3718.  We have a priority A heart problem at….I don’t remember where it was…I was unhappy.  This was freaking Sunday people…go to church and get Jesus in your life!  Leave me alone..All I wanted was some peace and a nap…

And just like that- from sleeping-ish to running full bore in 1.3 seconds…and out the door we went to save a life.  The patient was suffering chest pains…We had the sirens blaring as we drove through town.  I was looking down just as my partner cursed…some jayhole had pulled out in front of us…EXCUSE ME…We ran onto the shoulder of the road…I was in a ditch for the third time today…I was not having fun…and to top it off, I recognized the car as a local preacher…wait, shouldn’t he be in Church preaching…but I still prayed for forgiveness for cursing at the fella…

The patient was having cardiac problems.  It was just enough that going to the local emergency room made no sense.  He would end up in Tyler anyways; so, the 53-mile trek to Tyler was in my future…I was beginning to realize that there would be NO nap for me that day.  I remember the patient being pleasant …for being in a lot of pain. He was at a “7” on the pain scale… “0” being pain-free and “10” being the worst pain you could imagine in your life…we always said it like that, too. We treated him according to the cardiac protocols and got his pain down to a “0.”  We dropped him off at Mother Frances ER in Tyler.  Then, I trudged downstairs to the pharmacy to get the supplies that were missing from our station.  I hated pharmacy trips…those people were slower than a slug in salt. A quick day down there “in the dungeon” as we called it was around forty-five minutes…To my delight, it only took ten minutes to complete the task, and we were headed back to our station in Winnsboro…. Yippeee!!! I might even get the nap in today.  I worked on the paperwork for the call as we travelled home.

I remember passing by Tyler State Park on FM 14…but the next six minutes are kind of a blur… My EMT, Bill, was driving so I could complete paperwork.  The only reason I know the rest of this story is thanks to the in truck camera system…Actually, it only captured thirty seconds- fifteen before and fifteen after…

We topped a hill…did Bill just say, “Oh shit?”…yes….yes, he did… oh my God there is an 18 wheeler in our lane… Bill jerking the wheel to the right… we missed the big rig…the ambulance started to shimmy…Bill was off the shoulder…correcting…back on pavement…wait, this doesn’t feel right…the truck is shooting across the road at an angle… this isn’t right at all…Time slowed… a ditch…oh mother of ….

The world slowly turned around as we spun out of control… The ground reached up and grabbed us…the ground is out my window and coming closer…we are crashing??? I am going to die… and peace came.  This was how it was going to end.  I closed my eyes as we hit the embankment and slowly flipped over on our side.  I remember being jerked around the cab of the ambulance and seeing stars, but that is all I know about what happened.

Wait…I am alive??? Quick check… You are a Paramedic… who is you?  Am I talking to myself in third person?  Aaron…come on man…get it together…  GET IT TOGETHER… deep breath… better now…quick trauma assessment… fingers moving- check… feet moving- check… no neck pain- check… head…ummm…feel liquid…oh crap…head trauma?  I slowly brought my hand down expecting to be covered in blood…it was just wet…no blood … (I found out through watching the video that it Sprite from the can I had been holding in my hand and crushed as we flipped)…I cursed the pharmacy people for actually being fast.  They had ruined my nap…

My partner was dazed and confused.  We looked at each other…You ok?  Yeah, you?…Bill was in his seat belt.  He almost took off the restraint until he realized he was going to fall 5 feet down onto me.  We were staring out the front shock I think… when a passing motorist who had seen the wreck ran to the front of our ambulance.  She turned her torso a complete 90 degrees so she could look us in the eye…and VERY SLOWLY shouted to us.  Now, remember, we are turned over in a ditch in a freaking ambulance… “DO…YOU…NEED…AN….AM- BUUU- LANCE????” I am not sure if we gave her a thumbs up and a middle finger…but she got the message that WE were 9-1-1.

I grabbed the truck radio. “3718, Dispatch …Emergency traffic…”  No REPLY…  A Canton truck was trying to get directions to a call…

“3718, DISPATCH…EMERGENCY TRAFFIC…10-4 GOOD (I might have said a curse worse word or three here- I blame shock- at least that is what my boss told the FCC people) BUDDY…EMERGENCY TRAFFIC…”

I was screaming at the top of my lungs because no one was answering.  10-4 Good Buddy was our secret code word for true emergency…I had been practicing saying it for the past year and a half…waiting for the precise moment I knew it would be appropriate to use…and dammit, the freaking Canton crew would not shut up… they were pissing me off… even worse, I was finally horizontal but it did not involve me getting that nap… Apparently anger is the first sign of shock…

On the third time, someone answered me… “Go ahead 3718.”

“We have been in a wreck.”  There was complete silence on the other end for an eternity.

“Where are you?”

“IN A DITCH!”…more silence from Dispatch…

“Ok Sir…Where?”

“On the side of the road….”  Ok…maybe I was in A LOT of shock right then…umm… between Tyler and Winnsboro?  I think???”

“Ok.. Try to find out where you are.”…Seriously???

The next part of the conversation might have been in my head…or I might have actually said it over the radio.  Not really sure… You have a freaking tracker on our truck…YOU find us!!!

Bill is now in the real world and seriously freaking out.  He wanted out.  The only way for him to get out was through the top.  I unbuckled my seatbelt and turned so my back was against the passenger side window.  I pushed my feet up to him and steadied him as he unfastened his belt.  I then pushed him out through the driver’s side door he had opened.  He crawled out the top and jumped down to the ground.  I felt secure and fairly safe inside…so I just sat there.  He was screaming from outside for me to get out…No, I am fine here.  Safe… Nice and safe…You’ve done enough…I am just fine!  There was no way I was going to make it out the top.  I would wait for the JAWS to cut me out.

“AARON….CRAWL OUT THROUGH THE BACK…” I had not thought of this.  Even though he had just tried to kill me, he made sense… So, I managed to wiggle…and I ain’t no small fellow… through the small opening and into the back of the unit.  I freaked out a little.  I saw the cot crunched against the Paramedic seat…the seat I had been in just an hour ago… The force of the wreck had broken several welds on the cot and had also broken it loose from the mounting bracket.  I saw the monitor, which I had secured in its holder before leaving the ER, partially inserted in the seat where I had been sitting just an hour prior…it had ripped off half of the foam padding on MY seaWait…if me and the patient had been back here, we would both be…dead…I went back into shock and just sat there in the pile of supplies that had spewed out from the compartments.  A sobbing mess of a paramedic sitting in a pile of bandages and gauze pads… Bill screaming at me again.  I came around to this world again and weaved through the explosion of my truck…I chuckled because someone was going to inventory that mess and it wasn’t me!!!

I sat down on the side of the ditch beside my wrecked ambulance for a few minutes…and cried.  Then, I had to call my wife…I was choking and coughing and crying as she answered.

“Hey Mary….I am okay…” All I heard was crying on the other end…I never want to have that conversation again in my life. It was then that I knew my days were numbered in EMS. Almost one year to the day, I walked away from EMS forever.

I am not afraid to die anymore.  I do not look at the obituaries anymore.  I have not planned my funeral anymore.  I have not done a lot of things I did before I “died” that day.  I HAVE done a lot of things I never did before I “died” that day.

Like I said in the beginning…you have a lot of time to think about things when you are upside down in a ditch…except some stuff REALLY does matter.


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