Just close your eyes……for the last time
We stood outside the now smouldering house, safely back but with prime view. Only minutes earlier flames had been leaping from the front bedroom window and through the roof. In rapid time one then two then three fire hoses had poured a deluge of water into the house quickly overwhelming the flames.
Even as the first firefighters finally reached the outer wall of the house, others donned breathing apparatus ready to enter the still smoking remains. The red helmeted senior fire officer, simultaneously barking a range of commands, paused beside us for just a moment.
“Neighbours say there’s an old man who lives here alone. We’ll know in a few minutes if he’s in there.” His face twisted grimly, already knowing the answer.
My partner and I exchanged a furtive glance and nod. Wordlessly he quickly walked back to the ambulance to retrieve equipment we might need. As he placed them down on the ground beside me the scene suddenly erupted into loud excitement. Through the front door of the house burst two firefighters holding a smoking black form between them. After only a few steps the form was unceremoniously dropped onto the ground. Urgent calls met an instant response of one of the firehoses being sprayed at low pressure onto the form.
A few minutes later the firefighters hastily stood back to allow us to take over. The form was clearly the elderly man though we knew this more from the firefighter urgency than it actually looking like a man. There were patches of red but these were all too few amongst the blackness of the form.
Steam rose from his still hot clothing and body and it stung my face as I leant close. He hadn’t moved nor made a sound. I pressed my gloved fingers into his neck as the last act in declaring the poor man gone. As I did he opened his eyes and looked at me with purpose. He asked me to help him.
I have to be honest, I was more than surprised. I was prepared for him to be dead yet here he was alive where he shouldn’t have been. I have to be a little more honest. I almost immediately started thinking that he would have been better off if he had been dead. At a glance his whole body was burnt give or take. Nobody survived this sort of thing let alone an elderly man. Now we had to deal with futility.
Burnt as he was, he was still a person. Surprisingly he had little pain, so great was the damage to his outer body. His voice was hoarse and, as weak as it was, he coughed repeatedly. The burnt lips and blackened face told us all we needed to know even without the few words he rasped. His airway was winning the fight to be the part of him that gave up first. We couldn’t just sit and let his struggle get worse as it surely would. We had to pass a tube into his trachea to allow him to breathe.
To do this though, we had to render him unconscious first. Induced coma as the journalists would say. So we did. Putting aside all the technical difficulties of dealing with someone so badly disfigured, I stared into his eyes for the last time as we did this. I held a mask over his face to get badly needed oxygen into his lungs. Ironically, the mask caused him more pain as I pressed it as gently as I could against his cheeks.
When we were ready, my partner picked up the drug filled syringes that would do the work. We nodded at each other it was time. The drugs trickled into his veins and for a half a minute I just looked down into the man’s eyes. I had to so that I knew when those drugs were at work. I hadn’t anticipated though that for that eternity he watched me back intently, our eyes locked in stare.
I have no idea what his thoughts were. There were no clues. Did he understand that those eyes would never again see? Is that what he wanted? Were they thankful eyes or pleading to cling to life? As I spoke to him reassuringly I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to know what those eyes were thinking or whether I just wanted them to close for the last time and be done. I think I wanted both.
Jeff Kenneally www.prehemt.com
paramedic, ambulance, prehospital, emergency, rescue