Emergency Ethics and my Highway Heartbreak
Few things are better than a long drive in nice weather. Anytime a family member moves, I have always volunteered to drive, whether the moving truck or one of their vehicles. Any time a friend even makes mention of possibly planning a road trip my eyes get wide with excitement. I love drive time. Whether alone, with friends or strangers, I've spent months of my life on the road. There's a sort of hope, perhaps redemption... some sort of brand new opurtunity and possibility in the earliest of mornings at a truck stop no matter where you are in America. Years ago while hitchhiking the west coast after high-school, a brilliant truth was made clear: a lot of different things are gonna happen in life depending on which path is taken next.
Maybe you've seen this part a time or two:
There is someone on the side of the road trying to wave you down and you are not sure if you should stop or not. Sometimes you know you would stop, but are too busy, or have the kids with you. Other times you are unsure if you should stop, the person looks possibly insane or like a convict. And sometimes, there are pregnant women, elderly with illness, or a injury with or without the car accident to accompany the victim.
This was a accident without a crash, a fatality without fault, and something I relive and feel horrible about.
I was driving home on Interstate 10, from Mesa, after seeing a girlfriend of mine, to Tucson, where I live and work. I just had made it into town, in a newer truck, maybe the first or second week I had it, a 2000 Nissan Frontier, 4 door, 4x4, a respectable lift kit, and decent all-terrain tires. I was impressed with how it handled on the windy drive, but not with the gas mileage. I exited onto the frontage road to use a restroom, and stop for a much needed cold one.
Pass the first light off the freeway in town, I saw an RV, partly in the right lane, partly pulled onto the shoulder. An older man, closer to me than the RV was, was trying to wave someone down. I am the kind of person that always pulls over for hitch-hikers, people with flats, or anything like that. (By the way, I am in my mid twenties and am a fit guy, but I have NEVER had a bad experience with hitch hikers, I have had several of them be straight nuts, homeless and drug addicts, but never have they gotten out of line or made me feel uncomfortable, if the circumstances allow, I encourage men to take chance and help out their fellow travelers.) So I drive past his RV, and pull over all the way over on the shoulder and throw it in reverse for about 20 feet towards him. This is when I notice the old man is running at my truck, which made me nervous, which is rare. I parked and hopped out, anxious to know the conditions of situation, knowing it is the roll of the dice in situations like this.
The RV was a a classic one, beige, two axel, probably early 90's, American made. The man was in his 70's, 150 lbs, clean cut, probably retired military, obviously on vacation, and obviously in distress. "MY WFE! MY WIFE! SHE'S NOT BREATHING, SHES NOT BREATHING!" I didn't respond other than to run toward the RV, silent. Seeing the passenger door was ajar, I assumed he was the driver, and she was waiting for us beyond the angled door. I for a second thought about asking him to pull over more, he was still blocking part of the right lane to the point it was a hazard. I kept my silence, which kept my cool as I opened the door to a woman in her late 70's, maybe 80's, short curly hair, seat-belt on, light pastel colored shirt, and light blue jeans, comfy and worn in, a well maintained woman. Obviously this was an elderly couple straight out of Middle America, on their tour of the southwest, just arriving in Tucson. I knew it within the first 15 seconds on scene, it was the first feeling of guilt.
I unbuckled her seat belt, picked her up like a child, or a newlywed, one arm under her knees, one arm under her back near her armpits. I set her on the ground, next to the RV. This is something that later I would regret to the point of prayer. The man was shouting at me the entire time, random things, half to me, half to her, all of it to God...
"Have you called 911 yet?"
"No, I just pulled over and flagged you down."
I pulled my phone out,
"911 what is your emergency"
With one breath and as if I had said if before or rehearsed it,
"I've got a none responsive female in her late 70's, not breathing. There is an RV, east bound, I-10 frontage road, between Grant and Speedway, west side of the road. Again, East bound I-10, west side of the road."
I saw that the old man was waiting, and that action wasn't going to be taken unless by me.
I didn't wait for the operator to respond... this single thought was important..... I handed him the phone....
I knew the operator would like to ask questions about her and any previous conditions and other detailed info that only the man would be able to answer. I turned my attention away from the call and toward to woman on the asphalt.
I checked for chest moving, and felt for any breath coming from her nose.
Felt for a pulse, nothing either time.
I sighed once, both for relief, and for extra oxygen.
I plugged her nose and began mouth to mouth, sub-consciously recalling CPR from high school health class. During the first set of compressions, he had calmed himself enough to answer a few of the important questions, before discarding the phone between us without hesitation.
The operator was still inquiring about the situation while the phone stayed on the call and sat between us, both on our knees, beside his wife. You could hear her barely over traffic...
"Hello?! Are you still there? EMT is en route.... momentarily...... wait......" but we knew that the information needed, had been given.
He saw what I was doing, and leapt into action along side me. Now as silent as me, but with tears rolling down his face. He motioned for me to slide down, and I complied, knowing what his idea was. Like clockwork, as if we had practiced together before, he gave her mouth to mouth, as I continued with chest compressions. Silence for a moment more several sets of compressions into CPR, his sobbing turned sloppy, his snot over her face, his tears wetting her hair and face...
"Judith..... Judith..... Judith.... don't leave me, dear God! Please, not now, not today, not now Judith!"
That's the first time I lost my count with compressions, I still hadn't said anything to him besides asking if he had called 911 and I had talked to the operator. NOTHING else was said between us. It was 3 minutes maybe into it, when I knew that we had no chance and that this was a formality that later would be important to him. To know that he had tried his best, even if she was beyond help. To know that as soon as he knew something was wrong, he made his best effort and nothing more could have been done. I thought about all of this in a split second, it all felt natural to me, but I knew I was acting out of shock.
She was gone, and here we were, two white men, 50 years of age between us, trying our best to save this woman, on the side of the road, next to an obvious emergency parked RV, bright daylight, hundreds of cars passing by. None of the stopping, only slowing to get a better look at the drama unfolding on the shoulder as if watching CPR was as common as DPS pulling someone over.
Lifting my eyes from her toward the road once, I felt sick. I felt like the world was watching and noone was helping, like anyone else could do this better, but no one had the time or heart to help. I thought about flagging someone else down, I thought about how someone else could probably do this better. But I kept my mouth shut, and looking back, I believe that man had confidence in me, that I knew what I was doing, and that he was just as afraid of what he was doing as I was.
I felt like there was nothing I could say to him that would be worthy of his response.
What this man is going thru right now and every word the comes out of his mouth for the next hour may be remembered for the rest of his life, it will be heard by God, it will be on our minds for the however long it takes us to cope with this....
So I had only asked him about 911, and he continued his last conversation with her, with his creator, maybe himself, but not with me. We had locked eyes several times, and the emotion was strong, the feelings were mutual, he was sorry that this had happened and had to ask for help, and I was sorry that I wasn't able to do more. It was obvious we both were full of regret and self-disappointment. Maybe 5 minutes, tops of 8 minutes, which seemed like 45, I heard tires nearby but didn't break concentration from counting out chest compressions timed with his mouth to mouth. Before I knew it a officer asked me to move aside, I looked up at him, he helped me up, and he took my spot doing compressions as the old man continued, by this time, he was covered in snot and tears and sobbing and I wasn't sure how much his shallow breathes were helping. But then I also knew that we were too late.
I paced for a moment, heard the cars passing by. Kept thinking about how many people had watched us, doing CPR, on the side of the road, parked halfway in a lane..... and noone else had stopped. I am a young man, no medical experience that was formal, but knowledge from my mother, who was an incredible nurse and taught nursing, and wrote programs for teachers on how to teach nursing, and whom I had watched in action at emergencies, and who I remember coming home from the hospital when she had just become a nurse, next to losing her mind from the trauma experienced in the ER, chain smoking and talking to her mother about it on the phone night after night, what she had seen, what she had done, what she hadn't.....
I thought about all of this, not even looking back at what the men were doing, I was in my own world, between the RV, this man's dead wife, and a moment of clarity that followed with extreme sadness.
I walked to to my truck, this point, I was willing to let myself breath, tried to relax, I wanted to cry, but wouldn't let myself yet. I told myself silently, that the time to cry would come soon, but it wasn't yet. I sat in my truck, thought about lighting a cigarette, decided against it, I thought about leaving, I knew I was in shock, I thought about what I should do..... I called my mom...... I thought about everything that was going on behind me, how they were still trying, and how I am sitting in my truck, on the phone.... constant mentality of ".....WTF?"
"Hey sweetie, how are you?"
"I'm okay, listen.... this old man just flagged me down... I pulled over, his wife wasn't breathing, we did CPR, the cops just showed up and they are working on her, I just walked back to my truck, I don't know what to do, I know I'm im shock too."
Instantly and without a change of tone in her voice,
"You did great hunny, (I started tearing up) go give the cop your name, (tears running) ask if there is anything else you can help with. He is going to want your name at least. You were first on the scene so you need to do that before you can leave. After that, get in your truck and call me back Matthew, you did a great job sweetie." I was as choked up as I had ever been.
I hung up without another word, walked back to the RV.
An ambulance had shown up, and the police man that had helped me up was at his car door, doing God only knows what heroic deed. At this moment, I realized that this was another call for him, this was a tragedy to us. Trembeling in my mind but surprisingly calm and clear,
"Sir, I am sorry, I was the first on the scene, I know you guys got it from here, but was wondering if you needed anything from me."
"Whats your name kid?" He had a notebook in hand.
"Matthew Lee George Premer", I don't know what I gave him my full 4 names, nervous I guess.
He wrote it down and looked at me after, "Mr. Premer, you did a good thing, take your time leaving, make sure you are alright. Do you need to see someone?"
"No I got it thanks"
I walked back to my truck, didn't smoke, and drove back onto the freeway. I called my sister and told her what happened, knowing that if I kept my mind moving or my mouth running on something other than reflecting on the last few minutes alone, I wouldn't break down until I got off the phone and maybe I could make it home before that happened... It didn't.
The conversation with her lasted two minutes and the drive was still about 15 to 20 till I was home. The rest of the way I had eyes full of tears, a throat full of snot, and my breathing was erratic and shallow. I didn't let loose with the full on cry, knowing I had to maintain my composure well driving. So I softly cried for that man and his wife as I drove on home.
He had said at one point, "We were just on vacation, we were driving, I thought she was sleeping...." He hadn't said it to me, maybe the officer. She died on the side of the road that afternoon. I made it home that day but I still tear up when I think about him and her. I am not sure which was more sad, that she died, or how upset he was.
Hearing a man beg and cry and sob like that, right over his freshly deceased wife, well you try to administer CPR, on the side of the road, feeling people watch you, feeling everyone pass.... everyone says I did the right thing, I didn't think so one bit. That was a day of failure to me.
I had joked about how I was never going to pull over for someone again, then yesterday, some teenagers had a flat, I pulled over and asked them if they were ok, they were hesitant and shy and ackward, but said that they had it under control. I walked back to my truck with my buddy, and after I sat down, I realized that I hadn't even though about what had happened last time, and I still rushed over to help. I preceded to tell my buddy in the passenger seat about what had happened a few weeks before, I don't think he believed me.....