Smile Politely

Riding in vans with paramedics, part four

Get caught up: Part one, part two, part three.

“If you want to survive a major accident, be drunk,” says Dave. “It’s a paradox, though, because it’s usually the alcohol that causes the accident in the first place.”

This is the answer I get from Dave when I wonder what will become of the motorcyclist. Just because someone is rushed into the ER with a bleeding head doesn’t necessarily mean there will be major problems later.

“We see it all the time,” says Dave. “Being drunk does magical things. People walk away from accidents that should have killed them, from cars that are upside down and completely smashed. They are relaxed, and they bounce instead of splat. Their body just goes with the flow. They don’t realize that they are about to run into something so they just bounce around the air bag or whatever. Sober people know what’s going to happen, and tense up, resist. Too often it’s the sober people who have major injuries or die.”

I resist this lesson. I resist writing about it, because I don’t want it to be true. I want sober people to live, kindness to be rewarded, wages to be fair, a world at peace, the lion to lie down in harmony with the lamb. But the drunk often survives, the mom in the Subaru does not, and the lion only lies down with the lamb if it already has a belly full of lamb. Not always, but too often.


It’s well past 1:00 a.m. now and Leann, who has worked a shift and a half today, can hardly see straight anymore. We head back to PRO Central and pick up Tommy Satele for the second half of the shift. Tommy is a big guy with tattoos all over one arm, and about the nicest guy you could meet. Before coming to Pro he was a manager of a Campustown bar, so he already knows much of PRO’s clientele.

After Dave and Tommy restock the ambulance with the items we’ve used on the past couple calls, we head out towards Campustown. At this time of night, with the bars closing soon at 2:00 a.m., we are more likely to get a call from that area.

“Between 2:00 and 3:00 everyone starts stumbling home,” says Dave, “so we’ll often get all sorts of ‘baby drunk’ calls as friends and police officers find them in random places around campus.”

I’ve lived in town for twenty years now, and realize that I’ve never seen Green St. at 1:45 in the morning. It’s a lot more like Bourbon St. than I would have guessed. Bars are still blaring music, throngs of students are still going strong, stumbling around, shoving and hugging each other, doing everything but bearing their breasts for free Mardi Gras beads. It turns out I haven’t missed that much.

But the gaping ends when we get a call for a transfer. A teenage girl needs to be taken from one residential facility for youths to another. This is a total bummer. The last thing you want to do when drunk college students are everywhere, begging to become accident victims, is to be reduced to a, well, an ambulance driver. But we head over and escort a very sad patient to a place where someone can help her. Tommy sits in back during the transfer and talks to her in calm, re-assuring tones. Hearing a bit about her story and what brought her to us is truly heartbreaking. Parents, please stop screwing up your kids.

While we’re driving our patient across town, a couple of Campustown calls come in, one broken nose and another gent unable to identify himself.  We head back over, taking the scenic route though campus.

Dave points out the Six Pack, the collection of dorms where a lot of underclassmen are housed. “I’m surprised there hasn’t been a call from there yet. This early in the semester, a lot of the freshmen haven’t figured out how to drink yet.”

And, as if the universe has decided that, on this, night, Dave is to be Oracle of the Paramedics, a call comes in. Unresponsive drunk female. Campus dorm. Address? Wait for it … yes, in the Six-Pack. Dave’s already king-sized head swells a bit.

We arrive at “Tuesday’s” room where an RA and a campus police officer await. Apparently the officer was patrolling this dorm at 2:45 a.m. and noticed that a door was open with the keys in it. He felt obligated to check out the situation, and found this girl alone, under her covers and asleep in her bed, with the smell of alcohol wafting through the air. She didn’t respond when he first tried to wake her, so he called for medical. By the time we arrived, she was wide-eyed and bushy tailed, but not making a lot of sense.

Dave asks her what day it is.

“Tuesday,” she says, like she’d been studying hard and knew this one.

“What day is tomorrow?”

“Thursday,” she says, a little less confident.

“What month is it?”

“Tuesday,” she says again, more confident this time.

She makes a little progress as we try to figure out what to do.  She eventually names the current month as January.  We do admit that January is a month.

Although she knows her name, where she lives, and her major, she doesn’t know much else. The policy is that if you’ve been drinking and 9-1-1 gets called, and the police officers or EMTs determine that you’re unable to take care of yourself (because you’re passed out behind a bike rack on the Quad, you’ve urinated in a stranger’s closet, you can’t answer basic questions, etc.) someone who knows you has to take responsibility for your well-being for the night, someone who isn’t also drunk to high heaven. If no such person can be found, you get to sober up in an ER bed. Liability and such. Tuesday could theoretically trip and hit her head, or choke on her own vomit while sleeping, and then everyone who came into contact with her that night would get sued.

Unfortunately, she hasn’t a clue as to the whereabouts of her roommate, and doesn’t know any of her hallmates very well, particularly not any sober and conscious ones. The officer, in an attempt to find a friend willing to take care of her for the rest of the night, knocks on a door down the hall, and out comes a girl nearly as drunk as Tuesday, who is sobbing because her boyfriend just broke up with her saying “I’m going through a really hard time right now!”  Meanwhile, Tuesday is trying to dial her cell phone, which has a missing battery and looks like it’s been dragged through campus by a lost dog.

Dave laughs at the absurdity of the situation. He and Tommy have zero interest in taking this girl to the hospital from her own bed, but they must follow protocols. After giving Tuesday one last opportunity to make sense, we take a reluctant trip to the ER.

It turns out that Tuesday is a really sweet girl. She talks about a friend of hers with a disability whom she really admires. She babbles about her sucky suburban Chicago high school football team and how close she lives to the neighboring suburb. She makes me realize that my own two daughters will be off to college in a few years. I can only hope that they do not have to ride in an ambulance during their first few weeks at college, or really, ever.

“You guys are so nice!” she beams as we pull up to Provena Covenant.  “It’s so great you’re giving me a ride back to the dorm! Are we almost there?”

It’s now 3:00 a.m., and Provena’s ER looks like a collision between a frat party and a MASH unit. Rooms are at a premium, and students are sleeping it off on beds in hallways, with smashed noses, torn jeans, bloodied knees, vomity shirts.

“Yep,” says Tommy, “at this hour, the amateur drunks mingle freely with the professional drunks.”

We leave Tuesday to sleep it off. She is probably wondering why her dorm has so many nurses in it. I feel bad that she’s going to wake up in the morning with a hangover and a large emergency room bill she’s going to have to explain to her parents. But, she won’t die in her own vomit tonight, and that’s a good thing.


One thing I have learned tonight: it would be dead easy to steal an ambulance at an emergency scene. They keep it running during the chaos so that all the fancy life-saving equipment remains powered up and ready for action. Dave swears he always remembers to take the keys out of the ignition at the scene and that if someone tried to take off without the key, the unit would sound all sorts of alarms and shut itself off. But Tommy said people occasionally forget in the heat of an emergency.

Of course, all ambulances are equipped with GPS, and the dispatcher can identify the location of any of them down to the nearest meter. So if you do try to steal an ambulance, know that you will get about two blocks before they will locate you, and every kind of law enforcement carnage will rain down upon you with all the brutality and fervor of the four commandos of the apocalypse.

Still. I bet police cars and fire trucks work the same way. Although I’m also sure there is a cop out there somewhere just waiting for someone to do something like that, so he can use the phrase “justifiable force” in his police report.

It is way past my bedtime.


End of Part IV – Next: We are all Idiots

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