An Unlikely Hero

“Get the stretcher close to the bed, now. And watch the gap there!”

“Yes Ma’am,” Part-Time Partner says mildly. His smile is strained.

“And he has a catheter, too. Do you know how to deal with a catheter?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Now, you shouldn’t access his infusion port under any circumstances. Only the doctor. A few months ago, one of you ambulance drivers messed up his infusion port and he had to have it replaced. Spent a week in the hospital with an infection – “

Yes Ma’am, we’ll be careful,” PTP interrupts her. His smile is considerably more strained, and the words are just a little terse. I give him a warning glance and shake my head imperceptibly. PTP has a temper worse than mine.

Dragon Lady hovers nervously nearby as we maneuver the stretcher near the bed. The man lies motionless beneath the covers, his eyes hooded. He looks out of place in the room. Muted lighting highlights wall cases full of mementos. There are ferns, tasteful paintings. A massive desk adorned with a leather blotter, richly upholstered high-backed chair sitting empty behind it. Warm, rich colors. Next to an overstuffed chair sits a side table holding a pipe rack filled with Meerschaum pipes. Books, hundreds and hundreds of books. The room itself bespeaks brandy and cigars, intellectual conversations concerning politics and religion – the sanctum sanctorum of an academic. I can imagine a professor sitting here, relaxing with a pipe and a brandy snifter while he plans tomorrow’s lectures, jotting his notes in a leather bound journal as he smokes.

Which, I suppose, is an accurate image. Or was, I should say. Stanley Harkins was an economics professor at the local university for over thirty years. I had seen him around campus during my years there, a slight, unassuming man who favored tweed coats and a battered old leather satchel. He puttered about campus with an absentminded air, smoking that pipe and walking briskly about his business as if he were perpetually late for a class.

But looks were deceiving. Professor Harkins was neither absentminded, nor was he ever late for anything in his life. He was the professor you took pains to avoid when scheduling classes. Decent grades were easier to get from other professors who didn’t share Stanley Harkins‘ standards of student performance. For a physically unimposing man, he struck fear into the hearts of many a business or economics major.

And now here he lies in a rented hospital bed with a bedside commode sitting next to it. They look obscene in this place. They speak of decay and death, and this room, despite the lighting, does not.

So why is he here, instead of a bedroom? More room, better light. Why not let him die in his own bed?

My answer lies in the surroundings. When we entered this house, we negotiated a gauntlet of expensive, tasteful furnishings. Elaborate rugs over hardwood floors. Bright and cheery window treatments, elegantly upholstered chairs and divans. Monet reproductions on the walls. All very beautiful, and all very…feminine.

This room is not like the rest of the house. This room is anything but feminine, and then I begin to understand. This is His Place.

If I were dying, I’d want it to happen where I was most comfortable. I’d want to be surrounded by the things I loved. And apparently, Dragon Lady understands that.

And so I swallow my retort as Dragon Lady reminds us again to watch the furniture and tells us how to operate our stretcher and be careful of the Foley catheter and make sure the heel protectors are in place and wedge two pillows under his hips because he’s so frail and…

“…and mind his skin!” she snaps. “His skin is so fragile, and he’s allergic to that silk tape, and last time one of your ambulance drivers grabbed his arm and – “

“Actually Ma’am, we’re EMTs,” corrects Part Time Partner, just on the verge of nastiness. Dragon Lady stops abruptly, taken aback.

“So you’re EMTs,” she says condescendingly. “And what exactly does EMT stand for?” she asks with exaggerated courtesy.

Eggcrate Mattress Technician,” I say, deadpan. “That’s what makes us uniquely qualified to care for your husband.” Dragon Lady’s eyes widen and her mouth opens soundlessly as she tries to digest what I’ve just said. I can see her thinking, did he really just say that??

“Her bark is much worse than her bite,” comes a dry chuckle from the bed. “Although her bite can be pretty nasty, as some of your more unfortunate colleagues have discovered.”

He’s right about that. The crews don’t call her Dragon Lady for nothing.

“You’re new, but he’s not,” Stanley looks at me speculatively, and nods toward my partner. “Did you just start working here?”

“Actually, I’ve spent the last couple of years as our Education Director. We have a medic out with a back injury, so I’m filling in the odd shift here and there.”

Aaahhh, a fellow teacher as well as a practitioner of the healing arts!” he says, winking slyly. “A real Renaissance Man.

“Not really,” I allow, “But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” He reacts with an outright guffaw. There is still plenty of life in Stanley Harkins‘ laughter, if nowhere else.

I steal a glance at the Dragon Lady, and she is smiling at her husband. Suddenly her face doesn’t seem so severe. The worry lines soften and she starts to resemble the bride in the wedding photo on the wall in the foyer, smiling adoringly at her groom.

Stanley sticks a bony hand from beneath the covers. “Stanley Harkins,” he says warmly. His grip is firm, belying the frailty of his body.

“Ambulance Driver,” I say in greeting. “Nice to meet you, Professor.”

The skin hangs from his arms in folds. Every rib stands out, and his abdo
men is horribly swollen with ascites. His skin is slack, yellowed with jaundice. Stanley Harkins is dying of hepatic cancer, the daily radiation treatments not keeping pace with each new outbreak of cancer cells. First his liver, then his intestines. Pancreas too. Who knows where else. There are blue ink markings over the upper right quadrant of his abdomen, a macabre set of crosshairs courtesy of the radiation lab.

Despite all this, his voice remains strong, and there is light in his eyes, yet we need look no further than the eyes of the Dragon Lady to see worry and despair. She has been married to this man for nearly forty years, but she’ll be a widow within a month. And she knows it. She meets my gaze as I pull the fitted sheet free of the mattress.

“Okay Mr. Harkins, brace yourself!” I say heartily as PTP and I bunch the sheet around him. “One, and two, and three!” On my count, we lift Stanley bodily and place him gently on the stretcher. The move looks much less coordinated than it is, and Dragon Lady’s hand flies to her mouth.

“Be careful!” she scolds. “You almost dropped him!”

“Don’t worry Ma’am,” I reassure her. “We have a strict company policy. We only drop patients on Mondays. Makes it easier to track the complaints.”

“I’ll bet it does!” Stanley chortles. “And what is today, I wonder?” he asks mischievously, already knowing the answer.

“Monday,” PTP answers solemnly, with a wink at Dragon Lady. She blinks a couple of times, looks at her husband, and starts giggling. Her shoulders shake with laughter, and he reaches out a trembling hand to brush back her hair. She closes her eyes and leans over, touching her forehead against his. He chuckles and plants a soft kiss on her forehead before she straightens up. Her eyes are moist.

“Mrs. Harkins,” I say softly as we move the stretcher away from the bed. She looks at me questioningly. “We’ll take good care of him, I promise.”


Thus went my introduction to Professor and the Dragon Lady. Just one patient among many, just one among many hundreds of boring transfers. You do enough ambulance calls, and names start to fade into diagnoses. The folks you treat become half-remembered, depersonalized chief complaints and memorable injuries – Dialysis Patients, Seizure Victims, Strokes, The Guy From The Rollover on Route 15. People like Stanley Harkins become The Terminal Cancer Guy. They all run together after a while.

Unless you take the time to talk to them.

Over the next month, Stanley Harkins and I did a lot of talking. My class schedule pretty much assured I’d be available for every one of his radiation treatments. We talked about his academic career, we talked about hunting, training dogs, EMS…whatever subject struck our fancy. I learned his wife’s name was Mirriam, and that they had married shortly after World War II. I learned his son’s names, where they lived and where their careers were headed. I explained the pharmacodynamics of the medicines he was taking, and he explained how the Fed sets interest rates, the stock market, hedge funds, whatever. I may have even grasped some of it.

And in our daily trips in and out of his house, I learned to call him Stan and her Mirriam. I learned that she wasn’t a Dragon Lady at all. In fact, she had a pretty raunchy, twisted sense of humor, as did Stan. When she laughed, it would start as a girlish giggle and grow into a snorting, belly-rolling drunken guffaw. I made it a point to make her laugh as often as possible. Trading lame jokes with the Harkins took some of the drudgery out of the transfer routine.

No EMT I know likes doing transfers. I said as much to Stan one day, not long after we met.

“Perfectly understandable,” he agreed. “You can’t have gotten into emergency care for…this.” He waves his hand toward his feet, gesturing at his frail body in what can only be described as disgust.

“No, definitely not,” I grin ruefully. “But it pays the bills, so I stay with it.”

Why?” he asks me with a piercing look. I can imagine him giving the same look to a hapless student who blurted out the first answer that came to mind. It’s a look that says, defend your position. I sigh and try to explain.

“Stan, they sell you on the idea of heroically saving lives on every other call, but the reality is calls like this. Or hemorrhoids at 3 am. Or people who have been sick for a week, but are too lazy to go see their own doctor. It’s draining.”

“You haven’t answered the question,” he chides. “Why do you stay in it, if it’s so draining?”

“Maybe because I’m a hopeless idealist at heart. Maybe because I still think that the chance to make a difference is just one call away. Maybe because even though I bitch and complain about how boring it is, the reality is, I like it. You call, we come. No uncertainty, no ambiguity. You call, we come.”

“And now we come to it,” he says knowingly. “You dislike ambiguity. You are a very direct person. There’s no subterfuge about you.”

“Oh, but there is,”I disagree, “when it suits my purpose. I’m a chameleon. I can be whatever it takes to treat my patient, get the history I need…whatever. Most of my patients and co-workers have no idea who I really am.”

“No, I wouldn’t say so,” he muses. “A perceptive person might gain a pretty good idea of exactly who you are.”

“I doubt it,” I snort. “I’m an amateur actor, professional interrogator and occasional crisis manager. But definitely not the hero I wanted to be when I took my first EMT class.”

“I don’t know,” he says cryptically, “I’ve found that heroes are often the most unlikely of people, found in the most unlikely of places.” He says nothing more, closing his eyes and dozing for the remainder of the trip.

I made seven more trips with Stan. Each day saw him get progressively weaker. He’d spend most of the trip dozing, his chest barely moving under the covers. I had to use the pediatric cuff to check his blood pressure. He woke only when we were moving him from one bed to another. We’d still joke with Mirriam, and she’d laugh politely, but there wasn’t much mirth in it.

On the morning of the last day I transported him, as I was rolling him out of the den, I noticed a shadowbox tucked into a niche between rows of bo
oks. In it was a picture of Stan as a young man, an army lieutenant with his arm slung across a buddy’s shoulders. His cap was perched at a jaunty angle on his head, and he wore a broad grin. The light of the devil danced in his eyes. A young soldier in the bloom of health, all full of piss and vinegar and the invincibility of youth.

I stopped rolling the stretcher as PTP and I examined his medals. Most of them were campaign medals, but there were a few in there we could recognize – Expert Rifleman’s badge, Purple Heart, Silver Star and Bronze Star. An Airborne patch and sergeant’s chevrons. PTP and I traded a look. Stan didn’t wake up during the trip to the cancer treatment center.

On the ride home, he was awake, but tired and listless. I sat at his side, checking his blood pressure. “Saw your service medals in the den, Stan,” I said mildly. “I never knew you were in the military.”

“You never asked,” he retorted. His voice is cracked and faint, and I have to lean close to hear him, but there is still the hint of that devilish grin hovering around his lips. “Started out as a buck private, went overseas as a sergeant, won a commission as a Second Lieutenant not long afterward.”

“Direct commission, like you earned the promotion on the battlefield, or you went to OCS?” I press. This is a story I’d like to hear, and Stan doesn’t have many stories left.

“Doesn’t matter,” he rasps. “The Army was good to me. Retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.”

“And a hero, Mr. Modest,” I remind him teasingly. “I saw your Silver Star and Bronze Star. Like you said, you meet heroes in the most unlikely places.”

Stan said something in reply, and I said nothing else for the remainder of the trip. I didn’t know what to say. We were told that evening that Stan and Mirriam had canceled further radiation appointments, and Stan had made arrangements for hospice care. He died maybe a week later. I didn’t go to the funeral.

But I remember what he rasped in my ear that afternoon on the way back to his home. I remind myself of it whenever I question what it is that I do, and why.

“No, you’re the hero,” he had told me. “My hero, at least.” I straightened up and looked at him questioningly, and he motioned me to lean back over.

“Because you make my wife laugh every time you come over. She hardly ever gets to laugh any more.”

Yeah, I’ll take that.

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