My Name Is Iden | Sometimes, it’s enough
- Published: November 20, 2023
Ed. note: The following story contains mention of both domestic violence and suicide.
The first time I met Faye, she was dying. I could see her through the window, back against the wall, gasping. The front door was locked. So was the back. The engine crew made quick work of the door, and 10 minutes later, we were on the road, headed for the ER.
It was just the two of us in the back of the medic. I had her breathing fixed well enough that she could talk again. It was clear that she had been having trouble for a while, so I asked her why she had waited so long to call for help. She began to cry, her tears pooling at the bottom of the oxygen mask.
She told me that her husband would not allow her to call 911 — that he kept her medicine from her, and that he regularly beat her. I’d suspected as much. I had seen the bruises while putting her on the heart monitor.
I told her I could help, that I could get her out of that situation. I asked her if she would allow me to contact the police and social services. She said yes. She said that she would die if she didn’t get help. I told her, “Don’t worry.” I told her we would get her through this.
That wasn’t the last time that we broke down Faye’s door. The next time she was worse, overdosed on her medication, unconscious and barely breathing. It took a little more work than the last time, but we managed to save her again.
I saw Faye many more times over the course of the next 18 months. Her husband was gone. The police had arrested and charged him with everything they could. A short time later he was walking free, having beaten all of the charges, but he stayed away from her. That was something. She was safe now. Safe from him, at least.
The folks at social services had moved her out of her house and into an extended stay hotel. It was an address I knew too well. It was a filthy, run-down building where drugs and crime were as common as the cockroaches.
Again I found myself in the back of the medic with Faye. She hadn’t tried to kill herself, but she was afraid that she would. She was afraid that she would swallow the dozens and dozens of prescription pills that sat on the small table in her room.
I helped Faye into ER bed 16. I gave her a hug, the way I always did, and turned to leave. This time she grabbed me by the arm and turned me back. She begged me not to leave her. I said that I had no choice. I had to go. There were other people who needed my help.
“Don’t go.” That’s what she said. “Don’t go.” She told me that if I left her she was sure she would die. I said to her that that wasn’t an option for me. I had to go. I told her we were all doing our best to help her. I told her she would make it out of this.
I was wrong about that. I never saw Faye again.
For years, I’ve turned that memory over in my head, every day picturing her in that dirty room, sitting at her little table and swallowing pill after pill, hundreds of pills, and wondering how many times she refilled that glass of water without anyone stopping her.
Every day wondering if I should have stayed, wondering if I could have done more, wondering if I’d made a difference at all.
Did it matter? Did any of it matter? An entire lifetime spent in emergency medicine, tens of thousands of patients. Did any of it matter? Had I ever made a difference? It didn’t feel like it, not anymore. I’d given all I had to that job and it hadn’t been enough to help even this one person.
It was many years later that I met a feisty little grandma named Cheryl. I was no longer working in the world of 911 response. I had a less stressful role now, transferring patients between hospitals. Miss Cheryl was my first of the shift.
I could tell right away that this was a woman who took no orders but her own. She proved me right by telling me that I was wrong. She didn’t need the oxygen that the doc had ordered and she did not need to be lifted onto our stretcher. She could walk and sit her “own damn self” down. Three steps later, she was back on oxygen and conceding that I may have been correct.
I spent close to half an hour talking with Cheryl on the way to the receiving hospital. I found out that she was newly retired, having spent the last 10 years as a dietary worker at the very hospital we were en route to. She told me all about her grandkids and she told me that she was a cancer survivor. After all that, what was a little shortness of breath?
I had her chart in my hand. I had taken reports from her nurse and doctor. I knew all about her health history. I knew something that Cheryl did not.
Cheryl’s cancer had returned, with a vengeance. That was the reason she needed a bigger, more capable hospital. The ER doc had not told her this. They wanted her to find out from the oncologist who was waiting for her, someone better able to answer her questions.
Cheryl consented to being lifted into her new bed. She thanked me for the chat. I gave her a great big hug, wished her luck, and left.
It is a much rarer thing to see the same patient multiple times doing transport EMS than it is in the 911 world, but there she was. My first patient of the shift. Only a week had passed and Miss Cheryl looked much worse. It wasn’t just oxygen anymore. Now there were monitors and IV infusions.
She brightened up when my partner and I entered the room. She told me that she was hoping it would be us again. She had been telling all of her family how much our little talk had helped her to not be afraid.
Tearfully, I thanked her. I said that it meant so much to me to hear that. I told her how I felt, how I’d been feeling for so long. Thinking that what I did didn’t matter, that what I was able to do was not enough. Believing that I couldn’t help the people who relied on me for help.
Cheryl only had half the energy that she had had a week earlier. She used it to sit up in bed and grab my forearm in both hands. She looked me right in the eyes and told me I was wrong.
She said, “Baby, it was enough. It was enough for me. I know it was enough for those other people, too.”
We were just feet away from the bed where I had left Faye that first time all those years ago. The day I had promised to help her.
Years of telling myself, every day, that I was a failure. That what I’d given of myself had made no difference. I hadn’t realized how badly I needed those words: “Baby, it was enough.”
Thirty minutes later I wished Cheryl luck, gave her a big hug, and left her in her hospital room. I never talked to her again. I don’t know if she beat that cancer a second time. I would love to hear her tell that story, but a lifetime’s experience in EMS says that I won’t.
But I’ve been wrong before.
*The author is an artist and writer. She lives in Yellow Springs with her wife and three children. You can follow her work at mynameisiden.com.