Happy EMS week 2013 (lessons of life and death)

In honor of EMS week 2013, I want to share my favorite run I ever went on.

I worked for a private company who had a contract with the Henry Ford Health system to provide ambulances for their patients when necessary. We were called to the hospital for a man who was being discharged to his home with end stage liver failure. They said his 55 years of life would be coming to an end in less than a week. There was nothing more that could be done other than going home to wait. Mine and my partner’s job was to take him on his 3 hour drive home in the back of our ambulance.

We had a system where we would alternate driving and one person would ride in the back and we’d switch after the end of each call. It was my turn to ride in the back and monitor the patient en route. We loaded him up on our stretcher and wheeled him into the back of our yellow ambulance number #23. I jumped in back, heard the doors close behind me, and sat down for a lesson in life from someone at the end of their own.

We talked briefly while I monitored his vital signs. They were all within normal limits and he seemed pretty healthy from what I could see. What I couldn’t see was his liver deteriorating away unable to metabolize fat, proteins, and filter toxins. Eventually it would run out of steam, and bow out of the battle leaving it’s host unable to continue. But he was coherent, comfortable, and even had a smile on his face.

I couldn’t fathom for a minute what must have been going through his head knowing that his days were numbered. I thought he had some insight to something that one day I would know, but until then I’ve always been curious. Was his life passing before his eyes? Was he going to those nights in his head that he held in a lover’s embrace wishing they’d never end? What makes a dying man smile?

I got bold and interrupted our quiet time by asking him why he was smiling. He told me for the first time in his life he wasn’t worried about anything. He would never again worry about money, his job, his beat down car, his necessary home repairs, or any of his problems that kept him up at night. He wouldn’t have to worry about his health anymore because up until now he was worried he was going to die. Now he knew he was going to die and all of the worries went away.

He went on to tell me that he was going to spend the rest of his life playing with his grand daughter. He told me they were going to go to the zoo if he his body could handle it. Otherwise he’d live out his dying days in his living room experiencing the joys of being a grandpa for a 6 year old girl. He told me he was going to spend the rest of his life playing with his favorite person on Earth and he couldn’t think of anything that could possibly make him happier. I could see deep inner peace in his eyes when he looked at me and responded, “what’s not to smile about?”

I once had a goal that I was going to be a career paramedic firefighter. In the process I learned the valuable lesson that we’re all going to die, none of us know when, but if we did we would treasure every moment until then. We would prioritize our happiness, do things we love, and reach for the stars while we tried to achieve our dreams. By witnessing the deterioration of life and the ultimate death that results, I learned how to truly live.

I still think about some of my patients from time to time and wonder how many of them are still alive.   I thank them for their lessons in life and death that they gave me.

  • Doc

    Quite the lesson Chuck! And one that I, for one, will never forget! Have I thanked you for being you and in this world lately? If so I guess this is thank you again!

    • chuckmanley

      It was a good one. It’s always better to talk about this call than some of the horrible things I saw on other ones. But the important thing is loving life while you can.