Sunday, May 11, 2003

24 hours with Ambulance 12

It's one long, tiring shift for city's busiest rescue unit

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Firefighter Walter Cruse carries a 2-year-old boy with a cold into the Emergency Room at Children's Hospital.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
It's 8 in the morning, and Mike Carey rolls up a burrito in the kitchen of the Camp Washington firehouse. When you're an emergency medical technician on Cincinnati's busiest ambulance, your breakfast is whatever the previous crew left behind.

Today it's cold ground beef, onions and cheese.

"Hey," Carey says, "you gotta eat when you can on this job."

Talk this Friday is the same as every day: How many runs will we make in this 24-hour shift? Will we get any sleep? Bets on runs go high: 26, 30, 32.

Carey finishes the burrito and helps his partner, Walter Cruse, hose down the ambulance. Then they're off to the West End for a woman who says she injured her back while lifting her TV.

Carey and Cruse suspect a different problem when they see the big console TV that would be almost impossible to lift. The woman says she was recently at the hospital for back pain but is out of medication.

She moans loudly as four firefighters roll her off her couch and onto a stretcher for the ambulance ride to University Hospital. It's the first call of the day, at 8:33 a.m.

"One down," Carey says, "and 30 to go."

All in a day's work: From car wrecks to baby's birth
Before their shift ends at 7 a.m. the next day, he and Cruse will treat a heart patient with stomach pain and a woman who fell out of bed. They'll transport a car accident victim who walks out of the hospital less than two hours after he arrives on a backboard and a young woman who delivered her baby on the bathroom floor. They'll load up two people having trouble breathing and a toddler who's had a cold for three days but is well enough to climb up into the ambulance.

There will be no blatantly unnecessary runs, although some will be borderline. Firefighters expect that as they follow a "you call, we haul" policy that says everyone gets an ambulance ride to the hospital if they want one.

Firefighters say they've responded to people standing at their doors, suitcases packed. Sometimes, they say, they've transported people who just wanted rides to Clifton. Calls for minor medical ailments may account for one of every three ambulance runs the Fire Department makes, the firefighters union says.

Carey and Cruse say more runs mean they get less sleep. They also physically carry more people. They work 24 hours, then get the next 48 off - a scheduling perk that allows some to work a second job - if they're not sleeping.

Most firefighters can't wait to celebrate their 20th year on the force. After that, they no longer have to work on ambulances at all.

This shift, Carey and Cruse will take 17 patients to five hospitals. They'll apologize repeatedly for the bumpy rides. They'll get about an hour's sleep, not all at once, most of it in recliners in front of the big-screen TV.

Cruse, a 41-year-old former limousine company owner, warns his kids when he gets home from these shifts: "I say, 'The Grouch is home and he's got issues.' "

'Best job in the world'

Bows on the toes of Virginia Nare's baby blue slippers stick out from under the sheet at the end of the gurney. She's 81 and not acting just right; relatives think she might have had a stroke.

Carey, his hands covered with purple plastic gloves, squeezes the woman's hands. Good news - she has the same strength in both. He asks what day it is.

"Friday?" she says quietly, almost asking. She's right. She also knows it's March and George Bush is president.

He asks her to smile. She turns to look at him and does, widely. It makes him laugh. More good news - her smile's symmetrical, another sign that she hasn't had a stroke.

Nare tells him that her son, Gus, is a retired Cincinnati firefighter. Carey, 35, doesn't know him. He joined the force five years ago.

"This is the best job in the world," he says.

She agrees. She'll be out of the hospital in a few days. She hasn't had a stroke.

Cruse and Carey's next call is to a 50-year-old man having an asthma attack at the Museum Center. There's no paramedic available, and the emergency medical technicians aren't allowed to give the drug they think he needs.

They decide putting him on oxygen and getting him to Good Samaritan Hospital is the best plan. The man's breathing is less labored when they pull up to the emergency room. He thanks them repeatedly, shaking their hands.

It's their first trip to Good Sam. There will be eight more before the shift is over.

Back-to-back wrecks

Carey and Cruse try to take advantage of a lull after lunch. They're kicked back in recliners in front of the TV with Rick Tracy, Engine 12's paramedic.

Tracy has more training than the emergency medical technicians, so he can prescribe medication, insert breathing tubes, and monitor their hearts with EKGs. He'll take the more serious calls - a man having chest pain, a child with a severe knee cut.

The nap lasts a little over an hour. At 2:42 p.m., Carey and Cruse are off to their first of back-to-back car accidents on Interstate 75. Carey hates highway runs. Drivers are too busy rubbernecking, he says, when they should be watching where they're going.

They transport one patient in each accident; neither is seriously hurt.

Next it's straight to Goodwill in Bond Hill for a 24-year-old woman who collapsed. At University Hospital, emergency room workers recognize her - she'd been there today for breathing pains and had been told to come back Monday for tests.

The dispatcher has runs holding and no ambulances available. Carey gets on the radio: "We're in service at University Hospital. Who's next?"

Carey and Cruse are sent to Oakley for another person having trouble breathing. She walks to the ambulance and gets in the back. They drop her off at Good Sam and see the victim from their second car wreck walking up Clifton Avenue.

"It's warm, it's nice, it's a Friday," Cruse says. "We'll be up all night."

They drive into the firehouse, but right back out again without stopping. A 75-year-old woman is having abdominal pain at the St. Francis Court Apartments in South Fairmount. The woman leaves on a stretcher.

"We're going to get you to the hospital, sweetheart," Carey tells her.

Next, it's back to South Fairmount for a man who had dialysis three hours ago and is bleeding from the right side of his chest where the tube was. "It's not bleeding that bad," he says, "but it won't stop." He's been in an ambulance before, he says, so he knows the rides are bumpy.

Hearts and seizures

Tracy, who volunteers for night watch, unfolds a rollaway bed in the TV room. Someone has to stay near the phone and the door in case anyone calls or shows up for help. He lies down, and the loudspeaker tones again.

A 66-year-old female with a history of heart trouble needs help on Massachusetts Avenue in Camp Washington. Her husband follows them to the hospital, carrying his wife's bag of medication.

Six minutes after they leave her at Christ, Carey and Cruse are off at 11:31 p.m. to South Fairmount, where a 20-year-old woman is unresponsive after wrestling with a friend. Her friend says the woman has a history of seizures. Carey talks to her loudly, presses her sternum hard with his knuckles. He's trying to wake her up.

He tells Cruse, who's driving, to go "hot" to the hospital. That means turn on the lights and sirens. Most calls today are not hot.

As soon as they roll the woman into the ER at Good Sam, she's talking.

They fill up the ambulance with 19.8 gallons of gas. Dispatched to Avondale, they have to get out a map to find Glenridge Lane, where a baby is having seizures. The mother, in a nightgown and leopard slippers, is worried. They've been to Children's before for the same problem, she says, but her boy has never had two seizures in a row.

From Children's, Carey and Cruse go to Bond Hill to pick up a 19-year-old woman who says her newborn boy came so fast she gave birth on her bathroom floor.

Then it's to English Woods for a 2-year-old boy. The call started as "trouble breathing," but his mom says he's had a cold for three days. Bundled up in his coat and knit hat, he climbs into the back of the ambulance.

There will be one more patient, at 4:40 a.m. - an elderly man whose family says he's just not acting right. He's confused about what month it is.

Carey's tired. He drives with the driver's side window open, hoping the cool air will help keep him alert.

Very soon, the next two emergency medical technicians arrive at the firehouse for their 24 hours on Ambulance 12.

Their first question: How many runs did you make?


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