(Note: This story appeared in the Life section of The News-Review in Roseburg, Oregon.)
Photos by Andy Bronson
April 9, 2000
It’s getting late – around 9 o’clock – and W.E.S.T. Ambulance paramedics Phil Feland and Greg Hickey have been watching television for hours. After finishing “Frazier,” Hickey flips through the channels and stops at the “O’Reilly Factor,” a news analysis show on Fox.
This show tends to bore 48-year-old Feland, but he’s not picky.
“I don’t really care what we watch,” he says. “I just glare at the TV and let the others channel surf.”
Meanwhile, across town, in the Mill-Pine Historic District, a woman finds her half-conscious friend trying to stand, using the kitchen wall as a crutch. One hand grips his chest, the other an empty pint of gin.
“Mike,” she says. “Are you okay?”
Mike, who has overdosed on heroin, nods clumsily and slumps to the ground. Wasting no time, the woman phones 911.
“911 medical alert,” the volume of the dispatcher’s voice overpowers that of the W.E.S.T. headquarter’s TV, on which O’Reilly is reading his own hate mail. Hickey turns down the TV volume. Somehow, the dispatch message gets muddled, and the paramedics at W.E.S.T. receive an inaccurate description of the situation – a common occurrence caused by panicky callers, who can be difficult to understand.
“Seventy-year-old male on Houck Avenue. Having chest pains, difficulty breathing, is blue in the face. Possible stroke victim.”
Without a word, Hickey and Feland put on their shoes, check the city map on the wall and climb into the ambulance, leaving the TV on.
Hickey, who’s 43, takes the wheel; Feland, who sports a tattoo on his forearm, gets into the passenger seat and slips his hands into blue rubber gloves. They leave the garage, fire up the sirens and speed down Garden Valley Boulevard, casually conversing all the while.
Unfazed by the train that holds them up for several minutes on Mosher Avenue, their casual conversation continues.
Despite the holdup, the crew arrives at its destination in fewer than 10 minutes. Two members of the fire department have already arrived.
The middle-aged man, who has long hair and a thick mustache, sits in his living room chair surrounded by fire and ambulance personnel. His name is Mike. Strewn about Mike’s small house are empty packs of menthol cigarettes, beer cans and whisky bottles.
Hickey gives Mike an oxygen mask and Feland starts to gather more information.
“Hey Mike,” Feland says, while Hickey tightens the blood pressure cuff around Mike’s upper arm by squeezing the pump. “Do you know what day it is?”
Mike takes a few breaths, fogging up the mask, and answers.
“Fourteenth of March,” he says, barely audible.
Observing Mike’s tiny pupils, Feland asks Mike if he took any drugs. Mike nods, admitting he mixed heroin, gin and prescribed medication for hypertension and heart failure.
The paramedics embark on a number of technical procedures, but rely just as much on common sense and intuition when determining whether to give Mike the choice to be transported to the hospital.
Casually assuring Mike the police will not be involved, Hickey attaches Mike to a heart rate monitor by sticking suction-ended tubes to his chest.
Meanwhile, a fire department paramedic asks Mike’s friend – the one who called 911 – to smoke outside.
Seeing that Mike’s breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and comprehension are normal, Hickey lets Mike decide whether he goes to the hospital.
Mike shrugs his shoulders and looks at his concerned friend, now chain smoking outside, who makes sure the front door stays open so she can see what’s going on.
“Mike,” she says, “you can’t leave this decision to me.”
Mike decides not to go, fearing retribution from the police, adding, for some reason, that it has been three or four years since he last did heroin.
“How come you stopped?” asks Hickey.
“It was ruining my life,” Mike replies.
With this, Hickey, Feland and the two fire department employees gather their equipment and leave the house.
“Don’t do it again,” one advises.
“Don’t worry,” says Mike, hugging his friend in the doorway. “This was a wake-up call.”
Once in the vehicle, Hickey and Feland talk briefly about the incident.
“It’s been a while since I’ve done one of them,” says Hickey, referring to a heroin call. In his four years as a paramedic, he has responded to only one other such call.
“I just hope we don’t have to come back tonight,” says Feland, who is all too familiar with heroin calls, having worked as a paramedic in San Francisco before coming to Roseburg.
* * *
To be an ambulance paramedic is to be riddled in paradox.
In Roseburg, paramedics work 72 hours a week, yet enjoy four-day weekends. They feel the stress of being responsible for people’s lives, yet experience long periods of boredom.
Paramedics, minute-for-minute, might have the most monotonous job out there, but all paramedics have horror stories unrivaled by almost anyone in the workforce.
Training Officer Scott Page remembers a Roseburg logger who was crushed by a falling tree.
“It popped all his blood vessels,” he said. “From the chest up he was kind of purple-black.”
Paramedic Dan Coleman tells of a head-on car crash on Melrose Road that resulted in a fire with 100-foot flames. Paramedics tried to save a woman by pulling her out of the burning vehicle, but the air pressure sucked her back into the car.
Kevin Johnson, now the vice president of the Oregon State Ambulance Association and living in Bend, remembers plucking two bullets from the neck of a 20-year-old man in Sutherlin about 20 years ago, when the town didn’t have enough money for a police force. The man lived.
Most people’s lives are less bloody than the movies.
Paramedics, however, often find themselves turning off a gory movie and walking into a gory situation.
While many have grown accustomed to seeing death on TV, paramedics like Jerrid Edwards, a 24-year-old paramedic of two years, have built a tolerance to the real thing.
Edwards says he couldn’t begin to count the car accident fatalities he’s seen.
“That’s like trying to figure out the number of Volkswagens you see driving around,” the Roseburg native says as he waits with the ambulance in the parking lot of a video store for his partner, who’s getting movies.
It’s not that the gore bothers Edwards, however.
“It’s the smells of body fluids,” he said. “But you get used to it.”
To be sure, W.E.S.T. Ambulance manager Scott Page is quick to note the job isn’t anything like the TV shows “E.R.” and “Emergency,” the latter of which inspired him to become a paramedic.
“A lot of times, it’s pretty boring,” he admits. “We do a lot of sitting around.”
W.E.S.T. Ambulance, a private, for-profit company owned by Glide resident Richard Wilt, gets about a dozen 911 calls a day. With three ambulance crews on at any given time, one in Myrtle Creek and two in Roseburg, it can lead to quite a bit of thumb twiddling.
But 12 calls a day is only an average for the company, which, until the mid-‘80s, was part of Mercy Medical Center. Edwards said there are nights when he only gets an hour of sleep.
On an ideal day, he said, it is busy all day and quiet all night. That way, the time passes quickly, but he still gets to sleep – like a normal job.
Page said when he first started, it was even difficult to sleep on those nights.
“It used to be real scary knowing someone’s life can depend on you,” said the 40-year-old former newspaper photographer. “But you get used to it.”
Of course, Scott says, not all calls are matters of life and death.
Unnecessary calls, he said, can be frustrating.
At this, a call comes in for an elbow injury.
* * *
Page and paramedic Dave Burr roll their eyes while hopping into the ambulance, anticipating an unnecessary call.
But as they cut through rush hour traffic on Garden Valley Boulevard, the dispatcher leaks information – bit by bit – that tells them otherwise.
“Subject is a 30-year-old male,” says the dispatcher. “He says he was assaulted.”
The vehicle, using the Interstate 5 thoroughfare to get from Garden Valley to Harvard Avenue, hits 80 mph.
“Subject says he was assaulted with a shovel,” the dispatcher says.
In moments like this, paramedics have to be careful, Page says. So the crew has to make sure the police have gotten a handle on the situation first.
A call comes in assuring the crew that the police have arrived and that it can proceed. Page pulls over at Altamont and Brown, where the man, named Jeff, has come to meet him.
Jeff, who’s missing many teeth, has a towel wrapped around his elbow. The towel, his jeans and his white “Party Animal” T-shirt are bloody.
A man who lives in a shed in the neighborhood attacked him with a shovel, Jeff says.
“I can’t feel these two fingers,” he says, pointing to his left pinky and ring finger.
Page approaches Jeff, cautious not to turn his back on him. With gloved hands, Page slowly unwraps the towel.
“It was a verbal disagreement,” explains Jeff, who admits he’s been drinking alcohol.
“Looks like it was a little more than verbal,” Page replies, applying gauze to the wound – a damaged ulna nerve, otherwise known as the funny bone.
Jeff asks to be transported to Mercy. Page and Burr comply, placing the wincing man onto the gurney.
Jeff is talkative in the ambulance.
“The guy aimed for my head,” he contends. “It was definitely attempted murder. The spade broke right off.”
The crew hands Jeff over to the Mercy staff, who will take X-rays, stitch him up and release him.
From here, things are routine for the ambulance crew.
Burr cleans the blood off the gurney while Page does the paperwork.
“This is the worst part of the job,” Page says.
When the crew returns to the station, the others are watching “The Jeffersons.”
A fellow paramedic asks Page how it went. Page shrugs his shoulders and sits down.
A while later, the dispatcher’s voice cuts through one of George Jefferson’s tirades.
“911 medical alert.”
The paramedic turns down the volume.
“Vehicle-pedestrian collision on the 5000 block of Stephens Street near Winchester. The man is laying on his back.”
The paramedic turns the TV volume back up.
“Sounds serious,” he says. “But that’s Fire District Number Two’s district.”