Tuesday, August 25, 2009

9-1-1: Anything Can Happen

If I were on Twitter, I’d have to keep this to 140 characters. Let me try (6:40 p.m.):

Approaching Co. Rd. 38 in AV, going south on Zoo Blvd, I heard sirens. One police car passed, going north on Zoo Blvd. Then another turned left onto Zoo Blvd off of 38.

Wow, 140 characters aren’t many! Geting the missive above down to 138 took a little doing. Thankfully, the blog format offers more room to maneuver.

It’s been seven years since I had a ride-along with a Carver County Sheriff’s deputy, while working as a program coordinator for the Minnesota Criminal Justice Resource Center. Yet I still recall the giddy feeling of zipping past and through the usual traffic limitations.

First responders do sometimes get into accidents in the course of their duty. On June 20, for example, an ambulance hurrying to the site of a car crash in St. Paul struck and killed a pedestrian. Tests showed that the veteran firefighter driving the ambulance had no alchohol in his system, and a Fire Department spokesperson described him as devastated by the fatality.

Accustomed as they are to dealing with demanding situations of extreme urgency, first resonders can also overeach and overreact. The recent case of Kerra Cameron illustrates this.

Cameron was filling out her wedding registry at Target in a Minneapolis suburb along with her fiance. She suffers from low blood pressure, which causes her to pass out occasionally, but is able to recover on her own within a few minutes without medical intervention. When she passed out at Target, however, someone called 9-1-1 and EMTs forced her into an ambulance, even though she had already regained conscoiusness and said she'd be fine in a few minutes. A police officer signed an "emergency hold" to force her to be taken to the hospital for tests, which revealed nothing wrong.

The case attracted the attention of the press when both the ambulance company and the hospital tried to collect for the unwanted services. A state ombudsman was quoted as saying that using Minnesota's "temporary hold" statute to force medical treatment on someone who is not suffering from a mental illness was not a proper use of the law. I'd go farther; it seems like a form of false imprisonment.

It's remarkable how relatively infrequent incidents like these are, however, given the degree to which − under the exigencies of an emergency − police, firefighters, and EMTs stretch the limits of what’s humanly possible. They do this initially in getting there so quickly, and then in dealing with the unpredictable, often highly dangerous situations awaiting them upon arrival. Bruce Springsteen's song "Into the Fire," about the firefighers and other first responders who entered the burning Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, epitomizes this can-do spirit at the highest level .

The one personal encounter I've had with EMTs was very positive and unforgettable. My father was dying of cirrhosis of the liver and complications of Parkinson's disease. In August 2007, my mother realized that she could not take of him at home any longer. We made arrangements for dad to be transferred to The Pillars, a hospice affiliated with the Health East system. Two young EMTs - both women - came to my parents' house to transport him.

Before the EMTs arrived, dad had been largely unresponsive, slumped in his chair. But they helped him muster himself, so that by the time he went out the door a conversation enlivened by the kind of light repartee that he loved was underway. My mom and I drove right behind the ambulance on the twenty-five mile trip from Apple Valley to Oakdale and helped dad get settled into his room at the hospice. The EMTs and the hospice staff were all like angels, taking on a burden of care that had caught us unawares.

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