Stories from Big Red: Episode 2

I’m a firefighter in the Los Angeles area and we see it all. The heartbreaking, infuriating, miraculous, hilarious and touching — all in one shift. In Stories from Big Red, I will share these experiences with you.

Episode 2: Cry

Calls involving kids are the worst. Every single fiber in my being wants to protect them from harm but all too often, it’s impossible. Those are the calls you never, ever forget. Decades may pass and countless memories fade but the images remaining crystal clear are of a child crying in pain.

Actually, I prefer if they are crying.

It’s when they are quiet but SHOULD be crying that tears me apart. I silently plead with them to cry as we work to bring them back from the brink. Though I didn’t cause the situation resulting in their injury/illness, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to make it better. If I can’t, it hurts. I may not even know the child’s name yet I’ll carry them in my heart forever.

It was mid-afternoon as we pulled up in front of a center hall apartment building, already seeing a crowd of panicked people out front waving us down. The panic on their faces, it’s never a good sign.

I opened the compartment to grab our medical gear and a wail of despair emanating from the depths of the building triggered my “oh shit” response. I know that cry, that is a Mother’s cry.

People were yelling at us as we ran into the building but I have no idea what they were saying. I was mentally sizing up what I could expect waiting for us.

We reached the open door and there are water puddles on the wood floor.

Two toddlers, naked and wet. One crying, one silent.

The paramedic and I make eye contact and immediately scoop up the silent baby from his mother’s arms. We don’t have to ask what happened. As I reached out for the child, I glanced over and see the bathroom, water visible all over the tile.

Children are incredibly resilient. Their young bodies have the ability to compensate for an injury much longer than adults but when they finally give out, it happens fast.

We could still have time.

I do not wish anyone the experience of holding a pulseless, non-breathing child in their arms. I can still feel my hands, tightly grasping the slippery little body while running to the ambulance. Crystal clear.

A flurry of activity begins in the back of the ambulance while the driver hits the lights and sirens.

A toddler’s body on an ambulance gurney is a hideous sight.

CPR. Ventilations. Medication.

Please, just cry.

The back doors of the ambulance open and we’re running the gurney into the pediatric emergency room.

Have we done enough?

We watch as the swarm of doctors, nurses and specialists take over the mantle of responsibility for this tiny human.

We stand to the side, now out of our element. We’re no longer of use.

But…we’re still attached to this child and can’t walk away.

Yet, the next call is waiting. That is the duty of a firefighter. There is always a next call.

The silence in the rig is palpable. No laughing, no joke-telling, no ribbing — this is a rare occasion on a fire engine.

My fellow back-seat firefighter is red with fury. He saw the tub. I can hear him cursing to himself, asking why anyone would bathe two toddlers in a full bathtub.

The computer clicks with an incoming call and the siren brings me back to the present with a question lingering in my mind, “Did I do enough?”

I’ll never know.