How to pass a Monday night
I’m calling back, I said, this is a callback. The first dispatcher said to call again if something changed. And now she’s not moving.
This is at the Douglas Hotel?
No. It’s in the alley between Vancouver and Neptune Streets. The sign says Emergency 9–1–1 Location: 700 East Vancouver Street. I already told them this — very carefully — the first time. She stopped moving.
My heart rate was elevated. I could hear my voice in a higher register. I was alarmed.
Okay, can I get the phone number you’re calling from, to be sure?
Okay, 718–518–1818. She is not moving. She isn’t moving at all.
I was looking out the window at a woman in the alley below, a common area for drug users to inject. She was folded in half. Where she had been writhing with her face to the ground, crying, whimpering and wailing, now she was frozen.
So what did you say is happening now?
She isn’t moving. At all.
She isn’t moving?
The woman had one foot extended in an elongated fashion and her shoe had come off. She was folded over on herself, from what had probably been a sitting position, falling forward and slightly to the left. One arm was pressed against her side, and her hand seemingly jutted out from behind her back, awkwardly rigid over her bum. No one could hold that position.
No one could HOLD. THAT. POSITION.
Yes, she has stopped moving. She isn’t moving. I can’t tell if she’s breathing.
My eyes darted from her shoeless foot to her hand to her back and did the loop on repeat. If she was alive, if she was breathing, she would move.
I wanted her to twitch. Just a finger.
Okay, I’m going to ask you some more questions and it’s ok to say I don’t know.
Is she awake?
No. She is definitely not awake.
Is she suicidal?
I don’t know.
Do you know what drug she took?
No. I didn’t see her use and I don’t know her. There is a tourniquet and a syringe package there, but the alley is full of garbage so those may not be hers. I have no idea. But it is an area popular for people to inject. There’s a light over a door, and she’s directly under that light.
Is she breathing?
I don’t know. She might not be. She is not moving even slightly.
This was my second call. I first called at 10:15 and spoke for nearly five minutes. If anything changes, the first dispatcher had said, call us back.
I could do nothing. I didn’t have Narcan, the narcotic antidote, or the training to administer it (Pulp Fiction, anyone?). I didn’t have any kind of applicable training. I couldn’t defend myself in an alley if attacked. I could only watch from 45 feet above. If I’d been on the ground I’d have been 20 feet from her, and still unable to help her.
But maybe I could have seen if she was breathing or not.
Okay, we had been concerned how she might react to an ambulance crew when you first reported that she was writhing around and in distress, so we called the police to check in with her first, but now we’re coming.
You’re coming right away? She still isn’t moving. She has not moved a fraction this whole phone call, and she’s right beneath the light.
We’re coming now with lights and sirens.
Okay. Thank you.
Call back if anything changes.
Yes, I will, thank you.
That second call was at 10:34 and lasted nearly 4 minutes. So now it had been twenty-four minutes since the first call. On a Monday night.
I mentally chewed my nails, then my fingers to the bone. It has been documented that emergency response time to our ghetto is significantly slower than to the rest of the city. The people in charge deny playing favourites. But the numbers stand; they are fact.
I’m sitting in the window. She hasn’t moved.
After the first phone call I looked away for 14 minutes. And in that 14 minutes …? I looked at her still not moving.
It dawned on me that she was dead. Dead! Right outside my window.
She had to be dead, or close to it. And I could do nothing. I couldn’t see her back move, even slightly, to indicate an inhale, exhale.
I could listen to nothing. No podcast or music — funny, political, story, light or serious, sweet or raucous. I could only sit, sit and wait for the lights and sirens.
It was 20 minutes from that call, the second call, promising lights and sirens, and forty-three minutes from the first. Did someone get the directions wrong? Did they go to a street instead? The Douglas Hotel? If the city posted the lane location markers, how could they then not keep track of where those locations were? How could they not train everyone about those location markers? It is a wholly different kind of street sign seen only in laneways with a high amount of injections: black lettering on a super-bright neon yellow sign: EMERGENCY. 9–1–1. LOCATION: 700 E VANCOUVER ST.
I looked again. She was sitting up. She was woozy.
She was alive.
In minutes she was down again, in a less convoluted pose, but again not moving.
An hour after the first call came and went. I sat in silence, waiting. Wringing my hands.
I don’t recall how the time passed at all. I had plenty of thoughts. They kept me occupied. If a woman died on September 25th, 20 feet north of me, and I count the man who died on August 28th in the bathroom 20 feet south of my room, then that would make me surrounded, literally, by death.
I keep checking the time. There were no sirens, no people, no cars.
Finally a cleaning crew came through, scraping the pavement with rakes and shovels, pickig up litter and depositing it in the back of the garbage truck they were tailing. One of the men looked at the woman, who was stirred by their noise and sat up squinting. It looked like he might have asked her if she was okay if she’d seemed more out of it.
That’s when I saw her face. It was the face of a woman you knew and loved. With a name like Carrie or Julie. Someone sweet, with kind eyes.
The cleaning crew continued on their way.
I still sat beside the window. It was nearing 90 minutes from the first call.
In November, when I stayed a week at First United, a woman writhed on a pew so hard that she fell to the ground, experiencing an agonizing episode of her chronic GI pains. It took the ambulance at least 3 hours to show up — I was in bed by the time they came. She said later that no one was eager to tend to her at the emergency department, either, leaving her to sit alone in her gurney for a while. Another person spoke up: The night Benny died, Carl said he counted TWELVE ambulances pass them before theirs showed up.
On the light fixture next to my bed was a permanent marker tribute to Benny: full name, rest in peace, dates of birth and death. Benny had died about 10 years prior, but everyone remembered. He’d been in his 30s. Everyone seemed to know him, love him. Everyone seemed to know that it took way too long for an ambulance to respond to their 9–1–1 call. The undertone that Benny could have lived if only the emergency response treatment in our neighbourhood was fair is crystal clear.
Waiting by the window and seeing the time pass I made a note: if I need help while I live here, I should take myself to the hospital. And go to VGH, not the downtown hospital; they are more suspicious of drug-seeking behaviour. They have more hoops for one to jump.
My building manager told me this used to be a drug dealer and users building and no one in town, from fire and ambulance services to the VPD itself know that the building is clean now (I plan to email these services with a note about our millions of dollars of improvement and a couple of photos). When he called the cable company they hung up on him because this had been a building they had refused to service.
So I am probably surrounded by many ghosts of people in pain, using, overdosing and dying above and below me, likely in my very room.
Outside, Julie was on her feet, still very high. She was looking for something. A white SUV drove down the lane, passing her.
When I looked again, she was gone. It was nearly 2 hours from my first call.
No sirens came, no lights. If that SUV had been a BC Ambulance Services vehicle it was missing rooftop lights and the ID tag that usually gets put on the roofs of service vehicles to be seen from above.
Either that white SUV was the response and they ignored Julie on seeing she was ambulatory, or the service was dispatched to the wrong address and didn’t ever locate the right one, or — and I find this possibility to be the most distressing — there was no response at all.
No response. To a woman who may not have been breathing.
it’s 4:59 in the morning. I first called 9–1–1 six hours and forty-nine minutes ago, and by my account it seems like no one has showed.
My stomach is knotted. I am bothered.
A woman outside my window appeared to be dead or close to it — and sure, I’m not a connoisseur of drug reaction information (e.g., maybe it’s normal to be immobile after an injection for a while, though I did call at first because she was in distress in a way that seemed quite off, not because she wasn’t moving and possibly not breathing) — and for Fuck’s sake how does a woman in distress-slash-possibly not breathing warrant this response? That at best the emergency services took ninety minutes to swing on by and at worst didn’t show up at all?
This woman is my neighbour. She is all of us. She is me.
Fuck this shit.
And fuck heroin. That shit ain’t right.