When the afflicted man
called out, the Lord
heard/And from his distress
he saved him.Psalm 34 Verse 7
A psalm of David
It was a hot August day and this was our fourth call in a week for an overdose. Bad heroin had descended on the neighborhood and the junkies had no choice but to take the chance. I shut off the siren as Tommy parked the truck in front of a small brick apartment building. Brian, Stan and I hurried to the second floor. Tommy stayed with the truck.
A shirtless kid in about his mid-twenties met us at an open door. He kept blubbering about his friend. The shirtless kid was tall and thin. He carried himself hunched-over. I don’t know if that was his natural stature if he hunched to keep the large silver chain and cross he wore from flailing about.
“He’s dead.” He choked out between sobs. “I told him not to do that shit no more and now he’s dead.” The kid couldn’t stay still. He started into the apartment and then came back to us.
“Oh God, Oh God,” he kept repeating, brushing at the tears on his face.
We’re just firefighters. It used to be we only ran into burning buildings. Now we do medical emergencies too. The medics are overworked. We get to the emergency quicker and hopefully keep the patient alive long enough for the medics to arrive.
“Calm down,” I commanded the boy. “Where’s your buddy?”
“He’s in the bathroom. I threw him in the shower to try to bring him back but he ain’t breathing.”
Brian had our medical bag and brushed past me and the kid and looked around. “Where’s the bathroom?” He asked.
“It’s straight back.” The boy sobbed. The apartment was one large room with the kitchen area to the rear. Brian and Stan headed in that direction. The skinny kid tried to follow them. I grabbed his arm. I wanted him with me in case things went south. “You stay with me.” I said. “You’re not going to do anything but get in the way. My guys will do whatever they can for your buddy.” I kept my voice soft, trying to calm him.
Brian and Stan disappear into a door on the left. The kid threw himself to the floor with a wail and sat with his back against the wall with his elbows on his knees, and his face in his large hands.
The apartment was cheap, but not dirty, at least not yet. They must have just moved in. It appeared to have just been refurbished and our footsteps gave a little echo as we moved around. A new off-white paint covered the ceilings and bare walls. The only furniture was a medium sized light brown wood table sitting in the middle of the floor.
The empty apartment was a pleasant change for us. The usual when dealing with junkies was squalor. No doubt over time, this apartment would become an odorous roach infested hole. The big silver cross and chain would be gone too, sold or hocked. I’m not casting judgment. My son’s an addict. It’s just what drugs do to people.
The kid staggered to his feet and was crying again. He started to make a rush towards the back. “Let me see him.” he cried trying to bull past me. I got in front of the boy and put my hand on his chest. “Calm down son. You can’t help.”
I felt sorry for him but I’ve learned to stay unaffected. My guys claim nothing ever bothers me. They say ice water runs through my veins. It’s not true. I feel things as much as anybody but I’ve learned to keep it on the surface. After twenty-eight years of dealing with trauma, I don’t let it go to my core.
“What’s your name?” I kept my voice calm and comforting. I try to treat everyone with kindness. Its good business and I guess it’s my nature.
“What’s your buddy’s name, Adam?” Just then Stan’s blonde head popped out of the bathroom.
“He’s alive, Lieutenant,” Stan yelled, “but he’s in deep. We need help getting him out of the tub to work him.”
I joined them in the tiny bathroom. Stan and Brian were in front of me but I got a glimpse of a short muscular kid stretched on his back in a pool of water. The small bathroom made the move difficult. Brian hoisted the boy’s shoulders and head from the tub and then handed him to me. I cradled his upper body in my arms. Stan grabbed under his knees and I backed out of the bathroom. We stretched him out on the kitchen floor and I got my first good look at him.
I looked at his face and my legs started to go on me. I can’t ever remember that happening to me before. I willed myself not to fall. It was David.
At least I thought it was David. I took a longer look. The boy had the same short muscular body, the same sandy brown hair and even the same not quite round face. I scrutinized his face and breathed deeper. This boy’s face was just ever so slightly dissimilar. I hadn’t seen David in weeks but I was certain that this wasn’t him. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself.
This boy was in bad shape, though. His breathing was down to about three or four respirations a minute. Brian hooked the bag valve mask to the oxygen cylinder and placed it over the kid’s mouth. Brian started working the bag. Using his hand to squeeze the air in the bag and push it into the boy’s lungs. I watched his chest rise and with it a blue vein protruded on his forehead.
The blue vein caused me to look again. My son has a vein in his forehead that bulges much the same way. I had watched it rise in anger the day I threw him out. He had been to rehab four times. Each time he stayed clean for awhile but ended up worse than the time before. Finally, I made him leave. He was angry, Maggie, my wife and his mother, was hysterical but I managed to keep it all on the surface. I knew was being overly scrupulous
but I had to convince myself once more that this wasn’t my son. I studied his body and face until I convinced myself again.
I remembered the first time I saw I saw that blue vein. David came out of the womb screaming and when he cried a blue vein protruded angrily from his forehead. He was the fourth child for Maggie and me and the only time I had been in the delivery room. I had been at the bar for the others.
The nurse handed me the baby. I cradled him in my arms and my eyes filled with tears, back then everything went to my core. I handed the baby back to the nurse and went to Maggie. Her face flush from the delivery smiled at me. She looked as content as an infant herself.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” She sighed.
“I’m so sorry for everything.” I said. Our hands were entwined and I had my cheek against hers drawing strength from her.
“I know,” is all she said.
“I can’t tell you I’ll never drink again but I can tell you I never want to drink again. They say you can only do it one day at a time.” Fresh tears filled my eyes.
“I know what they say but I really think everything is going to be okay now.” The baby let out a wail and we looked over at his red face and the vein straining like it would burst and we both laughed.
“I think he has your temperament.” She joked.
“Is he going to be alright?” Adam’s voice brought me back to the here and now. I turned my head away and wiped at my eyes before turning back to answer.
“Well, he’s still alive but he’s not out of the woods.” Adam seemed to be in a little more control and I decided to press him a little. “What were you guys doing?” I was sure it was heroin but it was good to get confirmation for the medics and the hospital.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t here. He was like this when I found him” Adam’s pinpointed eyes told me otherwise.
“Hey man,” I said. “I don’t give a fuck what you guys were doing. You’re not in trouble with me and the cops ain’t going to follow up on this little bullshit. I’m just trying to help your buddy. Was it heroin?”
“Yeah,” he dropped his head and mumbled.
“Didn’t you guys hear about the bad stuff going around?”
“No, it wasn’t like that. He went crazy. He just kept shooting up. His supposed to go to detox tomorrow and wanted to get really wasted one last time.”
Brian continued to work the bag. Heroin takes you so deep you just stop breathing and soon after go into cardiac arrest. As long as Brian assisted his breathing, the boy should come out of this okay. When the medics arrived they would shoot him up with Narcan. It’s a drug that gets into the cells and blocks the opiate. Narcan can be amazing. It usually brings the patient back from being next to dead in a minute or two. I’ve seen them sit right up and become furious because you ruined their high.
But this kid had us a little worried. We didn’t say it. We could read it on each other. He wasn’t responding like he should and it seemed like it was taking the medics forever. Stan was shaking him and calling to him as Brian worked the bag.
“Hey buddy, wake up.” Stan rubbed his knuckle hard across the guy’s sternum trying to bring him around.
“What’s your buddy’s name?” Stan called to Adam.
“David,” Adam answered.
“David, wake up! David, wake up, David, David!” Stan kept hollering into the boy’s face. I shuddered each time he called David’s name.
Everything about this run had been strange including my own behavior. I found myself standing directly over David scrutinizing him for the third time. My guys gave me concerned sidelong glances. I didn’t care what they thought. I needed to convince myself anew.
This boy had the same short cropped hair cut my David wore. He had the same thick eyebrows and he had that damned blue vein straining with each squeeze of the bag. I stood and stared at the boy long after I knew he wasn’t my son.
My concentration waned and my mind drifted back again, this time to before David’s birth. For a long time I had been sick with the booze. I went through countless car accidents, fights and overnights at the local precinct. These were small inconveniences but the depression ate me up. After a suicide attempt, I stopped. I just detoxed and stopped—no rehab.
The A.A. meetings helped. I stayed out of trouble but I stayed wounded for a long time. In some ways I was sicker without a drink than I had been with one. The depression wouldn’t lift and the mania for a drink drove me mad. I laid awake at night and it seemed as if I had four or five thoughts running through my head at the same time. On the rare occasions I did sleep, I awoke from nightmares in a cold sweat and an overwhelming compulsion to drink.
It was only a matter of time before I drank and suicide would follow. I chose to do it on my terms. I bought a gun. The feel of it in my hand gave me butterflies. I’d get a motel room so Maggie wouldn’t find the body and of course I’d get a bottle.
I’m not sure why I went to a meeting that night maybe a part of me didn’t want to die. I hadn’t told anyone about the gun or my plan but a friend at the meeting recognized my depression. He told me about how he had been depressed early on and how meditation helped him. He told me to read the Psalms and reflect on the words.
I didn’t have much faith in God and didn’t think anything could save me from myself but I had nothing to lose. I decided to give meditation a week because like I said I had nothing to lose. When the craving came that night I began to read the Psalms. I read them without hope or belief. I read them aloud because it seemed to be the right thing to do. The sound of my own voice consoled me. It soothed like a parent rocking a sick child.
The first week passed and I put my appointment with the gun off and tried it for another week and then another. The obsession lifted a little at a time. I sold the gun and never drank again. We named the baby David, after the killer of the giant and the author of the Psalms.
“Yo Lieutenant,” Brian’s voice brought me back. “Shouldn’t the squad be here by now?”
“They were coming all the way from across town. I’ll radio them and get an ETA.” But before I keyed up my mike, I heard the distant wail of a siren.
“I hear them now.” Stan confirmed.
Two female medics came in, Erin and Grace. We had worked with them many times before. It didn’t take long before Erin started a line and was giving him Narcan. “Keep working the bag,” she told Brian. “He’ll be up in a minute cursing us.”
I took over for Brian bagging the patient. It isn’t a hard task but Brian had been at it a long time and you get uncomfortable. Besides I wanted to do something to try to keep myself focused. I repositioned David’s head to be sure that his airway was open and squeezed the bag at regular intervals.
The bag was connected to our oxygen tank. With each squeeze pure oxygen pushed into his lungs. The cylinder then refilled the bag making it ready to be pushed into his lungs again.
I squeezed the bag. Let it refill and squeezed again. My full concentration was on working the bag and I found myself breathing in the same deep rhythm, squeeze. I watched David’s face as I breathed with him, squeeze, the blue vein on his forehead bulging and straining with each inhalation, squeeze. My eyes became wet with tears, squeeze.
Many minutes passed and David’s complexion went from gray to pale but there was little other improvement. The deep breathing had me in a kind of trance and I was only vaguely aware of Erin shooting David up with more medicine. I heard a voice screaming behind me. It seemed to come from another land.
“He’s not waking up! You guys said it would wake him up!” It was Adam.
“You have to calm the fuck down. You’re not helping,” Stan yelled back. It was really my job to keep order but I just kept breathing with young David while the madness went on around me. I kept my gaze on his forehead watching the vein pop each time I squeezed the bag. At some level I knew I should give the task to someone else and take command of the scene but I felt safe in the rhythm of breath like being in a rocker with an infant.
I heard Grace’s voice coming from that other land, sounding worried.
“We’ve done all we can here. Let’s get him out.” She bent down next to me.
“I’ll get the bag, Lieutenant.” It was her job but I couldn’t let go.
“C’mon Lieutenant, I got it.” She insisted. Her voice was firm but gentle and she looked at me with a compassionate gaze that I had seen her use on only the very ill. I relented and Grace took the bag as they carried David down the stairs.
I stayed in the apartment to pull myself together while they took David down the stairs and placed him in the ambulance.
I had forgotten about Adam. He was back against the wall with his hands in his face. “Oh, my God, Oh my God.” I put my hand on the back of his head.
“C’mon Son, I’ll get you a ride with the medics to the hospital”
Adam got up but was little unsteady on his feet. I grabbed his arm as we made our way down the steps. “You said. He was going to wake up.” His voice cracked with emotion.
“Sometimes it just takes a little longer for some people. His color was coming back. I think he’ll come around.” Then I added, “Besides, he’s beloved by God.” I don’t know why I said it. It just came out.
Adam looked at me like I was the one on drugs, “What do you mean?” He put his long fingers around his silver cross, clinging to it.
“David, the name means beloved by God. I think God will get him through this.”
I thought about the Psalms. I thought about my son. “Yeah, God’s going to get him through this.” I spoke to comfort Adam but he had already climbed into the ambulance. I spoke only to myself and it soothed me.
Joe Lynch is a retired Fire Captain from Philadelphia with an MFA from Rosemont College. He continues to live and write from the “City of Brotherly Love”. He writes because he claims that it is the closest thing to running into burning buildings. His prose has appeared in numerous publications. Most recently, The View From Here and Sunken Lines. He has a story due out in Morpheus Tales in October 2009.