An Ambulance’s Burden

I step off of Northeast Corridor 7871 and into New Jersey. Sunlight makes the tracks look so warm that I feel cheated when cold wind rushes my face. A man walks toward me. He comes close enough for me to smell the rancid recency of cigarettes before he says, “Excuse me.” I look at him and his eyes dart from my face to the door.

“Do you have a cellphone?” he asks.

“Do you need to make a call?” I ask, annoyed at a flash of thought I catch myself engaging, how do you know he won’t steal it?

“Yeah. The ambulance.” he says, casually.

“9-1-1?” I ask as I dial the numbers on my phone.

“Yeah.” he says, emitting a forceful exhale. I have yet to eat and his breath hurls vomit at my senses. I hand him the phone. I imagine my brother scolding me, “Really, Sara, you can’t just hand your phone to people. At least get insurance.”

He won’t take your phone in a train station where there are policemen. I reason with my fear, still guilty over my first-thoughts.

“Yes, hello. I need an ambulance at Trenton station… Suicidal thoughts. I wanna go to St. Francis. I’ll wait in the parking lot outside… OK… yeah… OK.”

He is silent. I imagine a weary dispatcher typing information into a form.

“Yeah, yeah.. suicidal thoughts… yeah, wanna kill myself. I’ll stand outside the station. Uh….” He looks at me.

“Which side we on?”

“The Newark/New York side.” I say.

“Newark/New York side” he repeats, “Jeans and a grey sweatshirt. My name is . . . “

I stop eavesdropping and start thinking about his call. He hands me my phone.

“Thank you.” He smiles, showing gaps between rusted teeth. “You have a nice day.”

“Take care.” I say, trying to reconcile myself to his smile.

If I could not understand English, I might have imagined his call was a take-out order. He was ready with the prompt they couldn’t refuse. “I wanna kill myself.” He expected the questions in the order the dispatcher asked them. He picked his hospital.

What does it mean that his best option is to call for a ride to the hospital that would cost up to $900 if he could pay?  Waiting for my train, I think about his smile. I wonder at the difference between a usual day for him and usual day for myself. What do I know?  Maybe he did want to kill himself. But what if he just needs a place to stay or needs help with the sweating agitation of withdrawal?

How will EMTs, nurses, and doctors think of him? As a system manipulator? Someone who suffers because of gaps in social insulation? Another case? A person who makes choices?  A recipient of charity?

I think of a patient I interviewed who said he came to the hospital to “Get halodol to chase the voices.” When I pressed for explanation, he replied, “You know, get clean. Get outta everybody’s way, get some… some free sleep, take care of my medicals . . . get outta everybody’s way.”

“What do you mean by get out of everybody’s way?” I had asked.

“You know… I don’t wanna bother nobody…be in their way while they trynna do jobs and work and studyin’ and workin’, you know… like get outta their way to not be sick you know… don’t wanna be a burden.”

After the ambulance leaves for St. Francis with the man who borrowed my phone in tow, I wonder whether an ER doc will tell his resident, “He came to get out of everybody’s way.”

Featured image:
Ready by Matt Carman

Sara Rendell

Sara Rendell is currently a medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She volunteers and researches at the Penn Refugee Women's Clinic. Previously, she was a Fulbright Research Fellow to Burkina Faso, in West Africa, where she explored the ways in which Mossi women engage with the country's maternal health care system.. She received her BS in neuroscience from Saint Louis University.

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