Being a paramedic is all about saving lives, but no matter how hard we try, patients often die. In my twenty-five years in EMS, I have been in attendance at the final moments of dozens of peoples' lives. Some might think that I am hardened to its effect to be able to see so many people die. That is so far from the truth. It is my life long fear of death that ultimately led me into this line of work. I have a complicated history with death that goes far back into my childhood, a history that I will revisit to shed some light on how and why I do what I do.
I used to lie awake at night as a young child, terror stricken because I thought someone was in the house. We had an old gas heater that ran loudly and when it shut off, it would pop and creak and every sound it made was a footstep, a door opening and I would lie there with tears streaming down my cheeks and snot pouring out of my nose. I was totally silent for fear I would attract attention and this intruder would commit unspeakable horrors against me. I would try to go to sleep when the heater was running because I couldn’t hear those “footsteps” and somehow that would comfort me. I never feared monsters or ghosts…I feared this being and I was certain that he was looking for me. This happened every night so I took to going to bed early, long before my parents, so I would be asleep before the house was dark and quiet.
I experienced this for years. During the day, I would laugh at myself and feel silly because I let these ridiculous thoughts bother me…then night would come, and I would dread the approach of bedtime. I would pray…pray so hard that the Lord would take these nighttime terrors away from me, but they came. For years they came and I was 10 or 11 years old before I could sleep peacefully without that faceless man creeping through my house night after night. He was my imaginary friend and he was as real to me as Santa Clause and God.
During adolescence I forgot about those night terrors. I made good grades and was involved in school and extracurricular activities. I had two best friends, Yvonne and Voneda and we were the Three Musketeers. They used to joke that I needed to change my name to Eva or Violet so we would all have a V in our names…I would tell them that they were stupid and we would all three burst out laughing. We were always spending the night with one another. Yvonne snickered one night as the three of us sat in her room. We were going through puberty and all had recently had the cardinal come home to roost for the first time. She said breathlessly between her giggles, “Do you realize we can have babies now!!” We three screamed and swore that we would never “do it”…Well, maybe with our husbands, but only in the dark! Who could imagine being naked in front of a man…EWEW! I still have some of the notes we used to pass in the halls. The ones written on notebook paper and folded into triangles that said little more than, “Hey…I really hate this class” or, “Don’t you think (so in so) is cute?”, but were always signed…LYLAS (Love you like a sister).
I can remember like it was yesterday… December 18, 1973. The day Voneda called to tell me that Yvonne had been killed in a car accident. I couldn’t believe she was calling me because I was just starting to call her and Yvonne to tell them that a good looking junior had just asked me out. I answered the phone, and when I heard Voneda say, “Cyndi”, I started babbling about my upcoming date. She said my name a second time and I heard something in her voice. I stopped and waited. I could hear her crying and all she said was, “Vonnie’s killed”. I must have screamed because my mother took the phone, talked to her mother and found out what had happened.
My parents took me to the funeral. I was so scared. I gripped my father’s arm as we approached the casket and all I can remember thinking was how frightened I was to look at her. She didn’t move. I had never seen anything so perfectly still in my life. “She’ll move”, I said to myself, “Nothing can stay that still for long.” I remember staring at her hand and willing it to move. “Just one finger, please move just one finger so I’ll know that everything is all right”. My dad had to coax me away from the casket. I didn’t want to leave because she hadn’t moved her finger yet.
That night, as I lay in my bed I heard it again… “Pop –Creak”… He’s back. Go in the kitchen and turn on the light. Quick! Shut the door, he’s in the living room. I’m fifteen years old…this is not supposed to be happening…I got rid of my night terrors years ago. But there he was, my imaginary friend, returning to torment me and the thing I knew at fifteen that I had not known at five, was his identity…He is Death.
Thus I began my quest to beat Death. Not by being overly cautious and careful, no I have met Death on his own turf and I have reveled in beating him. Riding rodeo, white water kayaking, rock climbing, rappelling, I have rappelled down a mountain face first, and out of a hot air balloon at 1500 feet. I went to motion picture stunt school and have fallen off a four story building, been shot off the back of a motorcycle, had my arm wrapped in asbestos cloth and set on fire, I was a volunteer fire fighter and I became a paramedic.
I initially found solace in the science. Death wasn’t a personified evil being. It was sometimes the result of a catastrophic traumatic event, but most often, it’s a steady cellular breakdown, one piece at a time. Our cells become hypoxic and the vital organs stop receiving oxygen and fail, one by one until the body no longer functions and that is what we call death. There have been times when I have literally brought people back from the brink of death. No heartbeat, no spontaneous respirations, and through the miracle of modern science I have been able to reverse that, and it is the ultimate high and the ultimate victory over death.
Over time, an unexpected shift has occurred in the way I view death. My career has given me a wealth of experiences that defy scientific convention, and has brought me to a belief in the existence of miracles and a renewed faith in God. Miracles don’t always end with death being defeated. I have come to realize that death is simply part of our journey and one that is not to be feared. I have experienced many deaths both professionally and personally. I have lost quite a few people very close to me including Voneda. She died six years ago from ovarian cancer and we were still best friends. There is only one Musketeer left and I miss the other two terribly, but I am not afraid of following when my time comes.
Our time here on earth is limited and life is for the living. We all have the same fate; only the time and methods differ so the best thing to do is choose to be happy. When my death is imminent, there won’t be a faceless man creeping in to steal me away, I will just transition to the next part of my journey. In the meantime, I plan to live life to the fullest…and still snatch folks from the jaws of death whenever I can.