Wednesday, May 25, 2011

F is for Fear

There isn't much that I am afraid of. I like snakes and spiders, except for Black Widow spiders, those witches are evil. I'm not afraid of heights or closed in spaces. I'm not afraid of the dark. But there is one thing that I am afraid of. It is an irrational fear, as most fears are, but I am totally, completely and deathly...afraid of trains.

I don't know why. Trains have never done anything to me. I did spend a year one night on an Amtrak to Miami, but the ride on that rolling back alley has nothing to do with my phobia. I have been afraid of trains as far back as I can remember. I never go around the crossing arm, no matter how long it stays after the train has passed. Hey, there might be another one coming! I have been called many a name while other drivers are going around me to cross the track safely, but there's always the chance that a train might sneak up on you!

The tracks near my county home have no lights or arms, just the black and white RR sign. I always stop completely, roll down my window and listen, look and feel for the rumbling hulk that may be my demise. When my daughter first got her driver’s license, I was already white knuckling it in the passenger seat when she barreled through a crossing without so much as a passing glance down the tracks. My screaming banshee fit almost caused her to lose control of the car and I made her sit on the side of the road for half an hour as I listed one thousand, three hundred and twelve reasons why she should never do that again.

In my job as a paramedic, I am often faced with unpleasant situations, calls that test my nerve and resolve to always be professional and deal with whatever may arise. I had a call that just about crushed that resolve. Yes, this call involved a train. Now I have responded to many patients over the years who have been hit by trains. For some reason, more people than you would ever imagine fall asleep on railroad tracks. Perhaps they are drunk and just trying to find their way home and the tracks are an easy path to follow, but the outcome is usually not too good. Now, these calls don’t trigger my fear because the train is long gone by the time we get there and we are left to pick up the pieces…literally.

That night, when we received the call for “one hit by a train”, I had no reason to think that this was going to be any different, but when we arrived…the train was still there. The engineer had seen the man just before he hit him and had stopped the train as soon as he could. There was a cluster of first responders with flashlights right near the crossing, and when we got to them we found that this patient had been one of the lucky ones. He hadn’t been lying completely on the tracks when he passed out; just one leg had been on the rails when the train went by. That leg was presently missing, but the patient was surprisingly conscious and stable, and thankfully, very drunk.

This was early in my career and I wasn’t the lead paramedic so I was at the mercy of my crew chief as to what job was going to fall to me…stay with the patient, or go looking for the leg. Being less experienced, I was handed a flashlight and sent on a limb finding mission. It would seem that I could just walk along side of the train and shine the light around and under the beast to try and find the missing appendage, but there were steep embankments on either side of the tracks, so the only way to search was to follow them…under the train.

I tried walking on my hands and knees, but the gravel between the rails was too sharp and I couldn’t control the beam of light with my hands on the ground. So, I began to duck walk, under the mile long machine, looking for a severed leg. You would have thought that the driver would have turned his train off when he stopped, but it was still crunk, or cranked, oh hell, the damn thing was still on…and it was breathing!

Pshhhhhhhew…crrreeeeaaak. The unmistakable exhale was coming from somewhere up the track near the engine, and the sound of straining metal was all around me. It was as if the monster was angry at having to stop and was poised to resume its merciless journey and it had just tasted blood…did it want more? I thought about trying Lamaze breathing to slow my rising panic, but I was afraid that I might start pushing, and I was already close to pooping my pants, so I figured I should just try to concentrate on finding the leg.

Hours passed…ok five minutes, but it felt like I had died and gone to hell and was destined to duck walk under a train for all eternity, when my light beam illuminated a boot. It indeed was attached to piece of blue jean clad leg that ended in gnarled array of bone, meat and gristle…I had found the man’s amputated lower extremity. Not wanting to spend another minute under the train, I tucked the leg under one arm, the flashlight under the other and waddled in double time back to the crossing. The patient had been stabilized and loaded and I jumped in the back with my partner and a first responder drove us to the trauma center.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that I was so freaked out by the train that it never occurred to me how weird it was to be walking around with a newly severed leg under my arm, so maybe my fear was a blessing in disguise. It would have all been worth it had the leg been viable, but the trauma surgeons took one look at its frayed end, and tossed it aside as they prepared our patient for life as a below-knee amputee. The experience didn’t help me with my fear of trains either. I still don’t like them. You can have your Thomas the Tank Engines…I hope I never have to get near one again!


  1. I wouldn't last one day on your job. I'd actually probably not make it until lunchtime!

  2. So they tossed the useless leftover of a leg; but what about the boot? He might have used it with his prosthetic (that's a medical term, btw), or you could have kept it on your mantle as a memento of your great courage and/or duck-walking skill!