Monday, March 29, 2004

Bloody Thursday

Last Thursday morning I was running late for work, a sadly frequent circumstance for me this year. I was still dragging as I parked the car and walked up the residential street on which our clinic has stood for sixty years, grumbling to myself about my lack of caffeine and debating whether I felt exhausted enough to justify leaving early in the afternoon.

Just as I reached the entryway, I heard a voice calling, "Help me, help me." I looked around and saw a woman lying on her back in a steep driveway across the street. She waved and called out again.

I waited for an opening in the busy traffic and ran across the street to her. She struggled to sit up as I approached. "Are you all right?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "I just fell while I was walking down the driveway."

"Oh, do you need a hand back up?" I asked her.

"Well, I think I broke my ankle," she said. "Could you take my shoe off?"

"Ummm..." I hesitated. The last time I took a first aid course was four years ago, and I tried to remember what to do. "I don't know much first aid," I said and crouched down at her feet.

Then I saw the unnatural way her lower leg was bent. I'd never seen a broken limb before, but the skin a few inches above her ankle bulged out where her tibia had obviously broken. I cringed. "Oh, dear, I think you're right," I said, briefly noting that at least it hadn't broken through the skin.

And then, of course, I saw the blood. A pool of it in shadow beneath her twisted leg. More dripped rapidly, audibly, into the growing pool. I couldn't see the wound, just the growing pool of blood beneath her. More blood than I'd ever seen before. I managed not to say, "Oh, Shit," out loud.

Stop the bleeding, I thought, I think that's right. I carefully wrapped my hands around her leg, far above the break, just below her knee, and squeezed hard. I talked the whole time, telling her what I was doing, telling her she was bleeding "just a little" and I was going to put some pressure around her leg to try to stop the bleeding.

Well, stupid, what are you going to do, sit here with your hands around her leg all morning? I kept one hand pressing behind her knee, hoping it was doing some good, and reached for my purse, telling her I was going to call 911 to get some help.

"Oh, no," she said, "let me get my card and you can just call my hospital, that won't be as expensive." She started to raise herself onto one elbow, reaching for her backpack.

The broken bone in her leg shifted audibly, grating on itself. "No, no, that's all right, try to keep still," I said, horrified. I fumbled in my purse with my free hand and pulled out my cell phone, thanking the gods that I'd finally given in and bought one in November. "I'll just call across the street and have them send our nurse over to give you a hand while we wait for the medics to get here."

I dialed my work number with my thumb, smearing blood across the numbers. I started talking as soon as our secretary picked up--"Hi, it's Thel, I'm right across the street with one of our neighbors, she fell down in her driveway and her leg is broken, could you call 911 and also send Tia [our nurse] over if she's around?"

P. assured me that she would, and I put my phone back in my purse. I started jabbering away to the woman. She answered calmly, but that just made me worry that she had lost so much blood that she was going to pass out on me. I asked her name (Lucy), how long she'd lived here--"Oh, twenty years," she said. "Goodness," I answered, "I've just worked here for two and a half years; you probably know more about the clinic than I do!" I think she chuckled. I wasn't really paying attention to what I was saying.

My hands were slippery around her knee. I pulled loose one of her backpack's webbing straps and tried to cinch it tight around her leg instead. "Is that too tight?" I worried.

"No," she said faintly. I rested my elbows on my knees as I crouched there. My hands were sticky with blood. I tried not to look at them or at the ground beneath her leg.

I sat there talking with her for a hundred years in the three minutes between the time I called and the time I saw Tia with our Executive Director and Assistant Director all hurrying through the rain towards us. Giddy with relief, I stood up and introduced them. Tia had one of those foil shock blankets which we unrolled and draped over Lucy. Our Assistant Director put his jacket under her head. "I think I'm going to be sick," Lucy said.

They said the ambulance was on its way. I stood awkwardly for a moment, shaking and holding my bloody hands out away from my body. My three coworkers had it under control--Tia had also brought a bandage with her and started unrolling it--so I wished Lucy well and walked across the street. I scrubbed my hands three times in the sink, then scrubbed the sink and blotted it dry with wads of paper towels.

I spent most of the morning in a meeting that didn't require much participation from me, which allowed me to sit quietly shaking until my adrenaline shock wore off. I ended up leaving early after all, having worked late earlier in the week.

I was always a little proud of the fact that blood didn't faze me, especially around friends who go queasy at the mere idea of a bloody nose. I guess I can still claim that the sight of blood doesn't make me sick, but my pride in that fact has vanished. I spent most of the morning feeling vaguely ashamed, actually. I kept thinking about these guys. I thought of their friends who watched them die, who may have held them as they died, helpless to save them.

My heart aches for those men and women who have died, and for the grief faced by their families and friends, lovers and children. But I also grieve for their living friends, who watched them die and whose minds will never erase that memory, who will carry those moments with them every day and night until their own deaths. I want to find some place where I can kneel and wrap my hands around that ceaseless pain, clench my fingers around it and forcibly staunch the flow of those bloody memories.

And I can't do a damn thing but grieve.

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam