It was late when I got the call
About a person, a car, and a wall.
When I did arrive
After quite a long drive
My skills were not needed at all.
Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places. Right now I’m living in Amberley, and working the last week of a four-week assignment in Waikari, less than an hour from quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island.
Yesterday my clinic hummed along at a steady pace. I saw a lot of farmers and a few teachers and school kids. The younger children make up a fair chunk of the patient load.
Now in the last month of Southern Hemisphere autumn, the sun goes down early, and I loaded the PRIME medical kit into the car for my last night on call here in Waikari/Amberley.
I stopped off at the clinic in Amberley to pick up my two beepers; one of the receptionists informed me that, under the mistaken impression I would work an evening clinic, I had a patient at 5:45.
I don’t get annoyed with one-time (or, as the Kiwis say, a one-off) flubs any more. I nodded, waited for the patient to arrive, had a great conversation, made some lifestyle modification recommendations, and refilled a prescription.
I drove home in the dark. Bethany and I went to the Thai restaurant and afterwards played Scrabble. I was about to start practicing my (borrowed) saxophone when one of my two beepers went off.
The St John Ambulance dispatcher sounded a bit abrupt over the phone, and in places, hard to understand. A motor vehicle accident, she said, and specified a location.
Without geography you’re nowhere.
I had her repeat the location, which still didn’t make any sense, but, hey, OK, not mine to reason why. After all, I have a GPS.
Hold on, I told her, and I called my back-up.
You’ll do fine, she told me, if you have your ATLS certification that’s more sophisticated than PRIME.
I called the dispatcher back. The more I tried to find out where I needed to go the more annoyed she got with me, but, darn it, I’m not about to set off in a hurry to an undisclosed location.
I didn’t recognize the name of the town, and she had to spell PARNASSUS. But, feeling it an emergency, I had no time for internet map research.
Bethany, thankfully, volunteered to come with me.
With the revolving green light on the roof we set off north. Ten kilometers out of town, I had Bethany call the ambulance people again. Where?
“Ten kilometers north of Parnassus, which is ten kilometers north of Cheviot,” I heard Bethany repeat as I passed the sign saying CHEVIOT 59K at a speed in excess of the 100 KPH limit.
As the kilometers whizzed by at the rate of 1.6 to a mile, I thought things through and realized that minutes wouldn’t make a difference. I fell in behind three semis and had Bethany unplug the light.
North of Waipara the road grows tight curves and a one-lane bridge. We sang some Bob Dylan songs. We passed Cheviot and Parnassus, and 11 kilometers later came to the scene.
Three fire engines and four police cars flashed their lights. I drove on the wrong side of the road past the backed-up traffic, announced myself to the cop with the STOP sign, and parked behind a fire truck.
As I got out of the car, a paramedic came to me from the ambulance.
The patient, already aboard the helicopter, would take off at any moment.
I stood on the asphalt as the chopper lifted, fingers in my ears, clinging to the bill of my cap, with walls of limestone setting the stage for the brutal reality of theater in the streets, grateful the patient hadn’t needed my services.
We drove back at a more sedate pace. I filled the tank in Amberley in case I received another 200 K round-trip call. After three hours on the road we came back to the flat with jangled nerves, and slept poorly.
Adrenaline kept me going through the day; at my exit interview this evening I learned I could have refused the call for being too far away.