I was looking out of my driver’s side window on a winter day, slowly traveling past the row of mid-century houses on Dantzler Street in St. Matthews, South Carolina. It was a Tuesday morning, New Years Eve, in fact, and I'm on my way to work. The air was cool and crisp, the sky had a pinkish-orange hue as the sun peeked through the clouds; cars were still parked in their driveways, too early for their owners to have left for work.  The town, when quiet, had a peaceful essence about it. My side radio had been quiet for the entire 46 mile drive in from Columbia, which meant no 911 calls to our division yet. As I continued to pass these houses, I had memories of an old Independence Day Parade or some kind of celebration; there were decorative buntings hanging from the front porch rails, little girls in dresses and little boys running around waving tiny hand-held flags. I remember turning to look toward Harry C. Raysor Drive, the main thoroughfare through town, and seeing a parade float lead by baton twirlers. I saw neighborly wives in their twenties and thirties, with their perfectly coiffed hair and their poodle skirts, either hanging laundry or bringing out drinks or meals for their families.  It seemed like a memory anyway, perhaps an overactive imagination. Such a gorgeous old town. 

“Beeep beeep beeep” tones drop over the radio, and I’m quickly pulled from this memory. “Central, Unit two prepare to copy call at 601 Dantzler Street for lift assist.” That’s the old folks’ home. The only time dispatch calls out the address before a unit copies is when it’s the assisted living center. 

“Two en route to the old folks home.” I hear a crew member copy.

The nurses at the home are forever calling about something, usually at shift change. They always say “he was like that when I came in,” or “he just stopped breathing a few minutes ago,” and the patient would have long since passed away with obvious signs of death. I’m on my way to station 3, so it’s not my problem this morning. I think back to the memory I was so abruptly pulled away from. It was so vivid, full of amazement and wonder. I hear a man say “Sybil!” In the memory, I turn around, and there’s this attractive man, tall, slender, dark hair, gorgeous blue eyes, white shirt, blue jeans, “Call the children in! I have a surprise for them!” Oh what a difference between then and now.  So much has changed. 


I pull up at Station 3 and unload my gear for the usual twenty-four hour shift. We call station 3 the “vacation station” since we only ever back up station 2 (town) when 1 and 2 are out.  We get the calls heading westbound on the interstate and the occasional call to the unincorporated parts of the 550 square mile county. It’s a pretty easy job; we radio in our crew change, check off the ambulance, set up our bunks, do the daily cleaning, and then settle in for a nap, movies, or sometimes grab some peanuts from the field on the neighboring property and make the caviar of the south - boiled peanuts. Joseph and I had just relieved the off going crew. He’s a good medic, probably a couple years older than I am, and a bit of a husky man, but his size comes in handy on calls that require heavy lifting. In comparison, we’re total opposites; he’s a larger man, a yankee from either New York or Jersey, I never can remember. He can be quite loud, abrasive, and blunt. I, on the other hand, am a smaller, mid-western girl, reserved, always taking in and being aware of my surroundings.  Somehow, we both ended up in bumfuck South Carolina.

Station 1 was toned out to a structure fire stand-by, so they’ll be out for a while. Station 2 had long since been back from their lift assist and toned out again to an accident in Station 1’s coverage area. All of that moved us to Station 2 for stand by to cover town until one of the other units cleared up. Usually when this happens, we just stay in the truck. Neither one of us like going into other people’s quarters since they tend to get a bit accusatory and cut throat around here. Occasionally, I’ll get out, have a cigarette, and listen to him whine about how bad smoking is for me; then I’ll fuss at him about how bad his whining is for him. It’s a true partnership. One would think we were an old married couple. We can run most of our calls without saying a word to each other, that’s how in sync we are. 

At 10:13 a.m, we received our first, and only, call for our shift. “Unit 2 back up, Unit 3, prepare to copy call.”

Joseph copies in his thick accent, “three copies, send it.” His three sounds like “tree.”

“Unit three, you’re responding to 2-2-1 South Dantzler Street for an 87 year old female, unresponsive. Neighbor states that they can see her on the floor through the door window in the car port. Do you need law enforcement?”

“Negative, central. We’ll advise once we get on scene. Unit three en route.”

He’s driving, fires up the code three siren and lights. The address isn’t far, so I have to prepare quickly - his large gloves, my medium gloves; load the toughbook laptop to a new chart, climb in the back and throw the monitor and jump bag on the stretcher. When people are unconscious or unresponsive, every second counts, so we buy time however we can.

Three minutes go by. “Central, three is on scene,” I call into my radio, as I see the back doors of the ambulance come within feet of the carport awning.

“Central copies.”

The neighbor who had called it in met us at the door. I kept getting interrupted by flashes of the 4th of July bunting, the light blue house, the white trim, the children. 

“Okay, ma’am,” I ask the neighbor, “what’s your name?”

“Abby. Abigail. My friends call me Abby. I came over to bring her my Sunday paper like I do every week, and I saw her like that. I knocked and I banged as hard as I could. Is she… she’s not dead is she? Oh my g..” she covered her mouth with her hands as tears started to well up in her eyes.

Joe, Joseph, pulled the stretcher out of the back of the unit and goes toward the front of the house while I continued to distract Abby. “Ok Abigail? Abby? My name is Leigh. I need you to focus on me right now, ok?” I tell her, as we slowly walk away from the door. “Focus on my voice, look at my face. Here, let me hold your hand if it helps,” I try to comfort her. She starts crying. “Abby, we need to get into the house, honey. Do you know where she keeps a key? Or do you have a key? Does she have a husband? Someone we can call?”

Abby sniffles through her tears and chokes up as she speaks, “her husband’s car is right there,” she points to the only car in the port, “Ms. Prater hasn’t driven in years. I don’t know where her husband is, though. I haven’t seen him for a few days.”

Joe comes back to the car port with a solemn look on his face and shaking his head. 

“Joe? Whatcha got?

“Front door’s locked, no keys hidden. Youse?”

“Husband’s car,” I point to the car, “missus doesn’t drive. Abby here hasn’t seen the mister for a few days. She saw the old lady like that through the window. I can pick the lock or we can call LEO and F.D., but we now have two potentials instead of one, at least one of those is looking at the possibility of the ECU, and we have no way in.”

All it takes is that look of mutual understanding, and the knowledge that “ECU” means Eternal Care Unit, which isn’t available at the hospital. It’s a call to the coroner. “Central, Unit three,” I call over the radio with a grim tone.

“Three, go ahead.”

“Central, we’re in a bit of a bind. Can you take a phone call?”

“10-4 Three.”

I turn to Abby, “You’re a great friend Abby. You did the right thing by calling. Why don’t you go on home for a bit and we’ll do everything we can.”


Within minutes, St Matthews Fire & Rescue and St Matthews Police Department arrive on scene and have us in the house. I have Evan, a fire-fighter/medic with me downstairs, while Tammi, another Fire-fighter/medic goes upstairs with Joe and Officer Wilson. Due to the possibility of two patients, we had to split up into teams, and locate a potential patient. Our patient is lying prone, as if she had fallen, across the threshold of the dining and living rooms. Her cane is just out of her arm’s reach. Her head is turned sideways; her lips, fingertips, and eyelids have started to turn blue, and her skin is cold. She has released her bladder and bowels. There is no pulse, no respirations. There is what appears to be slight bruising to her hands, perhaps, but it’s hard to tell at this point. 

“Evan, can you get at her torso and help me roll her so we can start compressions?”

I get a handful of her pant leg at her knee and one above her pelvis, Evan grabs a handful of shoulder and a handful of pant leg below her pelvis; our arms make an X. We barely tugged. We didn’t need the monitor to confirm - rigor had already set in. The bruising I thought I’d seen was dependent lividity, the pooling of blood at the lowest point of the body due to gravity. As a Basic EMT, those are two of the only conditions that permit me to call a signal 9, or a death on arrival. 

“Scratch that?” he asks, light heartedly,

“Yeah,” I exhale as I sit back on my feet from a kneeling position.  I close my eyes just for a moment. “Will you let Joe know? I need to find some ID on her and call in the coroner.” I notice my breathing, the stagnant air, Evan’s aftershave, the old lady’s urine and excrement. The combination reminds me of an old, run-down, barely functioning assisted living facility. “Evan?”


“Thank you.”

He makes sure to carefully step around her - stepping over the recently deceased is bad luck in this business. I hear the kitchen door open, look up and I see Abby walking through the door. 

“Well, what are you doing to save her?”

“Everything we can Abby. Everything we can. Head on home now. I’m sure the family will keep you posted.” Abby steps closer, and I stand up and walk toward her. 

“You’re not doing anything!” she screams at me.

“Abby, I’ve given her some medicine, and since you’re not direct family, nor do you hold medical power of attorney, I can’t discuss her care with you. Now please, go home.”

“Leigh!” She screams “You said you’d do everything you could!”

“Abby..” I walk her to the door with a palm on her back “let us work.”

She leaves and I shut and locked the door behind her. I start looking for medicines, a purse, a wallet, anything that might identify this woman. The only thing I know at this point is that her last name is Prater, she’s approximately 87 years old, and she’s lying lifeless on the floor. I find her purse in the living room with a cluster of medicines on the coffee table. I hear Joe’s accent come over the radio as I place a hand on the arm of an old Victorian style wing-back chair, and I sit down. 

“Central Unit 3, We have a signal 9 times 2 at 2-2-1 Dantzler, repeat quantity 2 signal 9 at 2-2-1 Dantzler. Send D.C.”

D.C. is Deputy Coroner. Sometimes we use our version of abbreviations or street slang if others are around. Shit. Two 9’s. I grab her wallet out of her purse to ID her and head toward the stairs. Evan is leading Joe, Tammi, and Officer Wilson. 

“Mine’s still in rigor with lividity. Your’s?”  I have a solemn look as I relay information to my partner.

“You’se a shit magnet. He’s got no pulse, no respirations, in asystole, unshockable, no response to epi. Must have died within an hour or two of each other. Get ID?”


It’s the higher ranking partner’s place to chart a signal 9, but I open the wallet anyway. I flip through pictures (the blue house, white trim, bunting), with the wallet loose in my hand. I glance up and see an old photo on the wall of a young couple. The man in the photo is the same man from my memory this morning, the man that asked me to get the children for a surprise. I glanced back down at the wallet as I try to hand it to Joe, her Medicaid ID card identified her as “Sybil Prater.” (“Sybil, call the children in! I have a surprise for them!”). The wallet slid out of my hand, and as it hit the floor, the memory was gone. 


We let the coroner and PD take control of the scene and went back to our station for the rest of our shift. Stations 1 and 2 only caught one more call each throughout the remainder of the shift. Joe and I spent the night at the station, sitting in his bunk, wrapped in a blanket, watching the ball drop from New York on his laptop. It turns out he’s from Brooklyn. I did ask when we got back. I don’t know if one would call that celebrating, staying on edge waiting for 9-1-1 tones to drop because someone’s famous last words were “hey y’all, watch this,” but that’s how we did it. I fell asleep with my head on his shoulder and his arm wrapped around me. This is how we celebrate New Year's in pre-hospital emergency medicine; either saving someone's life, at a hospital, or sitting at our station with our partner, sometimes even sleeping. It's not just New Years Eve, it's any holiday. I happened to luck out. I never told anyone about what happened with the old lady, though. 

We found out several weeks later that Mr and Mrs Prater had, in fact, died a couple hours apart and of natural causes.  The family was apparently one of wealth, and the daughter held an estate sale and auction. She told the story of how her father surprised her and her brother with a color television on July 4, 1955. In the early 1970’s he painted the house from blue to a mint green. While she told these stories, her hand brushed atop a folded bunting that sat on a circular table, nestled between the two Victorian-style wing back chairs. 

I left the county not long after that, and lost contact with Joe for a while. I reached out to him again, and he got divorced. We started dating and eventually got married. We have a nice family - his two kids, and my two kids. He left EMS also. It’s better for us this way.

January 02, 2020 01:09

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