“We've got a ten-forty-five in progress on interstate twenty-three, near exit nineteen. Unknown number of injured. Multiple units necessary.”
“Ten-four dispatch, this is 241, we're on our way,” Emergency Medical Technician Eric Chang replied turning on the ambulance's sirens. He sighed, “You can't give us any more information than that?”
“There is a woman and her child confirmed involved in the crash, but we have no other information at the time.”
“Ten-four,” Chang put the receiver down and, closing his eyes, leaned his head back against the seat. Other voices were heard on the radio, but Chang paid them no heed.
“She say I-23, exit eighteen?” Their driver, Terrence Stump, asked. Stump was an aging black man whose only job was to drive the vehicle. He had no medical training, but he was the oldest of the three in the ambulance and easily the most respected. Stump had seen a lot in his time driving ambulances.
“Nineteen,” Chang replied without opening his eyes.
“Thank God the rain's let up,” Stump said. “I hate speeding in the rain.”
Chang said nothing.
“Did you not sleep last night, Eric?” Gillian Proctor, the paramedic sitting in the back, asked. Being a paramedic, she ranked highest of the three.
“I'm just tired.”
“Well, I need you up and perky,” she pat him on the arm. “We don't know what's down there.”
“It's just another job, Gil.”
“It's another life, Eric.”
“Yeah, I know,” he rolled his eyes, but Proctor couldn't see it. His eyes were still closed.
“Well, act like it. One day you may need an ambulance yourself.”
“Good God!” Stump suddenly exclaimed.
Chang opened his eyes and saw a car completely engulfed in flames. He picked the receiver up again and said, “Dispatch? 241, ten-twenty-seven! We've got a car on fire down here!”
“Ten-four, the fire department is inbound!”
Stump got as close as was safe and pulled over. Proctor said to them both, “Alright, we know there's a woman and child out there! Eric and I will look for them; Stump, I want you to look around and try to tell me what happened here, alright? Get anyone who's hurt away from the crash!”
“Yeah, I got it,” Stump opened his door and ran out.
“Let's go!” Proctor exclaimed as Chang went out his door. He grabbed his bag and they ran towards the mayhem. They ran amongst a flaming Mustang, an abandoned Corolla, and the rear end of a minivan. Parts and blazing ashes scattered everywhere. There must be a gas leak. Proctor stopped and told Chang, “I'm betting the mother and child were in the minivan, I'll search that part, you find the other!”
“Right,” Chang inhaled sharply and ran. There was a strange combination of humidity from the recent rain and dryness from the nearby fire. Chang noted where the first part of the minivan was and then looked for clues as to where the rest might be. It must have been sheared on the concrete divider, so he jumped over to the other side and saw rubble and wreckage leading off the interstate and into the woods next to it. There was only a short wire fence with a gaping hole between the road and the wilderness. Chang rushed to it and saw the horror below.
There he found the front of the van, but also a little girl sprawled beside it; her foot completely gone. Chang shook his head and ignored his disgust. No time for that. He ran down the steep incline to the wreckage. Inside the van was a woman; the little girl's mother, he guessed. Her eyes were shut and a metal bar pinned her leg to the seat. If she was even alive, it would take the rescue team to get her out. Blood stained everywhere. Chang put his finger to her neck. There was no pulse. He squinted his eyes and held back lament.
Turning his attention to the little girl, Chang put down his medical kit. Blood covered her leg where her foot was missing; her once polka-dot pink pants were reddened. Every single nth of medical training Chang had received told him that this little girl was dead. She had lost far too much blood. He put his hand over his mouth as he looked her over. Where's her foot?
He looked up at the incline again and saw a faint trail of blood. She must have hopped from the back of the minivan to the front; all the way across the divider and across the interstate. Admirable for this little girl, who must have been five. Chang looked down at this little girl and remembered himself at her age.
Both of his parents perished in a fire when they lived in Beijing. Eric was maybe four years old and never stopped blaming himself for the incident. Only vague memories remained, yet these images stuck. He could see, but not hear, his mother screaming as the flames engulfed everything around them. And he remembers the fireman pulling him away. His father? He never saw his father again. Eric doesn't even remember what he looked like.
Part of him envies the little girl laying there. She must be dead; she won't have to live knowing her mother had passed on. Chang wished, for the longest time, that he could have died in that fire. What a horrible thing to wish for, he knows, but the guilt is overpowering. And unrelenting.
But the other part of Chang wants to give this girl a second chance. After all, Chang got one. Americans adopted him and moved him here. As maturity dawned on Eric, he came to realize that his life is a gift and that he should never waste it. So, with this realization, he became an EMT. He decided that he could help people like him earn their second chance. But keeping it all in perspective is easier said than done.
Seeing himself in this poor little girl, Chang forgot all medical training and picked her up. He slung the girl over his shoulder, grabbed his bag, and made his way up the incline. He could save her; he could save himself! As soon as he was up, Terrence Stump saw him and ran back to the ambulance. Chang advanced in a jog, but was soon met by Stump and the stretcher. Eric laid the girl on the stretcher and readied his stethoscope.
“She's lost a lot of blood,” said Stump as he crossed his arms.
“Yeah,” Chang replied, again rolling his eyes. He put the stethoscope to her chest and heard nothing. She is dead. “Get me a bag of O negative.”
“She's dead, man, just give it up!”
“Do as I say!” Chang shouted as he tore the girl's shirt into a strip. He tied it around her ankle, hopefully to stop any blood from escaping.
“Here,” Stump handed him the cold bag of blood. Chang very quickly set it up and plugged the IV into her arm.
“Okay, come on,” He moved the girl's head back to open the airways. Pinching her nose, he put his mouth over hers and breathed a rescue breath. Nothing. Time for chest compressions. He pushed on her bloodied chest, “One, two, three, four, five!” Another rescue breath.
Proctor arrived at the scene, “What's going on?”
Chang ignored her, “One, two, three, four, five!”
The paramedic examined the scene, “Chang! She's gone! There's nothing we can do for her!”
“Yes, there is, I can save her!”
“Chang! Look at this!” Proctor grabbed his shoulder. “Her foot! You're just pushing more blood out the artery!”
“Then help me plug it up!”
“Damn it, Eric!” She pushed him away. “There is nothing we can do for her!”
He put his hands on his head and whimpered, “There's gotta- there's gotta be something!”
Gillian grabbed him by his arms and very gently said, “Eric, it's over. She's gone.”
“Eric,” she noted his eyes watered. “I need you to get it together.”
Chang looked into her eyes and remembered the same look on the fireman's face. He remembered being hysterical, just as he is now. The fireman couldn't calm him, but Gillian could. Chang sighed and pulled himself in. “Yeah, sorry.”
“What's gotten into you?”
“I'll be okay,” he wiped sweat off his brow. She kept her eyes in his, “I will; I'll be alright.”
“Did you find anything?”
“Yeah, the girl's mother is down there. She dead, too, but I couldn't get the body out. She's pinned through the leg.”
“My God,” Proctor exhaled. “Nobody made it in the burning Mustang either, but there's a third car and the driver's missing. We need to find him.”
“Right,” Chang once again grabbed his bag. “Do you know where he went?”
She sighed, “We didn't see him on our way here, so he must be down the road somewhere.”
Stump loaded the girl-laden stretcher back onto the ambulance as Proctor hopped in. He said, “Alright, we're ready.”
Chang hopped into the passenger's seat and felt a long-accumulating tear finally drip down his cheek. Without thought, he wiped it away. At age four, he didn't have the strength to wipe away his tears. They fell and fell and fell. There was no control. But at age twenty-eight, only a smattering manifested itself. Would it be enough?
He remembered the little girl and her dead face. It should have been him, but it wasn't. So, why was he spared? It certainly isn't to save that poor girl. He certainly thought that was his purpose, but apparently not. Is there a purpose? Eric certainly hoped so. There certainly must be a reason why his parents perished and he survived. He just hadn't seen it yet. Chang looked at the road ahead and then saw his purpose.
A man lay there, his hand clutching his hip. Chang jumped out and found that the man was alive, but unconscious. His hip was swelling; badly. “Get the stretcher! His hip is screwed.”
Stump nodded and pulled the stretcher out of the ambulance. The little girl still lay upon it. “Hey, what do I do with the girl?”
Chang's eyes widened as he turned to Proctor, “We can't just leave her!”
“No, we can't,” she exhaled sharply. “Set her body down on the floor inside; that's all we can do.”
“Right,” Stump cringed at touching a dead body, but did as he was told. That was one of the few parts of the job he really hated and avoided where possible.
“Think it's fractured?” Proctor asked.
Chang was silent. His mind lost to thought. What was he thinking?
“Eric,” she prodded. “Do you think the hip is fractured?”
He shook his head, “I can't tell; too swollen. Yeah, probably.”
“Stump, get us a morphine shot,” Gillian ordered. “Moving him is going to hurt like hell; might wake him up.”
“Yeah, morphine,” Chang nodded as he resumed his thoughts. Proctor could see the remorse, but she knew not what for.
“Chang, are you alright?”
“Sorry, I'm just- just tired.”
“You said that already.”
“That isn't all, is it?”
The look in his eyes told her all she needed to know.
“Morphine!” Stump handed Gillian a syringe, who then stuck it right into the unconscious man's arm.
“Alright, let's pick him up and put him on the stretcher!” Gillian grabbed his ankles as Chang took his shoulders. The man was larger than average, muscular, not fat. As soon as he was on, she and Stump loaded the stretcher.
Chang got back into the passenger's seat and radioed, “Dispatch, this is 241, we have an injured man with a swollen hip; probably fractured. We're on our way to the hospital, over.”
“Ten-four, 241, we'll be ready for you. What's the status of the crash in progress?”
“Vehicle still burning. At least one confirmed dead still on site,” he then remembered the little girl and hesitated, “We have one dead with us. Little girl; about five.”
“Right, 241, hospital will be ready. Are there any other injured?”
“If there are, we didn't see them, 241 out,” Chang hung up the receiver as Stump hopped back behind the wheel, turned on the sirens, and they were off.
During his thoughts before, and now, Chang came to a final realization. He came to realize that there were hundreds of people in the world he was meant to save. Thousands, even. That man in the back is one of them. That's a good enough purpose for Eric. It would have to be. He looked down at his EMT uniform and stroked his badge with his thumb. He'd wear the uniform proudly and maybe even go for paramedic one day, like Proctor.
But for all the people he could save, there were even more he couldn't save. He couldn't save that little girl, for one. No matter how much effort, no matter how much you could try, little Jenny would always be dead. One of the people beyond salvation, Chang realized, was himself. For all the thousands, Chang could never save himself. He would need someone else to do that.
Gillian's hand landed upon his shoulder and she asked, “Hey, Eric, you want to talk?”
He put his own hand upon hers, “Yeah, I'd like that.”
“How about dinner when this is all done?”
Chang turned to her and with a subtle smile, “Let's do it.”
Chang turned back around. He looked at the interstate and saw the overcast skies begin to clear. The sun came through in the cracks. His smile grew, “I think I will be. Yeah. I'll be alright.”