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The Look, The Terror, The Tears

It took a full year to recover from my injuries. I wasn’t allowed to be out in the sun. Facial wounds exposed to sunlight can result in significant scarring. A large wide-brimmed hat became my constant companion. At least I could work indoors. I landed a position with a new warehouse and distribution center for Troy Lighting. My boss was Andy Chang. Andy taught me how to do everything, from building light fixtures and repairing broken glass to handling all the packing, shipping and receiving. We kept inventory on a cardex system. It was a very interesting year. I still pumped gas when I could to supplement my income, but only after the sun went down.
The Lord had different plans for me though. An opportunity arose for me to attend the New Jersey State Department of Health Emergency Medical Technician (“EMT”) training program at no charge as long as you had a corporate sponsor. The owner of the gas station sponsored me through his trucking business, Mecca and Sons. I attended class with the owner’s sister, whose name escapes me.
In NJ, EMTs provide basic life support and advanced first aid. The most advanced activity they can perform is the application of Military Anti-Shock Trousers (MAST). Imagine, if you will, a pair of pants that can be blown up like a balloon while you’re wearing them. The tightening garment restricts blood flow in the lower extremities to force blood up to head and major organs. MAST trousers are used in cases of severe trauma where blood loss is significant. They are designed to prevent shock and the complications of system shut down.
At the time, the NJ EMT training program required 81 hours of class room training and 10 hours of in the field clinical training. You had to pass a comprehensive written exam as well as an evaluation of your technical skills in a live setting. The pressure to pass the technical evaluation was enormous. Miss any three classroom lectures and you were out of the program.
Everyone’s favorite part of the training was the vehicle extrication class. This was a Saturday session at an outside location. Every course was provided with five junk cars that were to be cut apart to simulate rescue operations after a serious motor vehicle accident. We got to use the hurst tool (jaws of life) and K-12 saws. We cut off doors and roofs, broke windshields, and just destroyed the vehicles to our hearts content. I have to admit, it was a lot of fun. I passed the EMT program the first time through.
Before anyone would hire you as a paid professional, you had to have at least one years’ experience under your belt. It’s a kind of catch-22. You can’t work as a paid professional unless you had the experience, but no one could hire you to give you the experience. The only avenue open to you to gain the needful first year was to sign-up for a volunteer program. I joined the Union City Volunteer Ambulance Corp. 24/7 most weekends and almost every other shift I could get my hands on. I became a regular fixture in Union City.
My first call in Union City was a murder. I can’t remember how the victim died, but he was definitely dead by the time we arrived at the scene. Since I was the new kid on the block, the senior members of the response team made me ride in the back of the bus (slang for ambulance) with the dead body because legally, he was a patient and not considered dead until a doctor pronounced him so. That first ride was scary. The victims face wasn’t covered and I kept imagining that I was seeing him breathing. I almost expected him to sit up in the stretcher at any moment. He reminded me of Bluto from the Popeye comics. He has a scruffy beard and a heavy set body like, well…like Bluto. Once we got to the hospital and he was pronounced dead by a physician, I discovered I wasn’t required to ride in the back of the bus at all. I was paying my dues.
After a year, the Lord began moving in an unusual way. There I was pumping gas again and what do I see on my corner, a little girl about 7 or 8 years old gets hit by a car and the car speeds away. Oh no! A hit and run on my corner! Somebody call 9-1-1 I remember yelling as I ran to assist the little girl. I performed a field assessment and determined there weren’t any signs of a major injury.
When the bus from the Jersey City Medical Center arrived, I identified my self as an EMT from Union City Volunteer Ambulance Corp and presented my clinical findings. The paramedic, Bud Lee, told me I did a good job and asked me if I would be interested in working full time. The Medical Center was actively hiring EMTs. I jumped at the chance. Bud gave me the name of Alan Bourassa, the Director of EMS for the hospital. I contacted Alan the next day.
I was hired as a per diem. That is, I was always on call and would come to work only when they needed me. I was needed a lot. I worked pretty steadily with many double shifts. I frequently got the psych run, transporting psychiatric patients to the Trenton State Hospital Mental Health facility. Some of those folks were scary crazy, but at least I was working.
After a year of per diem work, the Lord opened another opportunity to attend the Paramedic program. Paramedicine was in its infancy in NJ. I made it into the last pilot class paid for by the state. So again, the Lord gave me an education at no cost. Classes were held at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark. The didactic portion of the program was six months long, followed by six months of clinical rotation at a sponsoring hospital. I had to do all of this and still maintain a full time job schedule to pay the bills.
Clinical rotation included doing time in the operating room working with anesthesiologists to learn how to intubate patients. We also worked in the phlebotomy lab learning how to draw bloods. We did other rotations through the Emergency Room, OB/GYN, pediatrics, neo-natal intensive care, psychiatry, intensive care, cardiac care, and oh yes, the morgue. We had to assist the coroners in performing five autopsies.
Paramedics provide advanced life support. We carried much of the equipment on the bus that you would find in an emergency room. We were taught how to read cardiac monitors, administer emergency drugs, and how to improve the quality of a persons life under the most severe and stressful situations. I passed the program the first time through and was issued license # 428.
The Jersey City Medical Center had a busy ambulance service. For a population estimated at 250,000 housed in 18 square miles, we ran three busses from 8am to 12 midnight and two from midnight to 8am. As a service we responded to more the 25,000 calls annually. My personal busiest day was 17 calls in an 8 hour shift.
As paramedics began to expand across the state and new territories were authorized, there weren’t enough medics available to staff the positions. So those of us who were more seasoned frequently took a second full time job to cover the manpower shortages. I was no exception. I started working a second full time job at Clara Maass Medical center in Belleville. We covered North Newark, Belleville, Nutley, Lyndhurst, North Arlington, Harrison, and parts of Bloomfield and Montclair. I worked at Clara Maas from 11pm to 7am and would shoot to Jersey City to start my day 8am to 4pm day shift. I was very busy and very tired.
During all that time I personally responded to over 25,000 calls. (Actually, I think it was like 40,000, but I’m being conservative in my estimate). About 15% of those calls were true, priority one emergencies. These were calls to help people who were either dead or dying. As the science of paramedicine matured, the task of performing the initial pronouncement of death fell on the medics.
We saw a lot of dead people. I estimate that for the time I spent in the field, I saw 3,600 to 4,000 people either dead or dying. With all those deaths, only once, did I enter home where the family members were praising God because their loved one went home to Heaven. Only once! They were singing hymns, quoting scripture, and expressing true joy because their dearly departed was now in Glory. My medic partner and the other EMTs that responded with me thought the family was nuts. I held a different perspective.
There was one other death that I will never forget. I don’t remember the man’s name, or even what he was dying from. I don’t remember whether it was trauma or a medical problem. What I do remember is that I was working his airway. I had intubated him and was breathing for him through an ambu-bag attached to the endotracheal tube. It was my job to watch his face. There were more deaths than I can count where mine was the very last face those dying saw on this side of life.
It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. You can often read how a person is feeling just by looking into their eyes. You’ve probably been able to know when a loved one was happy or sad without them ever uttering a word, just be gazing into their eyes. It was no different with this patient.
One thing that was unusual with this call is that the patient maintained consciousness throughout the dying process. Just before he took his final breaths, I noticed tears running down his cheeks. This drew my attention and I watched his eyes. First, I perceived fear. Within a couple of breaths the fear turned into sheer terror, then he was gone, his terror replaced with the dilated pupils of death.
That perception of terror haunted me. I often wondered what it was that caused him such fear and terror. I can’t prove what I think happened, but I do have an opinion. Let me explain by referring you to the book of Acts.
In Acts chapter 6, the early church was growing rapidly. As a result of the rapid growth, the Grecians were murmuring because the widows were being neglected in the daily ministrations. In other words, their physical need for sustenance was not being met. The Apostles wisely chose seven men of good report to serve the physical needs of the church. Stephen was one of these first deacons.
Stephen had a reputation for being filled with the Holy Ghost. He did great wonders and miracles amongst the people. As a result, the leaders of certain synagogues known as the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and the synagogues in Cilicia and Asia, desired to oppose Stephen’s work for the Lord. They conspired against him and accused him on blasphemy.
When we pick up the story in Acts chapter 7, Stephen gives an encapsulated history of Israel beginning with God’s call to Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees all the way to the Just One who came in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. This incensed the leaders of the synagogues and they physically attacked Stephen. A remarkable and unprecedented event occurred while Stephen was under attack. Acts 7:54-60 reads:
“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Verses 55 and 56 are the verses I want you to focus upon:
“But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.”
In these verses, God opened Stephen’s spiritual sight and allowed him a glimpse of the Glory that awaited him for his belief and faith in the Messiah. This is the same Glory that awaits every born-again believer in God. Because of this vision, Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned to death.
What I think happened to the man in the back of my ambulance, is that in the last few moments of his life, God opened his spiritual sight and allowed him to see his eternal destiny. All of us have eternal life. Where we spend eternity is a choice we have to make while we still have our physical life. The eternal life spoken about in the Bible is the Glory Stephen glimpsed before his death. It is living for eternity with God in Heaven. For those who choose to reject the truth of Jesus Christ, eternal life means an eternity separated from God in a place designed to punish Satan and all the rest of the fallen angels, his demons. This place is called Hell. It is a place of terror, torment, and eternal separation from the God of Love.
I believe that what the man saw in the back of my ambulance was the pit of hell opened before him as he took his final breaths. I saw the terror and tears in his eyes and I remember clearly thinking to myself, “Wow! This man just went to hell.” I was helpless to do anything about it.