May 4 is International Firefighters’ Day. After his first day on the job as a new firefighter in Asheville, North Carolina, Mike Schoeffel, wrote this essay about what he saw and felt.
The thing they don’t tell you about a dead body is the way it just lies there. You can give a human being in cardiac arrest chest compressions, you can breathe for them, you can inject them with fluids. But if none of that works, the body will just lie on the floor like a sack of rice. You’ll have to step over it as you pick up trash from the used medical supplies strewn across the room.
The unceremonious finality feels insensitive to the recently deceased, but the person is gone. You’ve done everything you could. There’s no need to prolong it: clean up and move on. Ignore the nonperson lying at your feet, the thing that was alive a few minutes ago but is now just a body.
They don’t tell you about all of this because they couldn’t accurately describe it if they wanted to: the ribs breaking under the pressure of your palms. The air making a fart noise as it exits the lips. The AutoPulse hammering the human chest like a piston into Jell-O. The sweat, the smells. And then the dead body just lying on the floor as you toss needle wrappers into a trash bag. “Thanks for your help,” the paramedic says. “No problem,” you respond. “Thank you.”
This was my first major call as a firefighter on my first day with the Asheville Fire Department in western North Carolina. It happened on my first 24-hour shift. I ran three routine medical calls the day before, went to sleep, woke up, and prepared to go home at 7 a.m. But at 7:05, a cardiac arrest call came in, and my replacement hadn’t shown up yet. I hopped on the truck, and off we went toward the residence of the future dead body. The other back man on the truck had just arrived and jumped on, still wearing street clothes. He pulled on his turnout pants as we sped down the street. I was in a blue, department-issued uniform.
The human being we raced toward was not in good health. He was perhaps in his 50s and overweight, and fast-food wrappers and old food were scattered all over his apartment. He’d called 911 to say he was having heart problems. When we arrived, he was lying on his side in bed, a phone resting on his left ear. He was breathing, barely, maybe three times per minute. His laptop was playing a YouTube video about alien abductions. He was in his underwear, covered in sweat. A picture of a smiling, gray-haired woman, possibly his mom, rested on the nightstand.
They don’t tell you about all of this in rookie school because the specifics defy verbalization. The academy is a kind of playhouse: all of the fun stuff — rescuing people from buildings, putting out pallet fires — without any of the real-world terror. The stakes are not high. Instructors do their best to re-create what it’s like on the street, but they can only do so much.
“Do you have street clothes you can change into at the station?” my partner asked as he squeezed the bag-valve-mask. I was busy breaking ribs.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Make sure you decon those pants as soon as we get back. This place is grimy as hell.”
It was surreal, the way the two of us were having a casual conversation while attempting to revive a human being. That’s the kind of shit they don’t tell you about in rookie school: the casualness of it all, the way that witnessing death becomes, if not normal, routine. They don’t tell you about how paramedics crack jokes while a guy is on the verge of death. The gallows humor isn’t meant to be disrespectful, but it is a means for coping with the horror and making sense of an emotionally draining situation.
We worked the cardiac arrest for about 20 minutes before the paramedic finally called it. The automated external defibrillator, the AutoPulse, the bag-valve-mask — none of it made the situation any better. That’s when the cleanup began, with the body just lying there, as if it were another inanimate object in the room — which, I suppose, it was. I pulled the King Airway from the body’s throat. It was covered in spit and white chunks. For a second, I was worried that I might have hurt him. But then I remembered.
As I sit here now on my back porch in the mountains, images from the morning flash across my mind: my partner and I rolling the man out of bed onto a stair chair, his gut too big to lock the safety belt around, prompting him to fall to the floor with a disturbing thud. Our captain telling me to start CPR. The ribs breaking. The lips farting. The AutoPulse pistoning into Jello. The King Airway covered in spit. The animate turning inanimate.
I know I’ll witness much more gruesome scenes. More blood, gore, general chaos. Children. The deaths will pile up until they become, if not normal, routine. I’ll grow hardened but, I hope, not hard. I’ll deal with these deaths in my own way, as they occur, but this one will forever be the first. There has been a palpable shift; something fundamental has changed within me. Rookie school seems like a distant memory, even though my last day was a week ago.
When we got back to the station, the captain asked whether I was okay. He knew it had been my first serious call, so he gave me his number and told me to text him if I needed to talk. I thanked him, and when I got home, shot him this text:
“I just wanted to say thanks for reaching out to me this morning. As a guy with no experience, it meant a lot.”
To which he replied:
“It is my pleasure, Mike. We have a unique job. We see a lot of hard things, but we do it together…If you ever need to talk, I am available…You performed beautifully this morning. Particularly in a very shitty situation. Very proud. You’re welcome on my rig anytime.”
The thing they do tell you about in rookie school is how firefighting is a brotherhood. I learned that firsthand this morning.
This essay originally appeared at firefighternation.com on March 1, 2021.
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