The call comes in around six a.m. because that’s when old people tend to get up. Rain or shine, winter or summer, sick or retired – they like to see the sun rise. I’d been at a house fire the night before and my partner had been chasing transfers, so the page for the little old lady fall doesn’t hold a lot of appeal. We grouse around, find our boots, and set off in the early morning chill with the ambulance lights bouncing off the downtown Christmas lights and the new sun cutting the horizon.
Feeling the lack of coffee.
Our patient is supine on the floor of a living room that is rife with collectables, Santa wrapping paper and two walkers. The obligatory poinsettias on spindly end tables. Maneuvering the cot will be a difficulty, but not impossible, so my partner initiates that project while I tend to the fall victim.
Almost certainly a broken hip, with the classic rotating of the ankle, the shortening of one leg. She rates her pain at a ten – on a scale of one to ten - in that quiet way the elderly have of voicing a difficulty without letting it own them. She had fallen, she said, in the bathroom, but Frank had helped her to get dressed and had gotten her this far before they both gave out.
“He was going to take you?” My question is abstracted; I’m listening for her blood pressure.
‘To the hospital?’ was the tag on my unfinished question, but she misunderstands, and answers a bit archly. “Well, he always has. Taken care of me.”
And for the first time I see Frank. He hovers in the kitchen doorway on the telephone – small, thin and bent. Not looking as though he could take care of anything this morning.
My partner has wrestled the cot into the living room, and from there it’s easy peasy – our patient is small, our cot a modern wonder. Pillows for comfort around the hip, two steps going down the porch, across a beautifully manicured lawn and we’re in the rig with a minimum of discomfort.
I dash back for the jump kit, across the porch and into the living room. And for the first time I see Frank.
He’s crying. He had, of course, thought we’d left, and he’s leaning against the china cupboard with his face in his hands, shoulders shaking, when I come back in.
He’s quick. His head comes up, hands mop his cheeks, and I notice how big those hands are, How rough, with their stubby nails and scarred knuckles.
“Forget something?” he asks drily.
Courage wears a lot of faces. But this face, here today, is the one that’s breaking my heart.
He’d always taken care of her. And today he couldn’t get her from the bathroom to the front door. Always held her hand, and today we’re doing that. Slept with her for probably sixty years and tonight he’ll sleep alone. In one horrid and irrevocable moment, his life has changed utterly, and he wants to know if I forgot something.
Yeah, I forgot to be kind.
Courage is hardly ever about the rush you get when you dash into the house fire. It’s not about extricating the accident victims from the mangled car or even doing CPR on the SIDS baby. Courage has love and compassion at its core.
So I put on my own courage face and breach the comfort zone between myself and this man I have only just seen; and I hug him. At first he stiffens, but then he hugs me back and for a long moment we just stand there like that.
Finally I say, “Do you want to ride to the hospital with us?” and Frank and I walk out into the new morning.
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