I circle above the accident in the EMS helicopter I fly and take in the scene through the front and side windows. Below on the divided two-lane highway several cars are stopped at odd angles on the road and in the ditch. These are surrounded and intermingled by twice as many EMS vehicles, a mixture of ambulances, fire trucks and police cruisers. The traffic stopped in both directions has built up to mile long standstill. We know there are multiple individuals needing medical attention but have not yet heard the extent of their injuries.
Despite what you might think, my heart rate is normal and my breathing even. I don’t feel amped up and my veins don’t course with adrenalin. I am calm and alert.
Instead what I feel is an enhanced sense of perception. It both widens and deepens into a hyperawareness that allows me to take in the big picture and the small details. I continue my circle, planning my approach to the landing zone while noting the obstacles in the area, the cell towers, rising terrain, and searching again and again for powerlines and wires- the thing I’m least likely to see from the air and the most likely to pull me out of the sky.
After we land, my crew, a nurse and paramedic, clamber out from the back of the helicopter carrying bags of emergency gear and a heart rate monitor beneath the still spinning rotor blades to the back of what I now think of as “our” ambulance with “our” patient. Finished with the aircraft shutdown, I join the people moving about the scene and my enhanced sense perception continues.
I notice the police officer bend his chin toward the radio affixed to the shoulder of his uniform, the firefighters in their gold turnouts, last names printed in reflective letters at the bottom edge of the back of their jackets and a stray sock in the median. I notice a wool blanket placed over a different patient before they are loaded into another ambulance. A traffic lane opens and cars creep by, some drivers studying the scene while others stare fixedly ahead, preventing the image of twisted metal and crushed vehicles from being etched in their minds.
Even from the ground, I still can’t tell exactly what happened to cause the accident or which of these vehicles was the catalyst. It doesn’t really matter. Everyone involved will be changed because of this day. What I can tell is it was bad, the entire front end of one vehicle compacted in on itself.
As they often do in these moments, my thoughts turn to my Dad. Four years after his accident I still feel thankful for the first responders and medical personnel that helped him survive his accident and give us time to say goodbye. I feel proud and grateful I’m able to do the same for others.
In these moments I am also aware of life’s juxtapositions. It is by experiencing the contrast of two things that we are capable of understanding them both. The deeper our experience of one, the more we are able to experience the other. Immense sadness allows us to know boundless happiness. The experience of grief allows us to experience joy. The more we know dying, the more we can live.
The light chatter amongst the EMS personnel reflects this: it is somber while also euphoric. We greet those we know by name and share a smile and then turn back to the scene to speculate at the events that have unfolded just a few minutes ago. We know the speed at which things can change and have changed for the people involved but are delighted at our own aliveness.
The patient is now ready for transport and we wheel him to the side of the helicopter. He is cursing and screaming from pain and blood drips down his face while the crew draws up another dose of pain medication. In the years I’ve been flying an EMS helicopter, I’ve learned a patient that is yelling is good sign. It indicates life. The quiet ones are the ones closest to death unable to expend energy on anything but survival.
After we drop the patient at the hospital and are flying back to base, we see red and blue lights flashing in the distance. An occupant of the most badly mangled vehicle was pronounced dead at the scene, her body unable to withstand the impact. It will be a long evening for those still at the scene.
When I drive by the next morning, the only evidence of the crash are a few lines of orange spray paint marking the path of the vehicles as they collided and came to a halt. Had you not known about the accident you might not notice the paint or pass it off as markings for a construction project. What you can’t see in the lines is the pain of the families as they learned their loved one did not survive or the relief of those that did. You can’t see the trauma or grief. These marks are internal and never go away.
We all have these marks engraved on our souls. Some of them are deep wounds while others are passing upsets or disappointments. Each of us also have the joyful moments too. The memories of a perfect day of kayaking or the evening of laughter with family and friends around a campfire. These are just as important though we often are more occupied with the traumatic.
As I continue my drive to work, I am again grateful to have a job where I’m reminded on a daily basis that we never know how long our life might be. I know the importance of living because I see the dying. I spend the rest of my drive recalling and savoring some of my life’s favorite moments. It isn’t the momentous that I remember but rather the everyday moments of joy and connectedness.
It is my hope, my wish, and my dream, that my story reminds you that life changes in an instant and you never know when that might be. That you will be inspired to clean up hurtful words, tell people you love them, and to stop waiting for someday to create the life you’ve always dreamed about living. That you’ll allow joy to envelop your soul and your laughter to flow freely. That you will savor living.
What are two things that you are savoring right now? Share in the comments.