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Jennifer Nye


6 min
Rated:
Mature

Drink


Man On The Shoulder

Death is a half-mile stretch away

by Jennifer Nye

We could see black smoke rising high into the air before we even got close to the interstate. I knew this was going to be bad.

Man On The Shoulder | Death is a half-mile stretch away

They say bad things come in threes… but it only took two to change my life.

One hot sunny Saturday in August, 2001, in an attempt to find some working air conditioning, my 14-year-old daughter and I jumped into the car and headed to Old Navy. It was in the next town over so we took the highway. The windows were open and the hot wind was blowing our hair all over. Yes it was hot, but what a great moment — the two of us singing at the top of our lungs in harmony, “Yeah, sing with me, sing for the year, sing for the laughter, sing for the tear, sing with me, just for today, maybe tomorrow the good Lord will take you away…”

Suddenly, my vision snapped to a white SUV pulled over in the breakdown lane. The driver was dragging a limp body from the passenger seat. I had to help. And as a volunteer EMT, I felt a strong moral responsibility to do everything I could.

I pulled the car over and ran to the unconscious man, not knowing what I was going to find. He wasn’t breathing and I couldn’t find a pulse, so I had to start CPR immediately. I noticed the wet stain on the front of his khakis and thought he might already be gone. If I had been on duty on a BRT (big red truck), I would have been able to use a defibrillator right away to attempt to save him. But at that moment, CPR was the only tool I had. I started triage, yelling at my daughter to run back to the car to get my jump bag and call 911.

As I breathed into the inert man, his friend sat on the guardrail. Weeping in his confusion. Helpless in his despair.

His eyes had rolled back in his head and his jaw hung slack. His skin was tinged blue, and I feared his airway was blocked. He had no gag reflex, so I tilted his head back and inserted an oral airway to prevent his tongue from falling to the back of his mouth and blocking his throat. But nothing was blocking the airway — he simply wasn’t drawing breath. I started artificial ventilation, going back and forth between breaths and compressions, breaths and compressions, breaths and compressions. Each compression was a forceful press of my overlapped hands on his chest, hard enough to jumpstart the heart. To get him breathing again.

With every downward press, his limbs bounced and his head tilted to one side. I kept my gaze locked on his face, hoping that he would show some sign of life. My arms shook from overwork and sweat was pouring down my face and neck, dampening my clothes. The drops of sweat coming off of me formed a puddle in the gravel beneath my feet.

A state trooper pulled up and ran over to me. Communicating only with gestures, he kneeled at the man’s chest and took over the compressions so I could concentrate solely on the breathing. Immediately we became a synchronized team trying to beat the odds. Fifteen compressions, two breaths… fifteen compressions, two breaths. Only our counting broke the silence. As I breathed into the inert man, his friend sat on the guardrail. Weeping in his confusion. Helpless in his despair.

We were there for what seemed like hours trying to revive him on that hot, coarse ground. By the time the paramedics arrived and tried the defibrillator, it was too late. We had done what we could, but he died anyway. Physically and emotionally drained — I was completely and utterly devastated.

The drive home was silent. It’s hard to know what to say to your children sometimes. This was one of those times. She would learn that sometimes there was just nothing to say.

That’s when it happens. It is love at first sip. I finish my drink quickly and ask for another.

Once I got back home and was able to detach a bit, I sat quietly with my old friend and confidante, Jack. I had turned to Jack for comfort in times of stress for as long as I could remember. He’d been there for me since a certain New Year’s Eve in a honkytonk in some out-of-the-way town in Texas.

And my mind began to wander.

I am sitting at a small table with my family, feeling totally out of place. A cowboy, or what I know as a cowboy from Westerns I’ve seen, sidles over and asks me for a dance. He’s about 6-foot-4 but looks 7 feet tall in his hat. He isn’t as hot as Luke Collins in The Longest Ride, but he’s ruggedly handsome in his own way. He has a nice face: blue eyes with a light, blondish stubble. His alligator boots are perfect, though well-worn. His silver belt buckle catches the twinkling lights on the ceiling.

With him leading, I do pretty well — for a girl from Connecticut. We swirl around the sawdust, creating whirly patterns on the old wooden dance floor. When we’re near exhaustion and thirstier than desert cacti, we head back to the bar where the cowboy buys me my first Jack Daniels on the rocks. The Jack is harsh at first, but slowly warms me from the inside out. That’s when it happens. It is love at first sip. I finish my drink quickly and ask for another.

Ever since then, Jack has always been there for me when I needed him.

I had never had someone die in my hands before. I felt like I’d failed. I ran the scenario through my mind thousands of times, wondering what else I could have done. I never came up with anything. Then I cried.

I needed him the day my CPR failed the man in the white SUV. When I got home, I took out my bottle of Jack. My hands, which had been so steady during CPR, now shook fiercely as I fumbled, splashing almost as much on the counter as in my glass. I tossed it back and tried to reconcile the events of the day.

I had never had someone die in my hands before. I felt like I’d failed. I ran the scenario through my mind thousands of times, wondering what else I could have done. I never came up with anything. Then I cried.


Seven days later I was on duty with a fellow volunteer firefighter, Frank, when a call came in. Dispatch told us there was a car fire on the interstate, but didn’t give us any more detail. We hopped into our BRT and sped to the scene with lights blazing and sirens wailing.

We could see black smoke rising high into the air before we even got close to the interstate. I knew this was going to be bad.

It was.

The car had veered off the highway, smashed into the guardrail, and skidded along the median for quite a distance. We found its four occupants scattered along the center median.

Frank and I ran to the driver, a young black man, who was still smoldering. A crowd of about 30 people were gathered around the man, dousing him with the water bottles from their cars. But it wasn’t going to be enough.

You could see pink muscles through the cracked char that covered his body where his clothes had burned away. What wasn’t burned was smoldering, so we began to cut off his remaining clothes and boots. Frank took the top and I started from the bottom.

No matter how hard I try, I will never forget the smell of his burning flesh. His screams tore at me. I wished for him to lose consciousness to escape his excruciating pain and stop screaming. But he did not stop.

Later, we found out that he had died at the hospital. I hoped that he had gone quickly, avoiding additional agony from his deep burns.

At home after the car fire, I could still hear the driver’s screams in my head; I could still feel his ribs cracking beneath my hands. The smell of burning flesh lingered on my clothes. I threw them in the trash. No amount of laundry detergent could remove that smell. Then I poured myself an even larger drink than I’d had a week earlier. I hoped Jack could help to obscure the images now etched permanently in my brain. I hoped he could remove the smell seared into my nose. Jack again stood ready to help ease my pain. To make me forget. To help me think of something, anything, except the events of the day.

We sat quietly together for awhile until I got my nerves under control. As I stared at the bottle in my hand, at the “Old No. 7” on its label, I wondered whether I was really cut out for this line of work. First there had been the man with the heart attack and now this car fire victim. The two tragedies had only been separated by a half-mile stretch of road and a mere seven days. It was too much to handle. This is it for me, I thought as I took a swig of Jack. My part-time career as an EMT was over.

Jack and I don’t get together out of necessity much anymore; these days I only see him socially. But given what I’ve seen, I don’t take the calm of my current life for granted.

The state trooper’s commander learned about our desperate rescue attempt. He recommended both of us for a Connecticut State Police Lifesaving Medal, an honor rarely given to civilians. I received the award the same day as the search and rescue dogs who had scoured the crumbled remains of the Twin Towers for survivors only a month after the car fire. Yup, I was out of my league.

Like those brave rescue dogs from that unforgettable day in September, I’d hoped to save lives. But it didn’t happen that way. Having that medal in my hand made me feel like a fraud. I hadn’t saved anyone. Do you know how many brave men and women do this job day in and day out? They are the ones who should be getting medals. Silently, I dedicated that medal to all first responders and thanked them for the selflessness with which they carry out their jobs.

Those first responders are the ones cut out to save lives. I honestly can’t say that I am. But once I experienced the terrible challenges these brave souls face, I knew I had to keep doing something to support them. So I continued my public service as part of our town’s Board of Directors, using my voice to champion issues that affected first responders.

My life is a lot calmer these days. Jack and I don’t get together out of necessity much anymore; these days I only see him socially. But given what I’ve seen, I don’t take the calm of my current life for granted.

It’s not like I kicked Jack out or anything. He’s still around, mainly for fun.

But he’s also always on standby, just in case I need him.