It was 5 am, still dark but with the sky just the beginning to lighten in the east. We're headed to a base for the first time all night, exhausted and spent after call after call, hoping to get a half hour to nap before we head home. Those weak hopes are dashed just before the base comes into view, "Code 4 to a VSA". I'm not sure if my groan is audible or not, but I swing the truck around and hit the lights. Somebody has woken up to find a family member dead, and it's our job to see if they are really dead or just nearly dead.
Fire is already on scene when we arrive, I have a good friend who works out of that station but its not his rotation. I like seeing him on calls because I know him, I trust him and he knows his stuff. We walk into the stereotypical Grandma and Grandpa's apartment, wall-to-wall thick beige carpet, pastel walls, ceramic plates and shiny silver spoons in a display cabinet. It could be my Grandparent's.
She is sitting in a well-used recliner, reading glasses on, paperback novel splayed out on the carpet beside her feet. She would look like she was napping if she was any colour other than bluish-gray. The Captain is with her husband and son in the kitchen, already explaining that she has passed away and there is nothing left to do. We approach her with our bags and my heart sinks as I begin my assessment. There is no question that the woman is dead, but she has not been dead long enough to allow for a field pronouncement. No rigor mortis, no mottling from where the blood has collected due to gravity. She is in fact, still warm. My partner and I exchange glances, we know she is dead and is most likely not coming back, but there is no other option, our protocol dictates that we must work her, we must attempt resuscitation simply because she is not quite dead enough. Damn. The family is already grieving.
We slide her out of her recliner and I begin CPR as my partner starts to assemble airway equipment and dictate tasks to the surprised fire department. I hear the captain in the kitchen rapidly change his tune as he hears what we are doing. He tries to explain the sudden flurry of movement without giving them false hope, but it is next to impossible. We run through the steps of our resuscitation smoothly and quickly. There is no adrenaline rush, no sense of urgency, and it feels almost like a practice code from school. Check off the steps, but the outcome is already known, confirmed once we reach the point where we can call the physician and finally let the poor woman rest.
My partner goes to talk to the family as I clean up the living room. She is exposed from the waist up, so I tidy up her torn pajamas, smooth down her rumpled hair and cover her up with an afghan from the couch. She still looks like she is sleeping, lying on the carpet with a blanket she probably made herself, just now with a tube sticking out of her mouth and an IV in her arm. In my exhaustion, I am struck by the emotion of the situation. The family's despair, the hopeful 911 call, the firefighters storming in to save the day only to let them down, then our arrival and a burst of false hope, followed by the realization that she was indeed gone. As I hear the heartbroken sobs of her devoted husband of decades, I busy myself with gathering the assorted pieces of equipment scattered around, not trusting myself to make eye contact with anybody until I have composed myself.