One of the most challenging non-patient related issues in EMS is bad weather. Driving a five-ton, high profile vehicle in a snow storm can fray even the steeliest of nerves. I wouldn’t say my nerves are steely to begin with, so put me in an ambulance in the middle of the night during a blizzard, and my nerves can turn to goo pretty quickly.
We were in the midst of one of the worst blizzards I can remember. It was Biblical, and no pun is intended. It had been snowing hard for over twenty-four hours and just when I didn’t think the wind could get any stronger, I would be proven wrong. City snowplows were out en force but within minutes of clearing a street, the wind would howl and the streets would drift shut again.
The dispatch center had gone into the severe weather emergency mode which meant that each request for an ambulance was being carefully evaluated. In some cases, people were being told they would have to wait until the storm passed. For example, if someone had been experiencing knee pain for the last three weeks but decided they suddenly needed to see an ER doctor, they were told they would have to wait or find their own way to the hospital. If a person called and said that someone had a knife protruding from their forehead, an ambulance would be dispatched immediately.
I am not sure why psych problems fall into the category of needing an ambulance in the middle of a blizzard, but they do, and my truck was graced with one such call. We were dispatched to a Catholic church at around 3 AM. The update was pretty vague…a pysch problem and PD was already on scene. The drive to the church took twenty minutes and by the time we got there, my jaw hurt from grinding my teeth.
The church was an older, musty-smelling building and it was pitch black when we walked inside. We fumbled our way in the dark toward voices and found everyone in the sanctuary in front of the altar. Two cops were standing off to the side and the only light was coming from their flashlights as they shined them on the patient. The patient was a middle aged Hispanic woman. She was kneeling at the altar and rocking back and forth. Her brother was sitting next to her and trying to console her. The patient’s daughter was standing off to the side with her head down and her hands folded in front of her.
As we walked up the isle to this incredibly bizarre scene, my partner lagged behind. I turned to him and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“This place is giving me the creeps,” he whispered.
I haven’t really bought into this whole demon thing, at least not the way Hollywood likes to portray it. I’m sure there are demons in some shape or form. But, like ghosts and UFO’s, until I see it, I don’t necessarily believe in it. Simplistic, I know, but it helps explain everything that I don’t understand.
I was amused at my partner’s reaction. He didn’t remind me of someone that was afraid of much. He was the quiet, burly type, so seeing him cower like this was rather comical. I was SO tempted to yell “BOO!” and see if I could make him involuntarily pass gas, or worse. I let professionalism prevail, however.
I told my partner, “If she doesn’t have any medical issues, we will turn this over to PD and we can leave.”
As we got closer to the patient, I could hear her mumbling something in Spanish. “Yo soy el diablo.” She chanted this many times as she rocked back and forth.
I noticed the brother had a very frightened look on his face. The daughter was looking equally concerned. The two cops seemed twitchy and on edge.
“Do you know what she is saying?” I whispered to my partner.
“Something about the devil,” he whispered back and then actually shivered.
“What’s going on?” I asked one of the cops.
“She woke up screaming and the brother brought her here,” a cop answered nervously.
“They walked here in the middle of a blizzard?” I asked.
“We live across the street,” the daughter answered.
Why, when someone has just spoken to me in perfect English, I would ask this, I don’t know. But I did. “So, you speak English?”
The girl gave me a puzzled look. “Yes.”
I quizzed her about her mother’s medical history, which included absolutely nothing. I delicately asked if her mother had ever experienced ‘emotional’ problems, and the daughter said no, never.
The patient was still mumbling, so I asked the daughter, “What is she saying exactly?’
“I am the devil,” the daughter said.
“For real?” I asked with surprise.
“Yes,” the daughter answered.
The woman had her back to me. I walked up a little closer and as I approached, the brother put his arms around the patient, as if to restrain her. That should have been a clue.
“Ma’am, can you turn around and talk to me?” I asked.
The woman stopped mumbling and ever so slowly turned her head to look at me. Her eyes were wide. Her mouth was contorted. She had drool dripping from the corners of her mouth. Without warning, she snarled and lunged at me, and tried to bite my leg. I jumped out of the way. The brother pulled her back.
“Holy buckets!” I said, astounded that diablo girl had tried to take a bite out of me. I recovered quickly and got mad. “Okay, knock it off!” I scolded. “What the heck is the matter with you?”
My chastising seemed to make the woman calm down a little. She whimpered, “Tengo terinta. Necesito agua.”
“What did she say?” I asked the daughter.
“She’s thirsty and wants some water.”
Normally I wouldn’t let a patient drink or eat anything, but this wasn’t your normal patient, and I already knew she wasn’t going to see the back of our ambulance. I turned to ask my partner to find some water but he was nowhere to be found. He had gotten so spooked that he went outside and was sitting in the ambulance.
“Be right back,” I told the cops and walked to the back of the sanctuary and into the foyer. The daughter followed me.
There was a drinking fountain with a paper cup dispenser. I pulled one of the cups out of the dispenser but the drinking fountain didn’t work. I noticed a metal jug, for lack of a better term, on a ledge across the foyer. I walked over and started to fill the paper cup. The girl started to say something but I cut her off. I was getting agitated. I was 30 hours into a 36 hour shift and I was crabby. Why the police hadn’t just cuffed the woman and taken her to behavioral health was beyond me. I should have been back at the station dozing on the couch instead of dealing with an obvious psych issue in the middle of the night during a blizzard.
I walked quickly to the front of the sanctuary and handed the cup to the brother. The girl tried to say something again and I ignored her. The brother held the cup to the patient’s mouth and slowly tipped it back.
The woman took a sip, jerked her head back, and then knocked the cup out of his hand. She let out out a blood curdling scream and started yelling, “Estoy en el fuego!! Se quema!!.”
With annoyance, I turned to the daughter. “Translation?”
The daughter was clearly shaken and could barely speak. When she did, her voice was nothing more than a squeak. “I am on fire. It burns.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” I protested. “Why would she be on fire?”
The woman continued to theatrically cry out and hold her face as if she were in immense pain. I was expecting Peter Blatty, producer of the Exorcist, to jump out from behind the altar and yell, “Cut, cut cut! Do the scene over!”
The daughter grabbed my arm and said emphatically, “You gave her holy water, you idiot!”
“The cistern you got the water from is holy water! I was trying to tell you that!”
I’m not Catholic, therefore I have a plausible defense as to why I would serve up a glass of holy water to a self-professed diablo and burn her gullet. I’m not even sure what holy water is used for, come to think of it. Obviously, it isn’t meant for drinking.
“Oops,” was the only thing I could come up with.
One of the cops reached for his radio. I could tell he was at the end of his rope. “I’m calling for a priest,” he said.
“Seriously?” I asked. “Why not just call an exorcist?”
The woman was back to announcing that she was el diablo. The brother was crossing himself, looking skyward, and mumbling a prayer. The daughter was staring at me with venom in her eyes. I had obviously lost control of this scene.
“Okay, enough already!” I shouted, and the sanctuary went quiet. I looked at the patient. “You are NOT the devil so knock it off!” I looked at the cop. “She doesn’t need a priest, she needs an evaluation at behavioral health!” I paused to see if anyone was going to argue with me. When no one did, I added, “You people need to watch more Mickey Mouse and less Satan.”
I have to admit, the first few moments after I lashed out I had a little tingle along my spine from the fear that all the evils in the universe were going to suddenly engulf my mortal soul and I was going to be able to see behind me without turning my shoulders. Nothing happened, so I left and let the cops handle it.
As we were making the white knuckle drive back to the station, I said to my partner, “I could have used you back there.”
“I was about ready to crap myself,” he said quietly.
“Are you Catholic?” I asked him.
“Then you could have advised me not to give el diablo holy water as a refreshment,” I scolded him.
“You gave her holy water? What happened?’
“She started screaming about being on fire. It was weird.”
My partner shivered so hard I think I felt the truck vibrate. “Oh my God!”
I rolled my eyes. “Have you seen the Exorcist?” I asked him.
“Both of them.”
“Both of them,” he repeated.
“Damien? Children of the Corn?”
“Yes and yes,” he answered.
“I thought so,” I said. We were quiet for several moments, and I just couldn’t resist. “BOO!” I yelled suddenly. And yes, I do think he involuntarily passed gas.