Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
It was a while back when the only ambulance service for Louisa/Ft. Gay, was performed by the two major Funeral Homes in town. What might have been more of a design for a hearse, or a long station wagon, held a cot and barely had room for any additional equipment. They were a long shot from today’s traveling trauma centers that use the latest telemetry equipment so doctors can direct the EMT’s every move.
While we must agree that a funeral director and professional staff have a pretty good understanding of the anatomy of man, they were not normally trained beyond basic triage such as applying tourniquets, holding pressure on a wound, and treating for shock. They may have been able to check vital signs, but even so for what purpose? The basic mission of an ambulance crew in those days to was quickly transport a patient to the nearest hospital, or perhaps to a larger medical center in Huntington. While I have no doubt that these two reputable funeral homes cared about people and truly tried to save lives, some today would see this practice as a possible conflict of interest. In fact, I knew the two families operating those services and note that in looking back, given the size of our little town, the limitations of resources, the relatively poor roads and equipment, coupled with the lack of real EMS training, we were lucky to have them at all. I’m sure they did save a lot of lives and minimized the hurt to those injured.
Since the town was small there were few ambulance calls that did not attract pretty wide-spread attention. As such, we kids would often see ambulances loading persons aboard the conveyance, some unfortunately covered by a sheet, to rush off to the medical centers. While both Riverview and Louisa General both took on emergencies, neither really had a true ‘emergency room,’ per se. The more serious cases were often given triage and then rushed off to Huntington or elsewhere for specialized treatment.
A few were taken directly to a funeral home, sometimes to undergo autopsies while crowds waited outside for a verdict. I, myself, remember being in such a crowd when a young man had been shot through the heart during my high school years. Truly the crowd agonized over the meaningless death of one so young and filled with such promise. Emotions ran high in face of a senseless killing knowing that regardless, those things could not be undone. Sadly we went home, heads hung low, thinking perhaps of our own mortality.
The winding roads and narrow curves, not to mention the steep inclines, helped keep the ambulances busy during those days. Even after the ‘river road’ was opened, speed worked to produce crashes along its tract. Trains of all types would take the lives of our citizens, whether they were walking or driving, but in the end, it was the ambulance operators that would have to collect the remains and to do so under great emotional distress. We own them, and later those who had the training, all a debt of gratitude. In those first days, often those riding to a scene were but youngsters themselves. How sad to have to face those kinds of traumatic scenes.
I have ridden in the newer, box-like ambulances of today, but the trip was surprisingly different than those of the olden days. Vital signs were collected at once and then I.V.’s were inserted. Because I was suffering chest pains, an EKG was attached and broadcast to the local hospital even while in route. I was given a couple of kinds of medication, and all kinds of data were keyed into a computer that was sent ahead to the trauma center. The ambulance actually sat almost twenty minutes before pulling out for the trip, but they were busy actually diagnosing, irrigating, giving medication, and collecting raw data, including listing my medications and getting a more detailed read on what may have brought on the problem.
Yes, the big box had a symbol on the outside showing that it was cardiac equipment and I knew that the EMS dude was fully training to use the defilabrator, or to take other means to sustain life should my condition worsen.
Well, we did the best we could ‘back when,’ and we were part of a world doing all it could given the times, money, technological understanding and availability of equipment. Serious injuries and near death experiences are tough regardless of these things, but we are so blessed when we see the advances of these last generations. While it is doubtful that Abe Lincoln with his head wound would survive regardless of conveyance, it is probable that George Washing with his flu symptoms would not have been treated by bleeding and would have lived. But those times, and the times of the forties and fifties we did what we knew to do. This would have been a the peril of some, but still, some were saved.
I cannot begin to imagine the emotional stress and trauma that the young men and boys that rode the ambulances in those days had to face. Today, we are quick to bring in specialists in mental health to deal with the processing of things experienced by our police, fire, students, workers and others involved in such events, but back then it was ‘suck it up and deal with it.’ I cannot judge if that attitude was better or worse, but one has to believe that is it never what we experience, but rather how we deal with the experience that counts.
Thank an EMS person when you cross his or her path.