When I was in high school I began volunteering on our local ambulance corps. Most New Jersey towns rely on volunteers to staff both their fire and ambulance services and Madison was no different. My mother and one of my brothers were already serving on the Madison Volunteer Ambulance Corps and I often “rode” with them. (When you were on duty, you were “riding.”)
Somewhere in my years of service, my mother shared with me this simply observation: for most of the people we went to help, we were seeing them on one of the worst days of their lives. This day that they were required to call an ambulance to their homes was likely one they would remember forever and not likely in any way positive. I believe, in my five-plus years riding, I may have only picked up one or two women in labor. Pretty much everyone else was hurt or sick.
I’m not sure that I needed this perspective, but I got it nonetheless. It was a stark reminder of what we were dealing with and helped remind one to act appropriately. It is also when I first learned the phrase “gallows humor.”
I remember specifically one of the most horrifying car accidents I was ever on duty for. It was very early one Sunday morning when three men in a worker’s van (read: no back seats) drifted off the road and squarely into a telephone pole. We were the second of three ambulances on the scene and our patient was the one unlucky enough not to have had a seat or, of course, a seatbelt. He was dead on arrival having, per the reconstructionist on scene, flown head first through the windshield into the pole and then bounced back into the back of the van.
It was simply gruesome. There wasn’t anything really for us to do but assist in getting him – all of him – out of the van and into the body bag. There were sights that morning that I will never forget.
Yet, despite all that we saw that morning as a crew, when we returned to headquarters we made jokes. One could certainly argue that they were inappropriate, sure, and I have no doubt that they were. But they were made in the privacy of three people who had seen and dealt with something most people can’t imagine. The alternative was to ruminate on deep thoughts about life and death and, frankly, I think that’s what we were probably doing internally. I know I was.
In our case, we were once a week EMT’s who more often transported dizzy octogenarians to the hospital uneventfully than dealt with anything like that Sunday morning. It leaves me wondering about how those who do this daily – doctors, paramedics, and those serving on the front lines – find a way to process it without internalizing it. The prime tool seems to be the aforementioned gallows humor.
While it may be the tritest of writing crutches to refer to a definition, the one I found on Wikipedia summarizes it so perfectly:
“Gallows humor (derived from gallows, a platform with a noose used to execute people by hanging) is a type of humor that still manages to be funny in the face of, and in response to, a hopeless situation. It arises from stressful, traumatic, or life-threatening situations, often in circumstances such that death is perceived as impending and unavoidable.
Gallows humor is made by the person affected by the dramatic situation, an aspect that is missing in the derivative called black comedy.”
Ultimately, I discovered that occasionally there would arise a call that affected us to a point that no joking of any sort would fly. There was a Saturday night (weekends could be tough) during which three local high school boys with freshly printed driver’s licenses literally wrapped their VW Rabbit around a tree. We arrived on scene as a mutual aid unit for an adjacent, more rural town. We drove through pitch-black woods until we came upon scene that lit up the night with what seemed like a thousand emergency flashers. In the middle, under the hot white glare of floodlights, was this little black car with an enormous oak rising out of the middle of it. And amidst all the sound of machines and generators and workers barking orders back-and-forth was the unmistakable sound of pain – literal screaming pain.
We were on that road for upwards of two hours pulling three high school juniors out of the wreckage. When we arrived at the hospital with one of them and rolled him through into the emergency room, there were worried parents right there in the waiting room.
Worst day of their life, indeed.
After that night, there was no joking. It was too much of everything and we processed it in silence.
Ultimately all three of those kids lived, albeit with some very serious injuries. I can’t say for sure, but I have to assume that all three are walking and talking today though I suspect they bear the aches and pains and scars (literal and figurative) of that night.
If all of this seems a bit overwrought or dramatic, consider that these two accidents both took place well over twenty years ago and I can remember them more clearly than I care to.
Massachusetts does not have the same volunteer EMS system so when I moved away from New Jersey for good in the early 90’s my days of tooling about in an ambulance were over. I’ve thankfully not had on occasion to step back into a hospital for anything nearly as traumatic as when I was volunteering for MVAC. Maggie did once get taken via ambulance to the hospital when we first discovered what “febrile seizures” were but by the time I got there, we knew there was no danger.
Recently, though, I discovered another home for gallows humor and that is a newsroom.
I’ve been working in and around journalism since I started at the college radio station my freshman year. For most of that time, though, I have been more of secondary reporter in that I took news that someone else enterprised and delivered that. The only sort of news I was out gathering on my own was of the more dry variety (think school committee meetings) or sports.
Since rejoining the full-time workforce in March, I have been sitting daily on the front lines of news gathering. While true that the reporters are the ones actually out in the world doing this face-to-face, assignment editors are their support and, in most cases, the first people to hear about any given news story. We make calls before anyone is sent anywhere to divine whether or not a story is actually a story.
We deal daily with accidents and death. Just today, for instance, I made calls on everything from a man hit by a forklift to one thrown from an excavator. There was an accident in the central part of the state wherein someone suffered a chainsaw to the neck. A child fell from a third floor window and survived while another fell into a pool and didn’t. There is child abuse and elder abuse, armed robbery and sexual assault. Today we talked about one man eating off another’s face in Miami while the specter of tornados loomed in Massachusetts.
There is an automatic detachment from all these stories. Some of this is unavoidable given the speed at which we move from one to another. There simply isn’t enough time to dwell on any one tragedy given that there is always, unfortunately, another waiting to be covered.
Think about these stories – people being injured or killed in any number of ways – and they are definitively some of the worst days of these peoples’ lives and those of their families. But for us, they become some degree of white noise. Like the family member of the fisherman who hates it when weather-people talk about storm moving “harmlessly out to sea”, I’m sure most would find the idea of a “run-of-the-mill shooting” equally unsettling.
But, like those ambulance calls that rise above the others, so too are there stories that do the same.
There was a Thursday in April, for instance. We were out covering our battery of typical news stories when there came first word of a missing child in the seaside town of Rockport. We coincidentally had a reporter in that very same town that had already wrapped up her assigned story for the day. With time to kill before the four o’clock show, we sent her across town to where the first reports of a search were originating.
Slowly over that afternoon, details began to emerge. The missing child was just two-years-old. She had been playing on the beach with her sister and mother when that mother went to retrieve a ball that had bounced away. When she returned, her daughter was nowhere to be found.
A television newsroom like ours isn’t filled with many older folks. I rank amongst one the oldest at “just” 41. Accordingly, there is a fair share of parents with young children working on that floor. Any one of them will tell you that the above story is a recurring nightmare for all of us.
While we were all doing our jobs of making calls, gathering information, and feeding it all back out to those on the field, there was a palpable sense of wanting that kid to be found. I think we could all relate. You’re just hoping that she wandered into a nearby home or around a sand dune or into the woods and will come wandering back out safe and sound. You’re hoping that this one horrible hour will end up being just that – one hour that becomes a story that the little girl ends up telling her own children.
I couldn’t help but think the number of times I have watched vigilantly over kids in the tub to make sure no one has slipped under the water. I literally sat there that afternoon thinking this mother has surely done the same only to have this happen instead.
She wasn’t found after one hour or two or four. When I left work that day, she had been missing for five. When I got home, I checked my e-mail to see if she had been found. She had not. I went to bed that night thinking about her parents, still hoping against hope that she was safe someplace and just lost. How must it feel to watch the sun go down and know that it both makes it more difficult to find her while also becoming scarier for everyone? For now she was not only lost, but lost in the dark.
By the next day a sense of inevitability settled in. This little girl was not likely to be found and to this day, she still hasn’t.
What came next was that this story did manage to fade back into the white noise of the newsroom. We learned, for instance, that the mother in question didn’t leave for just a few seconds but maybe a couple of minutes. That, I think, allowed us parents to assure ourselves that we wouldn’t do that. We could now tell ourselves that this wouldn’t happen to us. It gave us distance, though surely unfair, that we didn’t have the day before.
Time also helped. For once again there came newer, fresher stories that demanded our attention. On that one afternoon, the search in Rockport was all we were doing. A couple days later it was one of many stories we were covering. Now, over a month later, it exists only as a line at the bottom of our rundowns as story we should check up on now and again.
There are still those nagging details – at least for me. One of the most notable was the revelation that the two-year-old was left with her four-year-old sister for the time in question. Having a pair of two-year-olds along with a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, I shudder to think how easy it is to trust the older kids with the twins for just a moment. I walk away from that tub, trusting that Henry will alert me if something happened to one of his little brothers.
What if he didn’t, though? How terrifically bad would it be for everyone involved if tragedy struck? Would I blame a child who truly had no business being responsible for anyone, up to and including himself? Would he blame himself as he grew older?
We’ll likely never really know what happened to that little girl on the beach that day. There is no doubt that everyone involved will forever regret the little things that they did and didn’t do that lead to her disappearance. That four-year-old who may end up with no actual memories of that day, will likely grow up knowing that she was the last one to ever see her sister and the only one who may know what actually happened to her.
It is a tragic story all around but in the end, just one of many that passes through all of our lives. Every day, somewhere, someone is having that “worst day of his life.” All we can do, I suppose, is acknowledge as much, do what we can to help, and be thankful when it isn’t us.