It was a dark and stormy night… No seriously, it was a typical cool Jerusalem night and I was on one of my first nights shifts on a MDA ambulance. At about midnight we were called to Ethiopia Street, which (as the name doesn’t suggest) is located in the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox center of the city. Control informed us that there was “Danger to Human Life;” in other words the health of a patient behind locked doors was in question. In such situations, all three services are called; BLUES (Police) - to give authorization to knock the door down, REDS (Fire) - to knock the door down, and EMS - to treat whoever lies behind the door.
Barreling down the street on the way to the call, the first thing I did was phone my cousin Rafe. He lived nearby and I knew that he would be eager to see me in my new uniform tearing down the street with lights and sirens. As expected, he was waiting for us when we arrived. I jumped out of the ambulance with much glamor and finesse. I''m pretty sure I saw him roll his eyes. Jealous lad.
As usual, we were on location before police or fire. We waited. And waited. The police finally showed up and started investigating. The address was an old Ethiopian church, as the street name would suggest. The patient in question was a priest, a generally unwell man who hadn’t been seen for a while. His friend assumed he was in his room in a small outbuilding connected to the church. Problem: He wasn''t answering his phone.
The first hurdle we had to overcome was the towering wall surrounding the church, locked from the inside. The wall was soon scaled by a fireman who had suddenly turned up, out of the blue red. He opened it for the rest of us who were not quite so adept at climbing 9 foot tall gates. We surrounded the little room, also locked from the inside, and began yelling the priest’s name, but to no avail. One of the nuns who had been awoken by our banging and screaming came running anxiously towards us, her habit slightly askew. We explained the goings-on and soon the whole compound was in an uproar. A superfluity of nuns appeared out of nowhere; Prayers were said, candles lit, incense offered - and I was chatting with Rafe.
Eventually Father Habtamu was seen through one of the windows, lying motionless on his bed. Now that we knew for certain that he was inside there were two options. Either he was in grave danger, clinging to life or worse. Alternatively, he was in a very deep sleep.
Blues, Reds, EMS and Nuns, screamed his name; still no answer. By now everyone was getting genuinely nervous. I quickly ran back to the ambulance to get the defibrillator, preparing for the worst. In tandem with me was a young fireman running to his truck. As I exited with the AED, he exited with a large sharp disk, designed to cut through (almost) anything. We ran back to the room where the nuns now stood chanting and swaying, holding hands. With a loud whirr, the firemen began cutting the bars of the window.
Sparks flew, tears fell, and amidst the chaos, Father Habtamu lifted his head and said, in a voice choked with emotion,
“What’s goin’ on out there? Ya crazy man, why are ya cuttin’ my window?”
All the nuns began shouting “It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle! He’s alive!” and, as if on cue, burst out into joyous gospel. The priest opened his front door, well and healthy, and asked that everyone tone it down a bit – he was tired.
We left the singing, clapping nuns + one slightly befuddled priest, and headed back towards the station, hoping to get a decent night’s sleep.
But alas, it wasn''t to be …
"Good Morning! #54 to your Ambulance please," said the tired voice over the intercom.
Several things though – for starters it wasn''t the morning. 05:00 is in middle of the night. Secondly, the voice most certainly did not say ‘Good Morning’, nor did she say ‘please’. That was just me trying to make Control seem more human. They’re not. They are lean mean working machines, functioning under immense pressure for 8 hours at a time. It’s true that a shift can sometimes pass with only a handful of calls. It’s also equally probable that during a particularly fateful morning, the dispatcher can talk a distraught mother/father/child through a home birth and/or a CPR – sometimes in the span of a few minutes.
Furthermore ‘Control’ staff doesn''t have the luxury of (attempting to) sleep through a night shift like regular ambulance staff does. The three or so personnel in MDA main Jerusalem station stay up the whole night irrespective of the volume of calls. Less calls = more reruns, more calls = less reruns. You get the picture.
Bottom line; they get immense joy in waking us up to go out on a call.
Did I say ‘waking us up’. That’s not entirely accurate. Though when on standby we are technically allowed to sleep (night or day,) the reality is otherwise. Every room has a speaker, which manages to blare out incomprehensible blurbs every 18 minutes, keeping everyone in a unique limbo state between blissful sleep and stressed consciousness. Besides, you need to be in the ambulance within a minute of the dispatch, so;
Bottom line; no restful sleep on shifts - ever.
“J’M #54 – you are going to Ramot, on Urgent, for a paturient woman, 41 weeks, 3-minute contractions.”
Five am is a particularly auspicious time for Matern-a-Taxis and if you are lucky, a home birth. Why in the wee hours of the morning, you ask? I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s partly due to the night being a ‘scary and dangerous’ time, when people seem to have a difficult time differentiating between real and imagined emergencies. By 7am the day sheds light (pun intended) on the matter, and people often realize that things are not half as bad as they seemed before. But when the contractions are coming rapidly at 5am, people are quick to call an ambulance: sometimes not quick enough.
So we make it to the address in about 8 minutes, climb the stairs (an exceptionally pertinent fact), and knock on the door. A burly man opens up – promptly notices that we are a three man team, and promptly closes the door in my face. There was nothing, I repeat nothing, that could hold back the torrents of laughter that engulfed us. Yes we were overtired, yes we were called out in middle of the night to the middle of nowhere, and yes, he had just slammed the door in our faces.
“Why?” you ask. Well we (and you) were about to find out.
He called through the door and said “I am not, under any circumstances, having an all-male team delivering my wife”. Full-stop. “Please send somebody else.”
“But the baby’s coming,” we hear the distraught mother shriek in the background.
30 seconds of silence, followed by 30 seconds of muffled dispute.
The door opens again, and he angrily waves his hand towards the bedroom. I walk into the room to find a lady clearly in the pangs of birth, and her doula clearly in the pangs of, well, some sort of mysterious ritual. She had a waist-pack full of vials, which she quickly closed as we approached the duo.
I asked the usual questions; what number birth, whether the pregnancy was uneventful etc. and found out that all was normal and this was her first baby. “How many minutes apart are the contractions?” I asked the doula. She shrugged and said “3 or so.” I went over the facts in my mind, took another look at the mother-to-be, and decided we would try and make it to the hospital. Firstborns are almost never born at home. The process is just too long and the women too jumpy; so they generally get themselves to the hospital hours, or days, before the actual birth.
Remember those stairs I was telling you about. Now imagine this;
3 minute contractions
3 scrawny schleppers
The experience was like a bad dream, except much more painful on my biceps.
Two in the back and me in the front, we carried her down the endless stairs on our ambulance chair, and made it safe and sound to the ambulance, at 05:25.
We set out towards the hospital with Lights and Sirens, when all of a sudden…
No it wasn''t a burning smell…
It was eucalyptus, yes, unmistakably eucalyptus. And that’s not all. There was music as well. Amidst the din of my siren, was the sound of Beethoven''s 5th Symphony, blaring from…
You guessed it…
The Doula’s waistpack.
Turns out she had placed droplets of eucalyptus strategically all over the back of the ambulance and put on, in her words, “zee kalming muzikk” so that the whole saga would be more relaxing for us. Yes, not only more relaxing for her client, but also for me. How thoughtful. “We should take this lady on all our calls,” my colleague snickered from the back in English. “I zpeek Inglish yoo knowe” she retorted.
05:38 we reached our destination.
05:40 our patient was in the labor room.
05:43 the baby boy was in his mother’s arms.
05:44 he wanted to know what that awful smell was.