by Michael Armstrong
Homer News staff writer
“It’s what we do.”
If you ever have need for the services of firefighters, medics, cops, nurses and doctors, and try to thank them for helping, especially at 3 a.m. on a cloudy Alaska morning, that’s what they’ll say.
“It’s what we do.”
That’s what an emergency medical technician said to me a few weeks ago when he and EMTs from the Moose Pass and Cooper Landing Fire and Emergency Services showed up at Summit Lake Lodge, Mile 43 Seward Highway, to help my mom when she went into respiratory distress.
In the yin and yang of human emotions, I have seen few things more horrifying than watching my mother be lifted up by a LifeFlight helicopter or more exhilarating than my mother alive and breathing at the emergency room.
On July 14, my wife and I went to Tern Lake and Summit Lake for the wedding of my niece Anna and her husband øistein. Family and friends from Norway, Alaska, New Hampshire and elsewhere shared in the joy. My brother-in-law Woody, a retired minister, did the honors, his first ever second-generation wedding. He’d previously presided at the marriage of my sister Helen and her husband Charlie, Anna’s parents. We ate, we danced, we drank and we celebrated. All seemed well.
About midnight, though, Mom started wheezing. Like me, her lungs don’t always work at full capacity. She has asthma and other issues. My sisters and I got her settled down, and thought she would be OK.
Then at 2:30 a.m. that Sunday, Woody knocked on our door at Summit Lake Lodge. “Your mom’s not well,” he said. “I called 911.”
In her room, my mom sat hunched over, gasping for breath. I held her, one arm on her back, the other on her chest, willing her to keep breathing. In my mind I sang “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” the old spiritual. I remembered when I was a boy that Mom taught me the song on a rainy hike in the Smoky Mountains as we climbed a small mountain. It’s the song I sing whenever I face some obstacle. I couldn’t sing it aloud, though. If I did, I would break down crying, and I couldn’t cry then. When your mother waits for the EMTs, you have to appear strong.
Soon, I heard the rumbling diesels of ambulances arrive. Men and women in turnout gear and blue jumpsuits came into Mom’s room. One woman, Grace, stepped up to Mom.
“Sylvia,” Grace said, her voice soft and reassuring. “Sylvia, can you hear me?”
When I heard that voice, I didn’t know if Mom would be OK, but I knew that she was on her way to being OK. If I’m ever gasping for breath, I want to hear a voice like Grace’s. Grace got an oxygen mask on Mom, and she and the other EMTs assessed her condition.
“LifeFlight,” Grace said. “Do you agree?”
“LifeFlight,” the Moose Pass chief, Brian, said.
LifeFlight. I knew what that meant. How many times have I written about someone being medevaced to Anchorage? I’ve seen those helos take off and land at hospitals all over. When you’re medevaced, it’s serious. Put it this way: When a LifeFlight helo lands at Providence, there’s a chaplain to meet the patient.
“Have you ever flown on a helicopter?” Grace asked my mom. When Mom said she hadn’t, Grace replied, “Well, you can cross that off your bucket list.”
The EMTs got Mom bundled on a gurney. One guy tapped me and said, “Need a little muscle here, guy.” I grabbed a corner of the gurney and helped ease my mom outside. OK, that’s something else I don’t ever want to do — carry my mother’s gurney.
I’ve covered accident scenes before. Usually, I’ll notice a small knot of people to one side, holding each other tight, heads bowed as the EMTs treat a loved one. This time, I was part of that knot, holding on to my wife and sisters. The rumble of the ambulances had wakened a few people at the lodge, and they stared at the drama. Before, I had been part of that group looking in and now I looked out.
Eventually the helicopter landed. It came down like a UFO, lights flashing and whirring up a storm — OK, that’s the science fiction writer part of my brain thinking.
It took a while to get Mom onto the helicopter, which I took as a good sign. If she truly had been dying, they would have hustled a bit faster. My sisters, my Uncle Mark and I dashed over to her and said our good-byes. I didn’t say aloud what I thought: that this might be the long good-bye and I’d never see Mom alive again.
When that LifeFlight helicopter rose up, it flew as if on an invisible elevator, going straight up to cruising altitude to avoid trees and other lower obstacles. I felt as if Mom climbed on the wing of angels. If Mom died then, she would be that much closer to heaven.
Later, Mom said she had enjoyed the flight, watching the sun rise over the Chugach Mountains. That’s my mother, always finding the adventure and joy in even the most frightening experiences.
The rest of the morning zipped by in a blur. Jenny and I packed up quickly and drove the 80 miles to Anchorage. When we arrived at Providence Hospital, that we got allowed into the ER and not sent into a quiet room with a chaplain I took as another good sign. Mom laid in a bed, a huge oxygen mask on her face and connected to IV tubes and wires. All I could do was hold her as the nurses and doctors did their magic.
But she was alive. The on-call cardiologist showed up. The miracle of our modern medical system is that step by step, test by test, doctors figure out things like why an elderly woman suddenly has trouble breathing on a foggy Alaska night.
That Sunday, Mom got transferred upstairs to a regular room. Now she’s back home in New Hampshire after flying back first class with my sister Janet as her escort. First class from Anchorage to Boston for two probably cost less than an 80-mile medevac flight. I’ve been on Wheepy Factor 9 the past two weeks, barely able to keep from breaking down and sobbing at random moments, but I think I’m close to being normal.
“It’s what we do.”
They all say that, EMTs and nurses and doctors, many of them volunteers.
What they do is get out of bed on a summer night, go to someone in need and save her life. My mother is alive because in a small town in Alaska good citizens who love their community took time to learn, to train and to serve. In Homer, Seldovia, Anchor Point, Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk, Moose Pass, Seward and all over America, men and women do that.
I can never reward them for their service. I can never pay them back. All I can do is say, “Thank you.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was originally published in the Aug. 2, 2012, Homer News, and is reprinted with permission of the Homer News.