Sunday, June 28, 2009

Still Counting....

When you learn CPR, you never expect to have to use it. When you finally do, it scares the shit out of you.

I've taken a CPR class every year for the last 8 years....most recently 4 weeks ago. And every time, it's the same. The class doesn't really pay attention, everyone struggles to remember the ever changing ratio of chest compressions to rescue breaths, and everyone laughs when the resusci-annie doll doesn't respond to "Buddy, Buddy, are you ok??" In the end, we all walk away carrying our card that says we know what to do.

Justin and I did not laugh when the man we found did not respond.

I'm not sure what went through Justin's head when I ran off to tell someone to call 911, but when I got back, all I could think was, "This can't possibly be happening."

And then I heard myself saying, "I'm starting CPR."

He was young, something terrible had happened, and his eyes were dead. And I wanted to not look at him. I wanted to crawl into a little ball and rock back and forth and say, "I can't do this."

But I kept counting. One and two and three and four and five......

Somebody kept saying that he was dead.

But I kept counting. One and two and three and four and five.....

Justin counted, too, when it was his turn. And we looked at each other as if to say again, "Is this really happening?"

And then the cavalry arrived. The heroes in green and grey armed with oxygen and needles and people that, mercifully, wanted to tell us what to do. I have never been so relieved.

And I did what they told me. I counted slower and squeezed air into the bag valve mask.

One, two, three, squeeze.

My EMT training kept cycling through my head. Open the airway. Re-position the head. Keep the seal good. Watch for the breaths going in.

His head was between my knees to keep the position right. My hands were clamped to his face.

I couldn't bear to look at his his eyes. So I stared at his chest. And I kept counting.

One, two, three, squeeze.

Finally someone moved me aside....and I fluttered around, trying to be useful, and failed utterly to feel anything but helpless.

Even the beep of the monitor as his heart started beating again didn't ease the constriction that had slowly taken a hold over my insides.

Justin and I helped wheel him out to the ambulance. And then we stared at each other.

We tried to remember what had happened for the statments we had to fill out. We talked to the rangers. We helped pick up the disaster area where the catastrophe and subsequent miracle had taken place. We looked at our shaking hands. Eventually, we just sat and held on to each other.

Neither one of us were prepared for what we had walked into. Neither one of us can forget what happened. Both of us continue to see his face....his eyes.

In the past few days I've thought a lot about this young man that has affected my life so dramatically by dying and then coming back to life. I don't know him. I've never spoken to him. And yet I want to go to the hospital where he is and sit by his side and will him to be see him open his eyes.

And maybe this is more for me than for him.

Not because I want to say I had anything to do with it, but because I need to know that awful, horrible, random acts don't kill young healthy people.

I need to know that, despite evidence to the contrary, life is not short and unpredictable.

I want him to be ok. But deep down I know he won't be. And that's the worst part of it all.

We did what we were trained to do, Justin and I. We paid attention. We yelled "Hey are you ok?" We remembered the ratio of chest compressions to rescue breaths. We counted.

No one is laughing, though.

And, though everything is finished, we still don't know what to do.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

To Bluff or Not to Bluff.....

Lately, I've been playing poker.

It's an interesting game to me.

I, who takes pride in telling the truth and playing as few games with people as is humanly possible, really enjoy bluffing.

I love the idea that pretending you're winning can actually allow you to win.

I feel like a poker hand sometimes. Like nothing I have really adds up anything. I think we all do at one time or another. But we pretend....we no one can tell. And sometimes, if we're good, we fool them all, and we win. Other times, we fold. Or we lose it all.

I could go on to quote a number of different ways that cards are a metaphor for life....but I think you get the picture.

One of the big differences between life and cards is this - if you bluff long enough in life, sometimes you forget you're bluffing.

Take working on a visitor center desk, for example.

Working in a visitor center can be exhausting. The people ebb and flow with the motion of a perpetual tide. The questions are neverending.

Some people can not handle working in a visitor center.

I, on the other hand, relish it. It is my bluff. My act. It makes me be a different person. A better person. No matter what is going on in my life, no matter what kind of mood I'm in, when I go out on the visitor center desk, I am at my best. Because I have to be.

A visitor to a national park does not care if I'm having a bad day. They won't even ask. If I don't give them my very best, they will judge not me, but my peers and my park.

"You're going there? Well, the rangers there weren't very friendly. We're not going back there."

So I don't have the luxury of being in a bad mood. Every contact I make with a visitor influences what they think about rangers, national parks, and maybe even the environment and conservation as a whole.

That's a lot of responsibility.

So I bluff.

And after spending even just a few minutes out on the desk, pretending to be cheerful and helpful......I become just that. And I return from my desk duty with a smile on my face, refreshed.

Not many people can say that their job makes them a better person - that their job makes them less selfish, gives them better perspective, or makes them smile more. I think mine does.

By pretending to have a winning hand, I win.

And that's no bluff.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Luckily, I have not known many people who have died.

I think, maybe, only five.

At least only five who have really left a mark.

David Moseley was my first real choir teacher - a gift from heaven for an awkward 7th grader. He was talented and he was good and he made sure we all knew we had something really special to offer. And he taught me how to sing. And be a leader. He did handsprings for us in the grass outside of the music building. And he died of AIDS. Years later, my girlfriends and I went to the cemetery where he is buried and laid the printed words to Flying Free, "our song", in the urn in front of his gravestone. We wanted to leave part of ourselves with him just as he had left part of himself with us. I don't know how long the paper stayed in the urn before it was taken out, or just flew away, but it made us feel better that it was there. If only for a little while.

Colin O'Connell shot himself over Thanksgiving break my sophomore year in college. I loved him because I had no idea how his brain worked. He was so smart. And I had never met anyone like him before. I still have paragraphs of prose printed on a dot matrix printer that he wrote on my computer freshman year when we were supposed to be studying. Poetry. Prose. Music. Philosophy. That was Colin. And I remember him standing on the steps to the Andrews dormitory that November as I was getting into my car to go home. "You're staying here?" "Yeah." "I'll see you in a few days?" "Yeah." It broke my heart that he lied to me.

Trevor Eggleston had big feet and a bad haircut. He played A LOT of computer games and loud music and really loved the movie Braveheart. He even had a sword. He was a menace on the soccer field. We would compare bruises after games. And he was a sweet, sweet kid. I spent a lot of time with him. And he had a big crush on me that I humored....but ignored. When they found him and the shotgun the day after Valentine's Day, I blamed myself. "If only I had....." I could never, and still can't, finish that sentence. It doesn't make sense.

I was first on the scene of Lauren Burns' car accident. She was a student of mine. And a friend. I knew how to size up a scene. I knew to not commit to caring for one person before identifying all the patients and their conditions. But, for some reason, I never made it to the second car - to Lauren's car - that night. I stopped at the first. I didn't know it had been her in the other car until the next day. And I'm glad.

My grandma Vivian was 91 when she died 2 nights ago. She lived a long, full life. She was married to my grandfather for 70 years, had 2 sons, 2 grandchildren, and 5 great grandchildren. She was a great pinochle player. She would buy Fruit Loops especially for me when we visited, and she gave me a fake pig named Porkchop. She would send cards for every holiday. She was a wonderful Grandma.

Four of these people died way too young, and I am still hurt by the ways they died.

All five of them, though, were amazing people who touched my life in such profound ways that even now I can see their faces as I write about them. I can remember their smiles and habits and how they made me feel.

I remember them for how they lived not how they died.

And I remember what they taught me.

In some ways, this thirty-three year old is still a lot like that awkward 7th grader - wishing I knew what role I played in their lives.

But I know what role they played in mine.

And I'm thankful for every second.

There is a place I call my own
Where I can stand by the sea,
And look beyond the things I've known ,
And dream that I might be free.

Like the bird above the trees
Gliding gently on the breeze,
I wish that all my life I'd be
Without a care and flying free!

But life is not a distant sky
Without a cloud, without rain.
And I can never hope that I
Can travel on without pain

Time goes swiftly on its way,
All too soon we've lost today.
I cannot wait for skies of blue
Or dream so long that life is through.

So life's a song that I must sing,
A gift of love I must share .
And when I see the joy it brings,
My spirits soar through the air.

Like that bird up in the sky ,
Life has taught me how to fly.
For now I know what I can be
And now my heart is flying free.