As firefighters, we are accustomed to facing fear on a regular basis. But I know of no one accustomed to facing pandemics. Our new fear is very real.
At our firehouse on Seattle’s downtown waterfront, we know that every call that we go on could be the one that takes us out. We’ve been here from the start, our county the epicenter, and as we try to maintain social distancing in our small firehouse, we talk about how we all will eventually become infected. Or have we been already? Or are we asymptomatic now? Perhaps our greatest risk of exposure is each other, which creates a tension I imagine to be like walking a tightrope, each sniffle or sneeze enough to knock us off the line. But we are all on this line together, six feet apart. We wonder who among us is next. The bells ring. We climb aboard the fire engine and make our way through city streets that resemble the sets for apocalypse movies. Trash blows like tumbleweeds in front of plywood-boarded shopfronts.
But this is no set. These are our streets. And they are nearly unrecognizable. Our new protocols direct us to wear masks, eye protection, gowns, and gloves on every call. We hurriedly don our protective equipment while riding in the back of the rig. Lights, the only sign of life. Sirens, the only sounds.
Our protection makes human connection, jilted and stalled. Nearly.
At the doorstep of a septuagenarian, we investigate a chirping smoke alarm. We’ve recently passed daylight savings time and the battery needs changing. This call, once a casual kindness and of no great consequence, now has serious life threats associated with it. This grandmother’s home could be infected. Or we could unwittingly bring the virus to her doorstep. Our PPE both protects us and separates us. A call that not too long ago was a heartwarming courtesy, has become riddled with anxiety and danger. She says she might have had symptoms. Who can be sure?
She invites us inside so that the people in the apartments on her floor don’t see her, but I suspect she just wants other humans in her living space. Every word from her dry lips seems parched with longing. Her loneliness teeters toward desperation on every word, each one a request for an embrace that we cannot give.
After I remove the battery from the smoke alarm I say our goodbyes, but as we’re leaving another beep calls our attention. The woman attempts to small talk with us as we search her apartment for the cause of the chirping. Any dialogue will do, so long as it’s combined with the presence of another human. After some time, we find a carbon monoxide detector behind a bookcase that is secured to the wall. We rectify the situation.
On our way out the door, the woman’s eyes implore me to stay. The rest of my crew is on the way down the hall, but I hesitate, gazing into her eyes. I don’t hear her words, I just feel her overwhelming isolation, her fear. She reminds me of the first patient who died in my embrace. She was of similar age, and in her last moments of life she clung to my arms, searching my face for an answer, and whispered, “help me,” before a profound change came over her, and I felt the impression that she had fallen backward, tumbling beyond this physical place, even though that was impossible: She was still sitting in her armchair, motionless. We immediately started CPR but to no avail. She’s never left me.
She taught me that a vital role of EMS workers is to become that last human connection, the last person to say goodbye. She taught me how to practice philoxenia—Greek for “friend to a stranger."
When my beloved grandmother died a few years ago, I took that knowledge and sat with it as I held her frail hand and said my last farewell. It was difficult to see in the moment, but I would later come to understand that the ability to say goodbye was perhaps the greatest gift in her passing. She told me that I was her flower boy, the one who always came bearing gifts. “Flowers show you care,” she whispered, with eyes as radiant as spring blossoms. All those petals, long turned to dust, still so vivid in her recollection as to be enveloping us during our final farewell.
As I stand in the doorframe of today’s Septuagenarian, I realize that if she is to contract and die from this disease, she may never see her family again. I, in turn, stand in place of that family. I have become her closest kin by proxy, and I feel a profound sense of duty to not let her down.
My lieutenant notices my apprehension and comes back to retrieve me. We have so many other calls to attend to, but his words are kind and understanding. On our drive home, through a ghostly Pike Place Market, we make light of my millennial sensibilities, my generation’s tendencies toward fragility. But we all feel the truth of our role in this.
If my first death taught me anything, it was to be a comfort to those departing this earth. My grandmother taught me that there is no greater gift than a goodbye. And my septuagenarian today, you’ve taught me that you are also my family, and if it is my great honor to walk with you on your last breaths out of this life, I hope to do so not in fear of this virus, or of death, I hope I will do so with familial love.
I’m not a religious person, but these words have been planted like seeds into my heart, seeds that bloom in this dark hour, as they guide me through this pandemic.
“And of some have compassion, making a difference.”—Jude 22
So as we struggle to accustom ourselves to this new business-as-usual I’ll steel myself with the armor of empathy, of philoxenia, and be ready as our duty calls.