Monday, May 17, 2010

The Tricky Art of Raising the Dead

I knelt on the dead woman’s bed, my weight pressing down on the mattress until her cold and lifeless body rolled into me. Then I lifted her wig, leaned in close and whispered, ‘Open your eyes.’

Every year twenty million Americans commit suicide. Actually, I have no idea if that’s true. I just made the number up. But this being the age of Google you can probably find out yourself. More than likely the number is high. A good bit lower than twenty million perhaps, but high nonetheless.

Anyhow, when it comes to suicide several things have always fascinated me. Chief among them being the deceased’s method of choice. If Groundhog Day taught us anything it’s that there is, literally, no limit to the number of ways you can off yourself. After all, one of Bill Murray’s final deaths comes at the hands of a groundhog with road rage. The possibilities are endless.

Which raises a lot of questions. Such as why would you choose something long and slow and painful in a world in which the means of self-inflicted death are so limitless and hilarious? (Come on, death by road-raging groundhog is funny)

Personally, I’m a jumper. Mind you, not the middle-of-rush-hour-stop-traffic-all-day kind of jumper, but a jumper all the same. And if you’re concerned about the mental state of a person who’s already chosen his preferred means of self-removal, worry not. I just happen to have seen a few. And at some point even the most sound among us are forced to step back, hands on hips, and say ‘That is not the way I would’ve done it.’

My other point of fascination when it comes to suicide is the large number of non-committals. Someone once said ‘You know it’s time to kill yourself when you fuck up suicide.’ Which, of course, brings us back to the woman I raised from the dead just a few paragraphs ago.

It was a dark and stormy night. Seriously. It truly was a crappy night and anyone who’s ever worked in EMS can tell you how horrible it is to do our job in the rain. So I was just thrilled to be skidding through town for reports of a ‘suicide attempt, breathing status unknown.’

By this point in my life I had seen a number of these: some were true emergencies and others, well, not so much. Every time I catch one of these calls it brings me back to the first suicide I ever ran. It was a middle-aged woman who had passed the long dark night in the company of a dozen kitchen utensils (I still can’t look at a corkscrew the same way). What we found on arrival was straight out of Stephen King.

Imagine red pudding. Everywhere. Stunningly, the woman was very much alive. Walking around, crying, narrating her strange night as I followed her with a handful of four-by-four bandages and rolls of cotton cling. The despondent are a very strange lot.

But at least she lived alone. Unlike the lost soul we were being called out to help right now. As soon as we pulled up to the curb a teenage girl in curlers darted across the law, hands waving wildly in the air. We hopped out, grabbed our gear and sloshed through the rain to the frantic cadence of sixteen-year-old in hysterics.

Inside we were met by five more girls (Yes, FIVE. All between twenty and ten. Seriously, where do these people find the time?) who were at various stages of agitation. We were quickly ushered down a set of steps and into a very small hallway. An old woman, not a day under ninety, appeared from nowhere and, with a single look, sent the crowd of cackling girls back upstairs.

Truly enthralled, my partner and I stood in this very tiny hallway with this very old woman. And waited.

Finally she spat a stream of tobacco juice into a plastic cup and said, ‘I’m so tired of this nonsense.’ I nodded. ‘Who’s not?’

I’m not sure if that was the right thing to say in that particular circumstance but the old woman turned and opened a door covered in old stickers and magic marker scribbles. ‘She’s in there.’

When I was a kid, if left to my own devices, my room would get messy. Most people can say the same. However, the state of the room we had just entered into wasn’t messy. It was…it was the product of a lifestyle choice. One that said, ‘You do what you want. Me, I wanna be a turd.’

At the far end of the room, flopped out in the middle of a sheetless queen-sized bed, was our patient. The old woman shot out another stream of tobacco juice. ‘She’s gone and killed herself again.’

That struck me as an interesting choice of words.

It probably goes without saying that I’ve seen the dead. Natural causes, violent causes. Those who have been dead for weeks, those whose last breaths I was there to witness. These people, the dead, they have a certain…lifelessness to them. It’s very easy to see, not so easy to duplicate. Not that people don’t try.

One of my old partners and I walked in on a family so tricked by their loved one's fake death we had to physically stop them from doing well-intentioned but piss-poor CPR. Then we gave the deceased a quick whiff of ammonia and she perked right up. Hand of God, reached right down and saved her. Not that she was grateful.

So suffice it to say I can spot a faker and the woman flopped out on the bed before us? She did not look dead. Still, my partner stepped in to take a closer look and I turned to the old woman. Before I could say a word she summed up our patient’s life-story as a series of bad decisions punctuated by the occasional suicide. I cannot tell you, at that moment, how much I liked this little old woman. She was like a wig-wearing, tobacco-spitting Buddha.

By now my partner had assessed our non-dead patient. Her blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood sugar and oxygen levels were all perfect. There was no sign of trauma and her skin was warm and dry. Our attention could now be turned to the tricky art of raising the dead.

There are a number of ways to do this, none of them medical. Sometimes you can shame them. Take for example the underappreciated woman who went limp during Thanksgiving dinner, slithered out of her chair and, rather ceremoniously, died under the table. I saved her from the flames of hell by saying she had sent her grandmother into a state of shock from which the poor woman may never recover.

You can also flick their eyelids–the undead tend to blink—or squeeze their fingertips between your thumb and a pen. The pain causes them to draw back, a reflex not commonly found among the dead. Sliding an airway device into their right nostril has the tendency to wake them in dramatic fashion—think Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.

I usually start with a little conversation. Ask them nicely to open their eyes and talk because the next step, I tell them, is for me to stick you with needles, shock you with electricity and shove a tube down your throat. And you don’t want that.

In the years I’ve been doing this I’ve heard people heap a lot of accolades on the EMS profession. But with all the soothsaying, the voodoo, the smoke and mirrors, I like to think of us as Witch Doctors.

Just as I was about to begin my séance the old woman, ever full of wonder, shot a stream of tobacco juice through her front teeth and said, ‘She usually leaves a suicide note.’

If ever a single sentence has delighted me more I couldn’t tell you what it was. I scanned the dresser, the night stand, the floor. I found a lot of things, many of them with no business in someone’s bedroom, but no sign of any note. I was about to give up when my gaze fell upon our patient.

She was sprawled out in the bed, eyes closed, mouth open. Her left arm was extended at an unnatural angle and pointing, more or less, toward her headboard. It was one of those strange beds where the headboard doubles as a shelf and there, on the top shelf was the note. My hands trembled.

It’s very rare to find out what led someone to their make-believe suicide. True, actual suicides tend to be a little tight-lipped but typically when you out a faker they’re either bitter or embarrassed and either way in no mood to talk. That other woman I mentioned? The one my partner woke up with ammonia? She was so mad she peed in the ambulance…while staring my too-stunned-to-respond partner in the eye. People are strange.

Anyway, standing on the edge of the bed, letter in hand, I began to read. Aloud. Let me stop here and say I don’t plan to kill myself. As a kid I couldn’t even pull my own teeth. I’d make my mom do it. So I’m a little iffy about hurting myself. Add to that the whole ‘leaving loved ones behind in the wake of your own selfishness’ thing and I just, it’s not my thing.

But, were I to do it—AND leave a suicide note—I’d make damn sure the thing was legendary. At the very least I’d make sure the spelling was passable. Our patient did no such thing. Misspelled words were just the beginning. There were run-on sentences, half-finished sentences, non-sentences. Seriously, how do you graduate from high school with the belief that ‘Ain’t no reason be look again’ means anything, let alone something you need to express with the final three hundred words you’ll ever compile.

I soldiered on. It should be said I did so with a great deal of decorum. The old woman, after all, was a relation of some sort. Granted, a relation at the end of her rope and whose straight-forward take on life and fake death made her an instant favorite of mine, but she was a relation nonetheless.

Finally I got to the How of our letter. In bold script that included a large arrow pointing toward the shelf, the note read ‘And so I swallowed these bullets and them pills.’

I instantly scrambled across the bed and there, propped up on the top shelf for our viewing pleasure were four Tylenol and three 22 caliber bullets. It should be mentioned that a twenty-two does not shoot large bullets. We aren’t talking fifty cal or shotgun shells. The dreaded twenty-two fires a bullet the size of the little red eraser on the end of a pencil. Even with the shell casing it’s still smaller than a cashew. Granted they can do a great deal of harm should they enter your body by means of, say, a gun. But when swallowed? Not so much.

I fought hard not to laugh. I bit my tongue, my lip. I hid behind the suicide note as a smile crept across my face. Just as I was sure I could hold it no longer a snicker rose up behind me. It was the old lady. Have I said how much I love this woman?

But there was real work at hand now. Tylenol seems like a very innocent drug. We take it all the time without issue, so it’s a common choice for young girls looking to punish a boyfriend or a parent. ‘I’ll just take a few of these,’ the girl says to herself as she swallows twenty Tylenol, ‘and then they’ll be sorry.’ And someone will be sorry, alright.

Tylenol, when taken in even medium-sized quantities kills the liver. Slowly. And painfully. The ones lucky enough to be found quickly can look forward to hours of a rather painful and brutal process called a stomach lavage. The others can look forward to a slow and unnecessary death.

I quickly located and dumped out the bottle. The pill count printed on the label was twenty five and I found eighteen. That’s right. Including the four already removed for demonstrative purposes, our patient had taken three tablets. Now we all laughed.

Still our patient feigned death. I read on. More finger-pointing, accompanied by more snickering from the old lady—seriously, who related to this woman wouldn’t want to extend their life by decades simply to increase the amount of time spent in her presence?

At the bottom our patient had signed her name—illegible—and had been courteous enough to include a PS.

This addendum really piqued my curiosity. I wondered what kind of insight, what tiny piece of wisdom was so important it had to be included in the suicide note, but was trivial enough to be excluded from the main text? This I had to know. I read on.

‘PS. Nook Nook will always be in my heart.’

I lowered the note. ‘Who the hell is Nook Nook?’

The old woman shot out a stream of tobacco juice. ‘Jackass who used to live down the street.’ Before I could ask how he passed, she said, ‘And he didn’t even die. He moved to Charlotte.’

And there you have it. The wisdom of our age knows no bounds. I tossed the note and crawled across the bed. I reached out, lifted the dead woman’s wig and told her we’d had enough. That you can’t die from swallowing bullets or by taking three Tylenol. I said her family was very concerned—here the old woman tittered—and would certainly be delighted to hear she was fine.

The game is up, I said, we all know you’re alive.

‘Besides, Nook Nook not only resides permanently in your heart but also a mere four hours north. Open your eyes. Now.’

And she did.


  1. Apparently there's Joel, Ethan, and Kevin Coen. Kevin might be the blackest of the three.