People often ask me, “What was the worst thing you ever saw on the ambulance as an EMT?”
I think they are expecting some gruesome story about a decapitation or something. I’ve seen dead kids, people shot in the head, chest, and legs, burns, and stab wounds to the heart. I’ve seen strokes, heart attacks, cardiac arrests, overdoses, and a multitude of illnesses and injuries, but nothing stands out in my mind more than the piano man.
I was working the 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift with a paramedic named Brett. He was a damn good medic and the two of us always had fun working together. We ran our calls and tried out new restaurants in the city, watched goofy TV shows, and just generally had a good time. I genuinely liked working with Brett.
It was sometime after midnight, we were posted downtown, near the university, when the radio crackled.
“Medic 24, respond for a male with lacerations.”
It was a pretty vague description of what exactly we were going to encounter, but you learn not to rely too much on the dispatch information. It’s not that 911 dispatchers are bad at their jobs (they are incredible professionals who act as our lifelines), but situations change, and they are not always able to get all the information.
The call was in an apartment complex that was primarily inhabited by college students. We pulled up and saw a few kids standing outside in the dark. They looked panicked.
We got out of the truck and were lead into an apartment by a 20-something woman. I remember she was upset, but she didn’t seem like a typical party-goer. In fact, none of the people on the scene seemed like the type. They seemed more like nerds.
Once in the apartment, we found a man face down in the kitchen in a small puddle of blood. I bent down and tapped him on the shoulder and shook him a little bit, asking if he was okay.
He rolled over and looked at us. He smiled and said he was okay and that he had cut his hands.
He held up his hands in the light. His palms were utterly shredded. They looked as though they had been caught in a meat grinder. We could see all the way to the bone. Muscle and flesh were hanging off in shreds.
We walked him to the ambulance and sat him down on the stretcher. Brett took a position next to him on the bench and prepared to start an IV line. I sat behind the patient with our laptop on my lap and began asking him the questions we always ask.
“So what happened?” I said.
The man explained that his friends were celebrating his upcoming graduation which was just a few weeks away. They had been drinking, and at some point, he thought it would be funny to jump and hang from the awning, which covered the parking spaces outside the apartment. He said when he jumped up, his hands got caught in the metal roofing, and when he fell, his hands were ripped apart.
“Well, that sucks,” I thought. But he didn’t seem to be in much pain and was a pretty friendly guy. I kept the conversation going, and told him I had just graduated a few months ago myself, and asked him what his major was.
“I’m a music major,” he said.
My heart dropped, and Brett and I shared a dreadful glance. All I could think of was that I hoped he was a singer because he wasn’t playing anything with his hands anytime soon. But I already knew what was coming next, almost as though I could feel it.
“What, uh, instrument do you play?” one of us asked.
“Piano,” the patient said. “I have my final recital in two weeks.”
I think I said something like, “That’s cool,” but in my head, I knew he wouldn’t be able to play piano for a long, long time — if he was ever able to play again.
I drove us to the hospital with Brett in the back. I don’t know what they talked about, but Brett had an easy way about him which patients liked. In the front, all I could think about is how this one decision could have possibly — had likely — ruined this kid’s life.
We dropped him off at the Emergency Room and went back to work. I have no idea what else we did that night.
That call and that patient have always stuck with me, and for some reason, I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Not because it was gruesome, but because it was the first time I ever saw someone ruin their life in one night. Although he didn’t die, I’m sure at some point he wished he had. I can only hope the plastic surgeons were able to piece his hands back together, but you never know.
This article was written by Joseph LaFave and originally published on July 12, 2020.