Standing in front of the mirror, I suddenly noticed a stranger looking back at me. His hairline was almost gone, and the glow of youth had faded away. It hadn’t been long ago that I had said good-bye to my mother and my oldest brother, Virgil. Now I stood looking in a mirror as a stranger looked back at me.
I had just celebrated my 40th birthday. I had a mortgage, a family, 4 boys, a wonderful, supportive wife, two jobs, and a lot of people who enjoyed my paycheck. I was just finishing my 15th year as an elementary school teacher teaching the 6th grade at a small Oklahoma school. I was also getting ready to start my 5th year summer at my second job as a paramedic at a hospital-based ambulance service.
When I had finished my Masters degree, my summers were now mine. Since so many people expected a check every month, I started to look for a way to supplement my teacher salary. I happened to know a lady who had worked at school who was also a part time EMT with the county hospital. From visiting with her, I decided that maybe that would be something for me.
I took my first class, and I was hooked. I finished the class, and passed the National Registry Test and became a certified EMT. I got my first job at the service where my friend worked. I worked that summer as a fill-in for people on vacation. Then, when school started, I would work on weekends, as needed. Time went by, and the service I worked for began to advance their service to a higher level of care. So did I. The service soon became a Paramedic Life Support service. I went back to school at night and became a full-fledged Nationally Registered Paramedic.
I was getting ready to start my fifth summer, and standing there looking at a balding man who was becoming aware of the passing of time. I don’t think I was much different from any other man who finds himself facing the realization that as one gets older the years seem to shift to a higher gear and come faster than you ever thought they could. I believe it’s called a Mid-Life Crisis. I told my wife that when she turned 40 I would trade her in for two 20s. She said, “Honey, you’re not wired for 220!” I wasn’t the type of guy to buy a sports care, chase wild women, or dye my hair, or in my case, buy a wig. I was worried whether I had made the right decisions in my life.
As a teacher, I spent my first 10 year had been spent as an elementary teaching principal. This lasted until a budget crunch. My school went from 2 principals to one. I decided I would go to the classroom because I had a second job that paid as much as got for being principal. When the time came to go back to the principal job, the qualifications had changed and I was no longer certified. That was fine with me. I had advanced to a Paramedic, and I was able to keep the wolves away from my door. I was even thinking about going on in the ambulance service and maybe, even working full time as a director. As I said, time passes, and things change. My new principal at school felt threatened by the ex-principal, me. Medicaid cuts put the small hospitals and their ambulance services in danger of closing. So there I stood looking at the stranger in my mirror while my world seemed to be falling apart around my ears. This is also the time that I really started looking at my relationship with God. I was raised in a home where church was a very important part of our lives. When my wife and I married, we dedicated ourselves to do what God had planned for us. Don’t get me wrong, I have missed my share of Sundays that I should have been in church, but we were never far from God. He had been good to us, and we knew it. We had what we needed, and we were blessed. With everything that had happened, I wondered if I had made the right decisions in my life. Was I really doing what I had promised to do? I wasn’t afraid that God was failing me, but that I was failing Him.
The call came in as a “baby not breathing.” This is a call that a paramedic hates to get. A critical child call could go “sour” in a heartbeat. Adults we worked on often, and had reason to be confident in our skills. But a child was something else. It was a great relief upon our arrival that the child was breathing. This was not the first time that we had dealt with this child or her family. She was a twin and had been born way too soon. She and her sister had multiple problems. I had run on a call for her twin sister. She was transported to a larger hospital, and soon passed from this life. Now this very young couple was faced with the possibility of losing this baby too.
They were out at the bowling alley, one of the few places they could go and take her apnea monitor which sounded an alarm when her oxygen level dropped too low. That was what had happened, so they had called us.
This was a very sick little girl. If you have ever been around a child with her condition, you would notice the bluish tint to her skin. The skin is almost slimy with a thick sweat. There is an acidic type smell due to the body chemistry.
She was breathing, but not very well. The monitor was buzzing. The young mother was crying. She was saying that they shouldn’t have tried to go anywhere because they had already buried one baby. Would they also lose this one?
When you’re young and trying to take care of a sick baby, there are a number of things that make you feel guilty. What did I do wrong? Did I take something that made my baby so sick? Sometime the family is critical of the young parents trying to take care of a fragile life.
Not that this family was not supportive, but they were not in the hearts or the minds of the young parents desperately trying to hold on to their beautiful baby girl.
My partner that day was my favorite partner to work with. He knew the town well, and he told good jokes. We shared the opinion that very sick people need to get to the hospital and a doctor as quick as possible. We called it “Boogey Time.” This decision would be made without a word being said. A look was all that was needed from either one of us, and we were moving. Everything we did, we did on wheels. We started our oxygen, established our IV, got ready for intubation, if needed, and did our vitals. Now we’re in the truck. Color us gone! The boss wasn’t always happy with these methods since billing information wasn’t part of the “Boogey!”
The hospital was only about three miles away, and I wasn’t looking forward to trying to put that intertrachial tube into her little airway. I noticed that that wouldn’t be necessary because she already had a tracheotomy. Our oxygen monitor showed that her level had come up a little, and she seemed to be breathing easier. Since we were about three minutes out, I called in my report. They said they were aware that we were on the way, and they were ready.
The ER is usually kept informed by the pediatrician anytime we have a critically ill child. There are standing orders so the ER doctor wouldn’t have to contact the pediatrician before starting treatment. There are also orders as to how far to carry out resuscitation of one of these sick children.
I couldn’t see her face because of the oxygen mask. At the hospital we changed to a different mask. When I took the large mask off, I thought I saw a smile on her face. Respiratory therapy was called since the baby had a tracheal tube that she breathed through.
I went about getting my truck back into service. When I finished, I went back to check on my patient. By now the respiratory therapist had suctioned her out and her oxygen saturation had returned to normal.
That’s when I saw it. When she looked at me the most beautiful smile come onto her little face. It was a smile that can only come from a child, a smile that can melt the hardest heart, a smile that says, “Hi, I love you!” I went to her, and she took my finger in her tiny hand. Her eyes sparkled full of life. I talked and played with her until X-ray came to take her.
When they brought her back, I was busy with another patient. An ER nurse I had known since I had started working at the hospital came over and asked me what I was going to tell my wife. I asked her what she was talking about. She said, “What are you doing to tell your wife about your little girlfriend?” She said that the little girl’s eyes had followed me everywhere I went. I looked at her lying in the bed, and again that smile greeted me. It was the sweetest smile I have ever seen. This was the way it was every time I saw her.
Her name was Megan. Megan always had a smile for me. There were many other times that Megan was brought into the ER, but even during the worst times she always had that beautiful smile for me. I soon also got to know her parents. After all I was their daughter’s first boyfriend. They were feeling guilt, anger, hopelessness, fear, and pain. I shared some of their pain and the love of their little girl.
The end of the summer was the last time I saw my little girlfriend, Megan. Her dad had gotten another job in the next county. I just happened to have some friends who worked at the hospital in that county. I knew I would miss seeing her, but I also knew she would be well taken care of.
School started and I went back to working part time for the ambulance service. I decided I would only work every other weekend. I was getting my truck ready for my weekend shift when a unit from the town where my little girlfriend, Megan, had moved to brought in a patient to ER. As was our custom after they gave their report and off loaded the patient, we would help get their truck back into service. On this day the paramedic on the truck was also a part time paramedic for our service. We were exchanging shoptalk while the other medic finished his paperwork. She asked me if I remembered the little girl that we had run on when the family lived here. I said yes, and I was anxious to hear how she was doing. When I asked, she reached out and touched my arm. Softly she said, “I guess you haven’t heard. We lost her last week.”
Now medically speaking, it was no surprise. Megan had so much working against her. My friend said that the family was doing as well as could be expected. To tell the truth I didn’t know how to feel. I thanked her and went about my business.
Now I knew why one of my students and her sister hadn’t been at school that last week. You see, it just so happened that Megan’s aunt, Dusty, was in my class. She loved to talk about Megan. I had gotten close to the whole family. This happens in a small town.
When I went back to school I wasn’t quite sure what I would say to Dusty. When the class came in she came up to my desk. She said, “Mr. Armstrong, have you heard what happened?” I said I did, but I didn’t know in time to go to the funeral. Dusty said her sister asked her to do something. She wanted to apologize for not letting me know, but that so much was going on that they forgot to call. I told her that I understood. Then she took out a little picture. There it was – that beautiful little smile. Dusty said that her sister wanted me to have this picture. She also wanted me to know how much they appreciated my kindness to them and their little girl. I took the picture, and made up an excuse to step out of the room for a minute.
Today I look in my mirror, and I don’t see that old bald man wondering what his role is in the big picture of life. When I look in the mirror, I see a man blessed. I see a man who was shown what is important by a beautiful little girl and her young parents.
We all have a place in this world. We are each a piece of a beautiful picture. When all of those pieces fit together they paint a picture of God’s love for us. We are each an important part of that picture, caring and loving each other. This was what Megan taught me. She wasn’t here on this earth very long, but she was able to show me her part of the picture and mine. It has been said that when God takes a baby to heaven that baby becomes an angel. If that is true, then I carry an angel in pocket and always will.