Every department has frequent flyers. Heck, every station has their individual frequent flyers. Yes, even though I’m not on an engine or responding to calls, I’m married to someone who is. By default, throughout the years I feel like I’ve come to know some of the frequent flyers my firefighter has befriended too. I don’t know any medical issues or names or addresses, or anything else that would violate privacy rights or patient confidentiality. What I’ve heard about, is the person himself; his bull headedness or her grandmotherly smile. The specific way that one persnickety elderly woman cocks her head to the side when my firefighter and his crew walk through the door, already joking and putting her at ease.
Then there’s my favorite story of a woman who was always eating chocolate covered almonds when the paramedics arrived. My firefighter treated her respectfully and gently, but his partner was less-than-kind to her. One day the woman handed his partner a baggie full of almonds as a “gift.” This guy teased and taunted the other firefighters and EMS, acting like he was something special. Had he ever been anything other than annoyed by her though, he might have noticed (as my husband did) that she never actually chewed up and ate the chocolate-covered almonds. She merely borrowed them long enough to suck off the chocolate then spit them out again. Her gift, in return for this guy’s perpetually rude treatment of her, was a baggie of chocolate-less almonds that she had sucked clean.
These stories make these people real to me. But it seems like only other emergency service families would understand what I’m talking about. In some ways, I feel bad for the people who will never know. It is easy to get so caught up in our busy lives that we just drive through our neighborhoods, or down our city streets, without ever thinking of who is facing what dilemmas behind their fortified doors and windows. Maybe it’s just my naïve side that I never outgrew after childhood, but I’ve always gazed at glowing house windows while riding in the car at night and wondered, “What is happening in there? Are they sitting down to eat as a family and sharing the stories of the day? Are they kissing their children goodnight and tucking them into cozy beds? Are they crying tears of defeat with a house full of sick kids and bills piling up? Are they snuggling under a warm blanket in front of the fireplace? Or mending a broken heart with candles, chocolates, a good book and a warm bath?”
Of course, maybe it’s none of these. I tend to be an optimist, so I usually lean towards the more pleasant scenes. But after so many years of being married to a firefighter and knowing the ache of personal loss, I’m also a realist. I know that not every house has happy scenes playing out inside. Not every house is full of love, like ours is. Some houses welcome loneliness and heartache, because that’s all that their inhabitants know. Usually…not always, but usually…these houses are the ones who most often call EMS and the fire department to come out shift after shift. Sometimes they have legitimate medical issues, but sometimes, it seems they just want some big guys with even bigger hearts to be their knights in shining armor.
It’s true that some people get annoyed with these calls, and probably for good reason. They tax the system. They steal apparatus and personnel from matters that may be much more urgent somewhere else in the district. The firefighters and EMS are called so often that sometimes they run these calls even in their sleep, off shift, at home, in their own beds and in their minds alone.
Ironically though, most of the firefighters I know see these people as people, as the community members they are, rather than government numbers or medical records bills. You would think the guys would get more annoyed by these frequent flyers, but usually they don’t. They respond shift after shift, year after year, and in the end, when the frequent flyer has passed on…realize that they miss the old codger after all. Our firefighters may be big, but one well-kept secret that devoted wives and girlfriends will know is that their hearts are much, much bigger.