Memories Of the Ambulance Service: A Wild Ride With a Dying Baby in My Arms

Todd Van Beck's picture

A couple of weeks ago I wrote my first article on my memories of the funeral home ambulance service.  My friends, trust me, what a ride it was working on the funeral home ambulance service.

Last time I shared a funny story about one particular ambulance call, and I have more where that one came from, but yesterday I had an experience which made me think back more than 30 years ago to one particular call we had which was not funny in the least.

First let me share with you what I witnessed yesterday. As I was driving back from lunch, I pulled over for a fire engine, and the right behind the fire engine, an ambulance.  Of course the ambulance was much different than the ones I worked on.  Today I believe the modern ambulance is literally a moving emergency room on wheels – and thank God the service evolved into what it is today.  I believe many lives are saved because of the advancements in ambulance service that we almost take for granted today.

However, in the past, while our vehicles and training could not compare with the present day sophistication, nonetheless we ran smack into terribly difficult and life and death calls on a regular basis.

Yesterday as I turned the corner going back to the funeral home, the fire engine and ambulance had all lanes in the direction I was going blocked, and a police officer was on the scene stopping traffic.  In a short time, one of the paramedics came out of the house and I could see that he was carrying a baby in his arms.  In quick order the infant was whisked into the back of the ambulance the doors were shut, the fire engine moved out of the way, and traffic resumed.

Maybe other drivers felt a pang and chill witnessing that scene, I don’t know, but I do know that I felt hollow inside .I felt the tremors of anxiety that only someone who has been involved with an injured and ill infant can feel.  My memory went back to 1969 in North Omaha.


From routine to emergency

As dramatic and traumatic ambulance work was, after a while calls do become somewhat routine.  Not callous routine, but after 1,000 calls the siren gets tiresome, battling traffic gets tiresome, and the calls in reality are usually not life and death.  In fact my boss, in moments of ambulance exasperation, used to yell that “We are running a glorified and FREE taxi cab service.”  His exasperation was well founded, for once we got an “emergency” call from a grocery store and when we arrived the old lady simply wanted us to help her take her groceries home in our $45,000 new ambulance.  

However everybody who knew anything about ambulance work also knew full well that just about the time you relaxed, just about the time calls got boring, just about the time you got complacent, BAM, WOW, SMACK, some call would come in that would derail your comfort level and alter your psyche forever.

This happened to me on several memorable occasions.  Here is one of them.

It was hot in Omaha, blistering hot.  The heat certainly helped the corn grow tall, but it made ambulance work a nightmare.  We dreaded daytime calls because the air conditioner in the back end of the rig simply could not keep up with the doors being opened and closed constantly.  Night calls were better, or so I thought.

One summer evening the sun had disappeared and it had started to cool off wen we received a residential call.  This was not a police call.  Police calls were almost always a safer type of call to respond to, simply because if the police were on the scene somebody (usually the police, but not always) had a gun.

So off we went to North Omaha.  The neighborhood was rough, many burned out buildings, because there had been a couple of assassinations the summer before that motivated people to react with anger and furor, and the neighborhoods bore the scars. The area was full of blight and poverty; it was a tough place.

It was about 8:30 p.m. and as we pulled up in front of the address I could not see anything amiss.  Oftentimes in really tough calls, people are screaming, running round and basically going nuts – but not this time.  Everything was quiet.  It was still so hot that even the neighbors didn’t come out to see what was going on.

I was in the passenger seat and got out of the ambulance.  Out of the blue, like a shot in the dark, this young woman came flying out of her front door, ran down the front steps, and tossed a small bundle in my arms.  It happened so damned fast that my buddy who was driving had not even gotten out of the vehicle.

I looked down at the small bundle and pulled the blanket back. It was a little baby, not more than three months old.  The young woman started shrieking and yelling at the top of her lungs, and then she started punching me in the arm.  I froze.

Finally my buddy pulled the hysterical woman away from me and as I took the infant into the back of the ambulance I could tell without question that the baby was not breathing.  I was mortified.  Advanced first aid had covered CPR, but hell, I never thought I would run into this situation in a million years. But then I was a kid, and what does a kid know, particularly working on the ambulance? But as God is my witness, this night I learned fast.

My buddy looked at me and did not say one word.  He jumped into the driver’s seat, I shut the back door and off we went to the nearest Omaha hospital, which fortunately in those days was only maybe 20 blocks away.

We had purchased an “Emerson Resuscitator” which in 1969 was the state of the art in emergency breathing equipment – or so we thought.  Looking back, however, the bloody thing didn’t work.  There was an adult mask, and a child’s mask, but no infant mask, and even with the masks, if you did not create a perfect seal on the mouth the machine would just click repeatedly with oxygen escaping through the cracks in the supposed seal.  Also the machine weighed 100 lbs.

The baby was not moving, and I was trembling.  I thought, “Lord, help me!”  Finally I bit the bullet and started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart compressions.  It was difficult to do this in the back of the old ambulances, because room was tight, and on night my buddy the driver was so freaked out that he was driving 70 mph going up North 24th Street, which is a major avenue in Omaha.  The result  was that I was getting tossed about hither and yon in the back end and could not get a strong foothold.

I don’t know why I did this – ignorance, desperation, stupidity, I don’t know – but I decided to pick that infant up and smack its bottom.  I imagine any EMT reading this is just having a conniption fit, but that it what I did.  I smack the baby’s bottom and then turned him around and started CPR.  In a few second the baby vomited – I hope this doesn’t gross you out – but the baby vomited right in my mouth.  I can’t say I handled that every well, because I also threw up. (I was a true professional.) 

Suddenly we were under the canopy at the hospital ER and my buddy had hysterically raced like a wild man into the ER yelling and screaming about our desperate situation, and before I knew it three nurses had taken the infant out of my arms and into the ER they carried him.

It is interesting that a crisis seems to end about as quickly as it starts.  One moment I was getting vomit in my mouth and the next minute I was sitting safely in the front seat of the ambulance, having now no control at all over the situation and feeling damned happy and relieved that I did not.

For about 20 minutes my buddy and I just sat in the ambulance looking at each other.  I almost started to cry, and all my buddy could say was "god– , god–" over and over again.  Then we looked at each other and burst out with a goofy stupid laugh.  Certainly the situation was not funny, but that is what we did.

When I returned to the funeral home, I told my boss about the call, and he very sympathetically looked up and said “Oh hell, buck up son; it can get worse.”  My friends, he was telling me the truth. I did go on worse ambulance calls over the years.

About a month later, we had another call and ended up at the same hospital again.  One of the three nurses who had rescued the infant from my incompetent care came over to me and told me that the baby had lived, he was alright.  Then she looked at me and said, “You know, you did a good job.”  I don’t know to this day whether that comment was accurate, whether it was sympathy, or whether she was teasing me.  I don’t know.  I know at the time I thought that I was in way over my head on this ambulance call, but it taught me a valuable lesson – be prepared for anything in the funeral profession.  Complacency is high-risk behavior; the concept of “routine” in reality does not exist in funeral service.

When I saw that little bundle being taken from the house yesterday, my memories immediately went back to North Omaha.  I know in the end that the crack medical team at the hospital did the real work, but I have always taken comfort in the terribly kind words the nurse said to me.  She didn’t have to do that.

There are more ambulance stories, and I hope the readers will not bore too easily going down memory lane with me.

Truthfully the ambulance experience made me a better human being, and hence I improved my skills as a funeral professional.  I didn't become perfect by any means, but these types of ambulance calls did improve my sensitivities to the tenderness and fragility of human life.  

And in the end if funeral directors are not sensitive and tender and aware of the fragilities of human life, what do we have left?

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB



I've been following your blog since I read one of your stories that was linked on the Professional Car Society forum. When I was about two weeks old in Jan. 1983, four years before the rural area I live in had the ability to call for Paramedics. I was saved in a similar way. My mother had found me blue in my crib, not breathing, likely close to being a SIDS Victim. A call on the seven digit emergency party line (we didn't have 9-1-1 till about 1987), summoned various neighbors who ran the ambulance service. One such ran in, according to my mother, picked me up by the feet, and slapped my bottom.. Then after just one breath, I was pinking up and crying. So, it must be a method that does some good. Although now, after being an EMT since the age of sixteen, all we're allowed to do is tap the bottom of their feet. Mouth to Mouth is very much frowned upon, as I found out almost a year ago. (I knew it before then, but when it's a child, it's rare to find an EMT, etc., who isn't willing to do just about anything to save them.) I arrived at a local residence, to find an unresponsive child. I did CPR w/ mouth ventilation until the ambulance arrived. I sorely learned with in twelve hours that I'd made a terrible mistake, as among the two man crew, our body temperatures added up were about 210 degrees. Until that point, the resuscitator I carried, which is perfect for my rural setting, a two cylinder rebuilt 1960's device, was perfect for any adult. I could confidently apply a demand valve to an adult, but never a child. So, I again rebuilt it, and added a flow meter for BVM use. I'll never do Mouth to Mouth again.

Anyway, thought I'd share that snipit, and say thanks for your blogs. I have enjoyed reading them very much!