Sunday, October 6, 2013

Only a hobo, but one more is gone

The massive fire engine drove past me down the narrow street, sirens wailing, and turned down towards the parking lot next to the beach. 'Typical', I thought to myself. 'This city is massively oversupplied with emergency fire services, so they get dispatched for every little nothing. Perhaps the sand is on fire?' As I walked towards the beach, I saw a lifeguard 4WD racing across the sand to the site of the conflagration, where a few other emergency vehicles were already gathered.

It soon became apparent that, oversupplied though they may be, this was no false alarm. A crowd was gathered around at a distance of perhaps 10m, circling a crowd of several lifeguards and a couple of fire department paramedics. The emergency services workers appeared to be huddled over a figure, partly concealed by a small concrete wall.

The first sign that something was seriously awry was the bobbing motion of one of the lifeguards as he performed CPR. I stood and watched for a minute or two, and the CPR continued. I'm no medical expert, but I know enough to know than when they have to perform CPR on you for several minutes straight, this is a Very Bad Sign. We were far enough from the water that this didn't look like a drowning situation. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and I sidled around until I could get a look at unfortunate subject of everyone's attention. Was it an old person, perhaps, having a heart attack? As I got closer, eventually I saw that it was a youngish man, perhaps in his 30s, with shaggy hair and short beard. His shirt had been removed, and he looked somewhat haggard - I thought I could see the outline of his rib cage, and he was wearing some shapeless khaki pants. I got embarrassed from staring too intently, and I shied away to a greater distance.

I started going through the possibilities in my head, and they looked grim. No obvious friends or relatives around, as the only people close by were the emergency services guys. Add in the disheveled clothes and the fact that he was getting CPR while looking young, and it seemed very likely he was homeless. Possibly overdosed, possibly drank himself comatose. Given they were administering CPR, he obviously had no pulse now, and probably had none when they arrived. To make matters worse, a homeless guy on his own lying on the sidewalk without a pulse could lie there for quite a long time without attracting attention. People would likely just presume he was sleeping, or drunk, or passed out.

Minutes passed, and the CPR continued. By this point, I was beginning to suspect that the man was simply dead, and the CPR was mostly a hail mary, a vain prayer to deaf heaven. The main ambulance arrived, and the paramedics brought the stretcher. My worries were supported by the fact that, even though the lifeguards were still performing CPR, the ambulance workers didn't seem to be showing a sense of urgency in their motions. I kept watch to see if they were going to get a defibrillator out, but they didn't. I remember reading once that, contrary to how it's often portrayed in the movies, CPR doesn't generally restart your heart. It's just a stopgap measure to prevent brain death from lack of oxygen until they can get a defibrillator. Perhaps they were going to do it in the ambulance. But it didn't look good.

Eventually, they placed the man onto the wheeled stretcher, and rolled him to the ambulance. The lifeguard was still performing CPR, but it looked to me more and more like defiant optimism against the rapidly diminishing odds. Those with the most experience of death, the fire paramedics and ambulance paramedics, moved slowly and somberly. It was only the lifeguards still working feverishly.

More power to them, of course. If you stop it, he's dead for sure, and the ambulance is surely better supplied with things to revive pulseless patients. But it seemed like the CPR was partly for the crowd. It was the physical manifestation of the vain hope that his heart might somehow restart. It let all but the more medically minded folks believe that what they were witnessing was merely a medical emergency, rather than a death scene.

I have lived over three decades on this planet, and had never seen a dead body before today. This kind of situation is inconceivable in almost any other period of human history. You leave in an ambulance as a man with a medical condition. You arrive in the hospital as a corpse, taken in the back entrance. Death is shielded from our sight altogether, unless you happen to be there at the end for a loved one. Otherwise, the acknowledgement of how we all end might be the ghost haunting the feast. Hence the charade. Exeunt, pursued by an ambulance. Even when you suspect that the person is dead, the flurry of last ditch treatment serves to maintain the fig leaf that maybe the person wasn't really dead - that maybe death can be warded off indefinitely, and our days will always be in the sun.

The ambulance pulled away up the hill, sirens blaring but driving carefully, and the crowd started to disperse. The show was over. I wandered down to the beach, and bodysurfed in the waves with my thoughts as company. I walked back up the hill, and passed the spot where the scene had occurred. Nothing beside remained. The bustle of the boardwalk continued, as if the man had never been there at all.

Does it take much of a man to see his whole life go down
To look up on the world from a hole in the ground
To wait for your future like a horse that’s gone lame
To lie in the gutter and die with no name?
Only a hobo, but one more is gone
Leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song
Leavin’ nobody to carry him home
Only a hobo, but one more is gone

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