Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Twilight Zone: aka Oakland California

My husband and I met while we both worked for an ambulance company. He was in paramedic school and I was working as an EMT. The company was a mom & pop operation, trying to earn a place on the County rotation in order to get compensation for no-pay customer calls.

One thing led to another, a couple of companies later (and a marriage ceremony), and I found myself in Oakland, California. Now, let me tell those of you who've never been to California, much less Oakland what it was like back in 1982. I'd worked in a few rough places in Los Angeles: downtown LA, Lennox, Carson, and Inglewood. Let's face it, you want action, you have to go where the calls are. Still, Oakland was another dimension all together.

My first day, I was given a few pieces of advice by my partner. One: don't stand in front of windows or doors (less likely to eat a bullet that way). Two: when confronted by a fool (angry bystander, family member or patient), do the same in return or just act crazy. Three: when told to get the hell out, don't ask questions, just head for the bus.

Sounded simple to me. The first week, I was paired up one day with a guy who I was told said, and I'm quoting here so I'll apologize for the language, "I don't work with bitches." We actually managed to get along okay.

Oakland is a city of contrasts. In the north end part of the city are high-end homes with beautiful views of the San Francisco Bay area until the Contra-Costa & East Bay Regional Parks borders are hit. The south end contains (depending on which section you are at) the water front, industrial area,lower income areas, and the border of Alameda & Bay Farm Islands. As you move east, you would find more lower income housing, Eastmont Mall, Oakland Airport, the Coliseum, and the "projects", Oakland Zoo, Naval Air Station, and the San Leandro border. The west end Lake Merritt, downtown, the freeway interchange with ramps to & from the Bay Bridge, and the borders of Emeryville, Berkeley & Piedmont.

In the early 80's, the majority of the EMS was run by two companies contracted to the City of Oakland: Allied Ambulance and Acme-Western Ambulance. Acme-Western had the aera west of Lake Merritt to the Piedmomt, Berkeley, Emeryville and north to the Contra-Costa County line. Allied ran from Lake Merritt east until San Leandro and North from the Contra Costa Border all the way to, and including, Alameda & Bay Farm Islands. The fire departments that ran ambulances were at best, EMT-1 trained, or like Oakland Fire, first responder trained.

Paramedic service started in August of 1982, with EMTs still running the majority of the calls. The islands of Alameda were covered by the Fire Department, with Alied backing them up with their cadillac ambulance #33 - nicknamed 'the boat'. #33 was one of the smoothest rides, and had an open walk-space from the patient compartment to the front cab.

Oakland was a wild town in the early to late 80's. 12 to 15 runs in a 12 hour shift was the normal. It was a rare shift if a crew didn't get a shooting or stabbing. I lost count of how many times I did CPR or handled violent psychiatric patients due to hallucinagen overdoses.

We saw many of the same patients over and over again. Many times we transported them for no other reason than the man or woman wanted to get away from the poor weather. Sure,it was irritating - that homeless personw as tkaing up space in the rig better used by a real sick person. Unfortunately, it was part & parcel of the job.

I call I'll never forget (I even remember her name) was the gal shorter than. The women was overdosed on PCP, and she was running down the street with the officer riding her piggyback style. The cop was yelling for help over his radio as we chased them down in the ambulance. It took five of us to restrain her.

There were some scary time, too. I was bit by a dog on scene. When I started out at Allied, we didn't carry portable radios, so once we left the rig, we were out of contact and had to return to the ambulance to request help. Once we walked in to an apartment that was splattered in blood, and the man sitting on a couch held out his hand with a tiny cut claiming no one else was there. A peek in to a bathrrom proved otherwise, we called in Oakland Police for the crime scene. Then there were the accident scenes on the freeways at night. Flashing red lights aer beacons to drunks. Reflective Stars of Life make great moving targets.

My husband finally gave in and started wearing kevlar after being attacked by knives and shot at too many times. By that time I'd moved on the dispatching.

There were tragedies too, like the Pearmain execution murders or the poor man who was trapped between two train cars. How do you deal with that and keep on working afterwards? How do you deal with a man who actually made it across four lanes of freeway traffic to the medium strip, transport him to the ER, and find watch him take his last breath?

Is it any worse listening to a woman die on the telephone from an asthma attack or from smoke inhalation? What of the man who shoots himself during a barricaded subject call or the distraught parents of a SIDS baby begging for help before the field personnel arrive?

All that shit adds up over the years for all of us.

We did manage to have fun. Seems like there was always a party of some kind, company-sanctioned or not. Late at night, we had ambulance races. We hung out at a nasty tall night cafe that was a truck stop, called the Double Clutch. When that closed, we found a diner near Lake Merrit, until we were politely, but firmly, asked not to return. Until the County insisted stations be available, 12 hour crews spent down-times at standby points. Hospitals, fast food parking lots, and Eastmont mall became old friends.

I owed a lot to our co-workers. In our sons' first year especially, the EMTs and Paramedics did a lot of babysitting for us. No one else would go near him due to his medical issues as a child. Allied let me bring 'The Kid' to work with me, where I kept him on the counter in the old downstairs dispatch. God Bless Art for his kindness. That was just one of the reasons why Allied employees were one of the most loyal.

I'll never forget Oakland, and I'm glad I worked there.

To those of you who still run calls in the streets of Oakland, to take a line from Hillstreet Blues (still the BEST cops show ever) : "Let's be careful out there".

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