Engine Company EMS: The Language Barrier

Engine Company EMS: The Language Barrier

By Michael Morse

It’s crazy in there….people screaming, confusion, and chaos so contagious that even the dog looks worried. An elderly woman is lying in her bed, struggling to breathe. Surrounding her are her well-intentioned, but not helpful, family—sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and a grandchild or two.

She is sucking on her empty inhaler for all it is worth, her skin a pallid blue, eyes wide, jugular veins distended.

“Move it!” I say. The assembly ignores me.

“Get out of the way!” I say. They move closer to the patient, suffocating her. She says something; the crowd roars, more pandemonium ensues, and things go downhill even faster.

“Who here speaks English?” I ask, elbowing my way through the crowd.

Nobody. Not a one. Seven thousand people crammed into a 12 × 12 bedroom, and a language barrier keeps us worlds apart. It doesn’t matter, though; an asthma attack looks the same in Spanish as it does in English. So does a medic on a mission.

The message to “make room” finally sinks in. The seas part, and I’m able to get to Amaryllis, whose panic subsides a little. The stair chair arrives. I put a nonrebreather that my partner had deftly modified into a breathing treatment delivery system over her face. The airway clears, just a little, but a little is a lot for the patient.  We begin to move.

Like the sun breaking through the clouds, a little angel appears in the doorway. Everybody looks at her, dozens of eyes on a little seven-year-old girl whose grandmother is masked, panicked, strapped to a chair by men in uniforms, and being wheeled out of her home.

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