The paramedics call to base for support for a PNB, which is run-of-the-mill, two or three times a shift. Either they have brought the patient back, or they want to stop, or they want to keep going, and they need our OK.
They called from the middle of a basketball court, doing CPR in the center circle on the son, cousin, and uncle of the well-dressed audience, watching and holding each other. A twenty-year old who collapsed stone-cold dead between the second and third free throw, falling backwards.
Round three of the typical three is already done when they call, asking for transport, for continuation; reaching for the refuge of hope that drugs like bicarb and lidocaine after amiodarone represent, some extra tool to throw at death when you're not ready to give up yet.
Everyone there did everything right. The coach started CPR, the EMT basic delivered one shock before the paramedics got there, they placed a combitube rather than an ET tube and ran the show. IV was placed on arrival. By the time they called me, though, it had been almost thirty minutes. Move to the rig. Move to the rig, out of the gym, away from the people all around. I ask one or two times, are you comfortable going 1099. Negative, they say. The mom is with us in the rig. OK, then. Come to the hospital.
The team knows this is theatre, to some extent. That doesn't mean we try any less hard, or that our compressions are too shallow, or that we breathe at the wrong rate. It means as soon as he rolls in, CPR still going, sadness rises in place of hope.
At the head, I see his fixed and dilated pupils; the c-collar in place because he fell backwards and maybe it's trauma, I take off, because it's not trauma, it's a heart that got too big for itself. With the first pulse check the tube is placed and confirmed. We do three rounds of drugs, CPR all the time, switching every two minutes, stomach decompressed. I can see mom ten feet from the foot, being held, eyes fixed on her son that an hour ago was running up and down the court. Not prowling the street selling drugs, not driving drunk, not stabbed by some dude while minding his own business; not doing the things so many of our other visitors do.
Our staff gives the warning shot. I'm going to tell mom it's not going well, he says, and one more round.
The nurse keeps the alarms off. Only the sound of 100 a minute compressions and 10 a minute bag-valve-mask ventilation. It's a soft sound. Rhythmic. The sound of our best tool, our best way to keep someone alive in the short term. The sound of failure.
We stop. A door shuts for the others in the room and mom drops to the floor, wailing and gasping for air. We help her to a cot to support the weight she cannot support herself. She breathes underwater, eyes on nothing.
There is no question of why. I know why this happened, the story is the classic presentation of this. No, there's no 'why'. There's just the next patient, and a sensation over the back of the head as if a window were just opened on a winter's evening, as the stickers are taken off and our patient is covered with clean white blankets.