Ambulance Conversations

Her eyes meet mine and I smile. She smiles back, then looks confused.

“Where are we going?”

It’s not a question I expected to hear on the back of an ambulance, especially not from a 32-year-old. Her husband squeezes her hand and says, “We’re going to the hospital.”

It’s the fourth time they’ve had that conversation since we picked her up 15 minutes ago. Her husband says this kind of forgetfulness is normal for her. She has brain cancer.
I’d been in EMT class for almost a month. We’d spent the last few weeks learning how to save a life: how to breathe for people who weren’t breathing, pump blood for people whose hearts weren’t beating, and suddenly here I was in front of someone who was actually dying, and there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it.

“What time is it?”

Her husband glances at his watch even though it’s only been a few minutes since she asked the last time,

“Almost twelve.”

“So we missed all of church?”

The paramedic reassures her, “I’m sure the Big Man will understand.”

Her husband almost cries.

What does it mean to be a healthcare professional treating a patient whose health you can’t treat? Is it just telling her God will understand her missing church because she has brain cancer and fainted when she got out of bed? It doesn’t seem like enough.

We get to the hospital and the husband thanks us as he leaves. I feel undeserving of this good man’s gratitude and want to tell him so, but after some time it occurs to me: it doesn’t matter how I feel. For those 20 minutes in the back of the ambulance, it doesn’t matter that I feel useless. It doesn’t matter that I feel like a spy in this most intimate moment between two people who love each other and the hovering shadow of death. It’s called patient-centered care, because it matters how the patient feels. If it makes the patient feel better, I will sit and smile and tell a woman 12 years older than me that I think God will forgive her. It’s all I can do. I have to hope that means something.


Caitlin Li

I was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina and attended Vanderbilt University for my undergraduate studies. I was heavily involved in Vanderbilt’s fencing club and musical volunteering at the Vanderbilt hospital before graduating in 2015 with a degree in biomedical engineering. I want to become a physician to help people pursue happiness in health and am honored and excited to study medicine at USC School of Medicine Greenville.

Jeanne Petrizzo