Baptism by Fire
“Attention all staff: Code Red in Delta Unit. I repeat: Code Red, Delta Unit. This is not a drill, Code Red in Delta Unit. All staff to report to their unit leaders.”
He was already running frantically up a stairwell before the message was repeated in the PA system. He opened the door into a unit that is a surreal mixture of calm and normalcy pierced by the shrieks of the fire alarm system.
He ran into the nursing station to check the surveillance feeds for any indication of a fire and found nothing.
A few patients step out of their rooms to investigate the commotion, without turning away from the fire command and control panel, he politely requested for them to head back inside their rooms and shut their doors. As he impatiently waited for the panel to power on, a panic stricken staff member approached and asked him what to do.
“Do a door to door check, make sure that everyone is in their rooms, if they’re awake, quickly reassure them and ask them to stay in their rooms, if they’re asleep, make sure they’re safe, and then move on to the next one.”
He was greeted by a blank stare in a tear stained face.
“Crap. There’s a fire and my helper is frozen. Ain’t that hilarious.” He tapped her lightly in the face. It worked. She sprang into action right away.
He was finally able to command the small panel to isolate the source of the alarm.
“A fire alert system has been activated, in, Room, 453, Delta Unit.” The machine repeats the message several times before running through the fire emergency checklist.
But nobody was listening it as the young nurse has already started racing off to the affected room.
He barged through several fire proof doors before arriving at the affected room.
If one would measure in real time, it would seem that the following events happened in just a few minutes, but ask the young man and he would tell you that it felt as if time stood still for him.
A casual observer watching through the surveillance feeds might say that they are watching this extremely young nurse do his job with surprising speed and forethought, as if he had done this before. No one could have guessed the terror racing inside him, the struggle to choke down on the rising flood of bile and panic that threatens to shut him down.
He scanned the corridor up and down watching for the tell tale signs of either smoke or fire: none
He then reached out a hand to gingerly touch the doorknob: neither hot or cold to the touch. Going good so far.
But opening the door is a different scenario, as he was visited with images of hell and purgatory. That is because he can see nothing but smoke and feel nothing but a wave of heat passing through him.
He put out his hand in front of him to check and feel for any obstructions and was surprised when he saw his hand vanish into the smoke. He closed the door right away and whipped out his portable unit phone to call his supervisor who is now the designated fire marshall.
“Chief, I’m in Delta. We have a fire. We have a real fire. Send help!”. He stuck the phone back in his pocket and braced himself to enter the room.
Before he can go in, someone called out from behind him. It was his assistant in the second unit that he was responsible for.
“What are you doing here?!?” he asked.
“The patients are panicking upstairs, there’s this really strong smell of smoke going around and the fire alarms are going crazy.” She explained.
“So you left them up there?! Are you nuts?! Get back up there and make sure everyone is safe! Close all the windows in the east section and look after them! Stop! Don’t use the elevators! Go up the stairs!”.
“God save us from idiots.” he muttered silently to himself as he watches her leave. He entered the room and shut the door behind him to contain the smoke and rushed deeper into the room afraid of what he would or would not find.
His first and only concern at that time was for the patient in the room. Fearing the worst, he marched blindly into where he thought the bed was and stumbled into the patient laying down on his bed.
With his heart in his sleeve, he touched the patient’s neck to check for a pulse. A hand suddenly clamped into his wrist, the patient suddenly sat up, like a scene from a horror movie.
“For f***’s sake! What the f*** are you doing in here?!” The patient angrily demanded.
Keeping in mind that the patient is in the advanced stages of dementia, he tried to conceal the urgency in his voice and tried to sound calm and reassuring.
“Ivan, there’s a fire in your room, we need to go outside for a wee bit until the fire department clears it.”. It didn’t work, however.
“F*** OFF! GET THE F*** OUT!”.
Recognizing the early signs of aggression brought on by dementia, the young nurse quickly inventoried the situation and flipped through his mind for alternatives:
1. He has a serious emergency just a few degrees away from turning into a tragedy.
2. He has dozens of potential casualties, himself included, if he doesnt get the situation under control.
3. One of the potential casualties is smack dab in the middle of the scene and is unable to evacuate.
4. He is the one in charge and responsible for all these lives.
5. He has absolutely no training nor prior experience on how to handle these kinds of situations.
Still seeing no fire and taking it as a good sign, his eyes quickly scanned the room and searched for the point where the smoke seems to be the thickest.
That partial closet by the corner has turned into a chimney and appears to be the source of all the smoke. He touched the closet handle and felt confident upon feeling the handle to be close to room temperature. He opened the closet and a few tongues of fire licked his torso, trying to head up to his face.
He closed the closet door again. Later on, he will scan himself and find himself unburnt, probably from his knee jerk reaction to close the door before the fire did serious damage to himself. Racing back to the bedside, he again implored the patient to evacuate.
“Ivan! Get up! We need to leave your room now!”
He was relieved at first when he sensed the patient stand up from the bed, but sensing trouble based on the movement of the shadows in front him, he half ducked, and stepped out of range from the patient. And not too quickly as a fist soared through the air where his face had been half a second ago.
So he does what he does best: Improvise. Knowing that he can’t remove the patient from the situation, he attempted next to see if he can minimize the potential harm the situation can bring to the patient.Out of options, he exits the room and frantically searches the hallway.
Never having been a praying man all his life, he was thanking all the gods from Zeus to Jehovah when he saw the fire extinguisher about 10 feet away. He tore it off the brackets, fumbling for the pin while running back into the room. He goes back in and sees the patient. He realizes a split second later that the reason he can see the patient is because he is illuminated by the fire in the closet!
Getting close enough to be in range of the extinguisher yet far away to receive any potential punches or kicks, he starts spraying the burning closet AND the patient.
The fear starts to creep in from the edges again when he realizes that he is quickly depleting the fire extinguisher with his spray and pray method. Changing tactics, he started to conserve what remained in the tank and aimed strategically, firing in bursts and checking to see if the flames are extinguished before moving on to the next problem spot.
With a sigh of relief, he dropped the tank upon seeing the last flickers of the flame die out.
The crisis is not over yet. With smoke this thick, he is already fighting for every breath and can only imagine how it must be worse for his patient who is decades older than him and has been a chain smoker all his life.
Fighting off the fear, frayed nerves, and fueled by nothing but adrenaline and sheer stubbornnes, he attempted to convince the patient again to leave the room with him.
The patient just laid back down in his bed with a blank expression in his face, ignoring the burnt skin and bubbling blisters on his hands, extending up to his arms.
He left the room again, knowing that he needs to do something, and he would know what he needs the moment he sees it.
He was already walking towards the linen cart stacked with thick bath towels before he realized why. He grabbed a handful of them and runs back into the patient’s room, all the while cursing himself for going back in and wondering what the hell he is doing.
He ran into the patients bathroom and soaked the towels with cold water.
He tied a sopping wet towel in front of his face like a mask and headed to the patient’s bedside.
“Ivan! Ivan! Help is coming! Let’s go, there’s a lot of smoke in here, its almost impossible to breathe, let’s go before you get hurt!”. Receiving no response, he tried to drape the cold towel around the patient’s mouth and nose to help filter out the smoke.
The patient came back to life only to rip the towels off his face.
For the next few minutes that felt like a lifetime to him, he was on autopilot alternating between checking the patient’s respiration rate and pulse for any changes, assessing for signs of shock and respiratory distress in the patient and himself, running to the door and quickly peeking out to see if the fire department is coming, and doing a mental patdown of himself checking to see for any damages that might be chipping away at him.
After what felt like an eternity, he saw a trio of men wearing what looked like spacesuits walking calmly towards him.
Grateful that someone is finally there to help him, he led them down the hallway that’s now filled with smoke into the patient’s room.
“I’ve killed the fire! But I have a physically aggressive with advanced dementia still inside! He’s all yours now!”. He opened the fire door and staggered towards the, as of yet, smoke free nursing station. In there he saw his boss, his staff, and several paramedics looking at him.
He took off the sodden towel off his face and said:”What?”.
The last thing he remembered was: laughing, crying, gasping for breath, his knees suddenly feeling the effort of supporting his weight, the floor rushing up to meet him, his efforts to look up, the paramedics running towards him in slow motion –