After nineteen days of smoke, anaphylaxis, tribal politics, atrial fibrillation, morning briefings, sinus infections, medivacs & blisters, I returned home to a full house. Peter's friend Jon was up from Buffalo for ten days of Alaska which thus far had translated into lots of porch-grilled brats and enough beer to wash them down and then some. Immediately on my return, despite the pressing need for me to get a real job with all this newly verified Paramedical Education, we packed the car and the puppy (Nyssa, recovering from an infection and a notoriously bad road-trip companion to boot, stayed at the kennel) and started driving North. Despite the fact that I have "operated" tour "coaches" up to and beyond mile 175 of the newly famous Dalton Highway, I had never been beyond Toolik Lake research station up to the actual oil fields & arctic ocean. The trip was spectacular. More on this later. (More includes lots of drama after a vehicle rolled down a 80 ft ravine about half an hour ahead of us on the mostly deserted highway in a cold fall rain.)
On our return to Fairbanks, after a long shower and a lot of laundry, I started on two new projects; looking for a Paramedic job in a town with no Paramedic job and starting (a week late) the Firefighter I class at the Volunteer Fire Department.
I will tell you, and tell anyone, with no qualms, that I have no interest in fighting fires. I hate structure fires, and I hate burn injuries. Of all the possible ways to die, burning to death is at the very, very bottom on my list. And burning to death seems to be the number one subject of every fire class I have attended. The textbook starts each new, mostly inane chapter with stories of Firefighters who didn't pay enough attention and got burnt or asphyxiated (not quite as bad a way to go, but still full of terror.) I am taking this fire class, because for better or worse, EMS is still bound up rather hard and fast with fire departments country wide. I may need this basic fire-cert to get a job in the future, when we leave this town and move back to civilization. Also, the VFD that I've been affiliated with for the past few years has helped and supported me to no end, and I feel I owe it to them to take the class so that I can help out on fire scenes even if it's just by driving the Big Shiny Trucks, hauling hose, or changing air tanks. (I will reiterate again, here, my absolute terror at the thought of actually entering a burning building.)
I started out a week behind, but I was heartened when on the first bunker drill I only got a slap on the wrist for not getting my neck flap fastened correctly. On the second evening, however, all my ill-gotten confidence was shot down when we did an actual hose drill. For some reason, I was put in front of my company (two other women taking the class.) We were in full fire gear, including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) which all told weighs in at nearly 50lbs. We were blindfolded, and instructed to follow a hose line strung across the ambulance bay, around tires and equipment and under one of the rigs. I did fine leading the group through several obstacles, hose knots and double-backs until we got to the place where the hose went underneath the rear of the ambulance. I was boiling hot inside my gear, and my adrenaline was pumping from yelling through the SCBA and continually running helmet first into the tanker, the tool-rack, scattered gear. I realized with dread that I had to flatten myself out and belly crawl under the chassis to lead my company through. I got as far as my hips and stopped. I felt my SCBA mask & helmet strap pressing into my throat. Even though I knew, way back in the corner of my mind, that I was in a lighted ambulance bay with several instructors standing around, no live fire anywhere to be seen, plenty of air in my tank & two more experienced team members mere feet behind me, it did no good. I felt my throat closing. I knew I was going to suffocate and die under the axle of the ambulance. I was sure this breath would be the last one I could get past my constricted throat. I took a deep breath and tried to center myself in reality. I closed my eyes under the blindfold and focused on what I new to be true, as I have on so many occasions when events have spun out of control. I could not find that center. I backed out, kicking my company out of the way as I did so. I took a few deep breaths and tried again. I got as far as my belly under the ambulance, and felt my chest and neck crushing in. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't think. I had to get out. Before I knew what was going on, an instructor had flipped my purge valve and had pulled back my blindfold and was demanding that I keep breathing through the mask and not rip it off. I realized my hands were on the mask and she was physically restraining me from doing just that. If I did that in a fire, I would be dead with my first breath.
I have never failed so spectacularly at a task. My company went on without me, as I sucked air out of my tank and tried to believe I wasn't suffocating and watched them finish the course in the happy light of the safe, dry, hazard-free bay. I wanted to rip the whole of the gear off and storm out of the class forever, but instead I followed meekly as they wove around the ambulance and found the end of the hose without me. I would not cry with failure in front of them. I wanted to scream at the condescending looks of the other firefighters and the insincere "it's OK, it happens to all of us" from the 19 year old "Company Captain" who has been with the VFD for all of two months. I wanted to hit her.
I spent the next two days in a sea of dread. I considered every possible way of quietly dropping out of the course. I thought of every reasonable, thought-out explanation of why, with job interviews pending and Peter in school and other part-time gigs starting soon and the other demands of the fire station for shifts and training I couldn't continue with the class. None of them had to do with my under-the-ambulance terror of Day II.
This morning, I woke up after a fitful night of terror dreams. I dragged myself through coffee and breakfast and to the fire station an hour early to study for the paltry multiple-choice quiz and try to focus on things other than my own imminent asphyxiation. The lecture on ways to burn to death due to improperly understood building construction did not last nearly long enough. After lunch, we were hauling ourselves into bunkers and masks and off to perform various tasks under the perfect indian summer sky.
After securing and hoisting various sharp & heavy tools to the roof of the three-story bay, our second task was an entanglement course. We were instructed to blindfold ourselves over our air masks, then follow a twisting hose line through a maze of tight spaces, wires & cords, dead-end & impossible squeezes. They didn't let me go first, given my paltry track record, so I stood blindfolded, listening to two of my team members struggle through, cursing and kicking as their gear was caught up in a thick spider's web of garden hose and their air ran out, alarms shrieking. I kept breathing into my foggy mask, sucking dank air from the blindfold over the air space. It was my turn. I found my center, that cold, dark place where I can think. That place too far out of reach on Wednesday night. I knelt down, took hold of the hose, and gripped my determination to keep breathing and keep moving.
And somehow, I did. Granted, I have not attempted to shimmy my way under the ambulance yet. That fear, I will face later. But I did keep on moving, swimming over wires and squeezing through enclosed spaces and breathing and breathing and breathing. I came home exhausted far beyond my shaking legs and sore shoulders. Three beers and three chicken mole tacos later, I can still taste the dread of the last few days in the back of my throat. This was the first time I wasn't sure I would come through the other side. And I'm still not sure ... the ambulance still sits in wait. But I am closer, and I think I may yet make it through that space.