The writer served for nearly four months as ambulance surgeon in one of our large hospitals in Greater New York, and during that time enjoyed many interesting experiences. Occasionally in the daily press the ambulance surgeon's life is described as a hard one, weighed down by scenes of woe and violence, joyless, hopeless; until the reader has a mental picture of a haggard, lined, prematurely aged face, peering out beneath a tarnished cap, and two trembling hands mechanically performing their task until the day when their owner may join the house staff again. Well, it is hard when the surgeon crawls into bed at "Doctor, the Fifty-seventh precinct, in a hurry," and his roommate turns over "been there." Hard the life is, and strenuous, yet I never spent happier days than when I rode behind "Babe," the big bay horse.
There is a charm and uncertainty about the life that must appeal to any man with a spark of imagination in his cosmos -- one knows not whether at the end of the run is an Italian laborer with a gashed thumb, who will weep hysterically as a couple of sutures are placed, or a man mangled by machinery, with a limb torn off, or a gaping wound in the skull.
Ambulance calls reach us from two sources, the police and the Bureau of Charities. In the hospital office hangs the "police wire," connecting us with the ambulance bureau at Police Headquarters. The officer on post at the scene of the accident notifies headquarters that an ambulance is needed, and headquarters notifies the hospital, stating whether it is an ordinary call or a "hurry" the latter in case of a severe accident, for ambulance horses are not galloped needlessly to the relief of a sprained ankle or a child who has had a pin inadvertently inserted into its economy. The man on post also notifies the desk sergeant at his precinct house, who sends a special officer to the case, while the ambulance is on its way, and who receives the police copy of the slip which the surgeon must make out in duplicate and sign, carries one end of the stretcher, awes the populace and makes himself generally useful. The police invariably treat the surgeon with courtesy, but woe to the newly fledged doctor, who, puffed with pride and the glory of a new gold-lettered cap, struts into the precinct house and assumes the role of "chesty." SWENSON and MORIARTY have been on "the force" full twenty years and have seen untold generations of ambulance surgeons. And there are tricks in all trades!
The other classes of calls are what are known as "transfers." That is, the Bureau of Charities learns that a poor person is ill and needs hospital care; the proper hospital is called up and instructed to call for the patient, and this is done between the "rush hours" if possible when the danger of severe accidents is at a minimum.
The ambulance stable is built like a firehouse, with the ambulance facing the front, the harnesses suspended exactly as in the Fire Department, and the horses restrained in their stalls only by a chain across the front. As a call is received, the driver is notified by phone and the surgeon, who is in his own, or the staff room, hears the "triple ring" that means a call. By the time he has run down the corridor and out to the stable the hitch is made, and he swings his bag into the "bus" and jumps in as the horse starts into the street. Two minutes is the time for a hitch on an ordinary call, but we have been half-way down the hospital block in fifty seconds on a "hurry," perhaps with one sleeve of the overcoat dangling and a piece of pie - hospital pie, too - strangling us, but "all there."
Perhaps the most vivid recollection is that of the night when the gallery of a colored church fell, carrying a hundred people with it, and crushing the floors beneath its weight, while a Masonic funeral was in progress and the body of the edifice was crowded. Our hospital received the first call: "Hustle all the doctors you can spare to F-------street, the church has fallen in." The scene was a dramatic one. Across one end of the street were lined up the patrols from six precincts, leaving only room for the ambulance to pass.
The street was jammed with a mob of terror-stricken negroes, shouting, praying, calling to absent friends or relatives; surging hither and yon, unmindful of the clubs and exhortations of the police, who tried in vain to establish order. Fire engines stood amidst the crowd, their smoke hanging above the heads of the people like a pall, and the light from their fires strong in the crazed faces nearest them. We leaped from the bus and made for the church where firemen and police were beginning the work of rescue. Of the first eight cases we reached, six were dead, crushed by fallen timbers. As the wounded were extricated they were taken to temporary hospitals established in nearby shops, and treated by the ambulance surgeons from seven hospitals, who now began to arrive. The clang of the ambulance gongs, sharp, incisive, imperative, could be heard above the roar of the crowd, the shouts of the police, and the whir of the engines as they opened a path through the street. Soon the most dangerously hurt were removed to the hospitals, the minor cases, treated on the premises (T.O.P. on the surgeon's slip), and as my last case was brought to the bus, the white suits of my companions came treading their way through the crowd, dirty, stained with blood and dust, but proud, for we had been first on the field, and had beaten our bitter rivals by some minutes. We paused to see the dead brought out in the patrol wagons, in which they were removed to the Morgue for identification. Police formed three sides of a square in front of the store, and the fifteen bodies were brought out on stretchers covered with coats. As each appeared the tumult broke out afresh, and the lines of police swayed to and fro as the people strove to see the face of the dead. All night the hospitals were besieged by negroes searching for their relatives or friends.
It is an unwritten law among hospital surgeons that if one of their number brings in a corpse on the ambulance he must "put up" a good supper to the staff (classically a champagne supper, but the champagne is commonly labeled "Pabst") I have taken accident cases to the hospital which I knew were hopeless, fighting every yard of the way to keep the patient alive until we could get him to the operating room, mostly from a sense of duty, that every resource, however useless, might be exhausted, but partly, too, in fear that it might fall to my lot to give that supper. I recall one case, that of a workman who fell from the "L" structure(editors note- elevated subway line), so fracturing his skull that it seemed impossible that he could live ten minutes, but we placed him in the bus and started back on the gallop. I braced myself against one side of the ambulance, keeping up artificial respiration with one knee on his chest, holding his tongue forward with forceps, and with the other hand alternating holding stimulants to his nose and freeing the air passages from blood clots. He died, as he was being taken into the operating room.
But the day that I just missed giving that supper! The first call was to an Italian boy who had swallowed a button, which lodged in his trachea. A physician who was called had wasted valuable time in trying to extract it with forceps, and the boy was weak and slowly choking to death on my arrival. I hurried him to the hospital, but he died as the first incision to open the trachea was made. The second case was a woman who had been ill of typhoid for three weeks without medical attendance, and who died fifteen minutes after her admission to the ward, and the third was a man suffering from a chronic heart lesion, who died as we put him on the receiving ward stretcher. These three "close calls" came in two hours.
It was a "hurry" call over the slippery streets, dodging trolley cars, cutting corners, the rubber tires slewing us half across the street, past lighted windows where families were happily discussing to-morrow, with glimpses now and then of Christmas trees, to a little frame house in a poor street. There lay the father of the family, dead from a hemorrhage of the lungs; about him his frantic wife and two children. Nothing for me to do, but speak as gently as I could, and retire. On my way out I paused in the hall, and there was a girl of 11 trying to comfort two little tots of four or five years, telling them not to be frightened, that "papa" would be better soon," while the tears streamed down her own cheeks. I tell you that if those who weep at the pathos of the stage could make one day's rounds with an ambulance surgeon they would find plenty of cause for tears.
But sometimes we strike a lighter vein; witness BRADY, picked up drunk with a broken leg. As the bus turned into the hospital gateway he raised himself on one elbow and asked, "An' how long d'ye think I'll have to be in here, doctor?" "I'm sure I don't know, BRADY. Why?" "Sure, I must get out and ittind to me religious doodies." said BRADY. Then there was Mrs. C----, the crazed Hebrew woman, who insisted that the surgeon was her husband and made violent love to him all the way to the observation ward. And two year old Margarita, who rambled in front of a trolley car, and at the end of a two-mile gallop was found calmly sucking an orange, unhurt, but occasionally uttering a lusty yell as an appropriate offering to the lacerated feelings of her immediate relatives, who were disposed about the room in various stages of collapse.
I have tried to sketch a few characteristic events just as they occurred in my service. The public hears the gong, pauses for a moment in its vocation and sees the ambulance dash past or trot soberly on its way back to the hospital, but it cannot see the love of the surgeon for his work, nor know the sense of satisfaction that a well-treated case brings him; nor can it see the good fellowship around the staff mess table, nor the white-clothed forms that lounge beneath the lamp in the staff room of an evening when the pipe smoke rises to the ceiling and the "runs of the day are gone over again and discussed. A hard life, say you? Aye, but a good one.
Keywords: Brooklyn, Gong
Last Revision Date: 10/16/11 - 11:34 PM