I burned a slice of toast today. No big deal, right? But, as I threw it in the garbage can, I just had to stop and stare.
“Lady, there was toast!” …the words of a distraught man cried out in my mind, and my heart began to race. I couldn’t help but laugh, knowing all I know now – but, in that moment, so many years ago, I remember feeling scared.
I was a new E.M.T. and was working overnight. We had received a call for a psychiatric emergency in an area of town well known for its drugs and violence. As we pulled onto the scene, the housing projects were dark. Flashlights held by Police Officers illuminated the way. As we walked toward the home in which a man was screaming, our shadows before us grew larger, like monsters climbing the walls.
We stepped into the man’s home, where he was pacing in the kitchen. He was rubbing his face and scratching at his arms, beads of sweat rolling off of his forehead. He was ranting and raving, mumbling words no human could decipher. His eyes went wild as they connected with mine and I could see his pupils were dilated wide.
“Lady, there was toast!”, he cried out and stopped in his tracks. He was tall and strong, not an ounce of fat to be seen on his body. His hands so large, they reminded me much of my dad’s. He took two steps towards me and I felt a wave of panic. This man was definitely unstable.
The Officers stepped in, as did my paramedic partner, and the distance between us was restored. My mind was reeling as I prepared the stretcher for transport and they coaxed this man to cooperate. He was all over the place with his thoughts and communication. Was this Paranoid Schizophrenia or a direct result of the use of an unknown substance? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Sometimes, we’ll never truly know. The point is to treat the symptoms, support the patient, and to always remain calm.
In the absence of police, this man did admit to snorting cocaine. He told me he felt as if his heart was about to explode, he thought he was about to die… and then he found the toast.
“Lady, you don’t understand! There was toast in my garbage can!”, he cried out repeatedly, always cycling back to this same statement, in between random thoughts and occasional answers to my gentle questioning.
Eventually, throughout this transport and transfer of this man’s care, my racing heart had calmed and I no longer viewed him as a threat. Before leaving him at the receiving facility, I finally addressed the toast.
“What does that even mean?”, I asked, as he called out for the hundredth time, “Lady, there was toast!”… he stopped for a moment, then reached for my hand. He whispered loudly, as he locked his eyes on mine, leaning in close, “Lady, there was toast in my garbage can.”
“Okaaaay???”, I questioned, wondering if he was ever going to actually explain.
The hospital staff rolled their eyes and I turned to walk away. He threw his head back yelled again “There was toast in my garbage can!”.
He dropped my hand and looked away, “Somebody was in my house.”
As I reached for the curtain to close around the room behind me, he locked his eyes on mine.
“Lady, you don’t understand. There was toast in my garbage can.”
I stood there for a moment as he took a deep breath and whispered so loudly once again, “Lady, there was toast in my garbage can… but I don’t even own a toaster!”
I walked away, a little amused – but, also, a little disturbed. I laugh about that story now and have told it to several of my friends throughout the years. It’s not a memory that “haunts” me per se, but still it remains in the back of my mind, always there, ready to emerge at any given moment, especially when there’s toast – and that toast just so happens to be in my garbage can.
For those of you still working the E.M.S. life and those who consider joining the ranks – take care of yourselves, please. The memories don’t always end when the shift ends – sometimes they follow you home. The memories don’t end when the career ends either – sometimes they follow you for life.