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All hands on deck when islanders make 911 call

Category: : News Reports on Amherst IslandUncategorized

Alena Schram

Kingston Whig Standard
Monday, October 6, 2014 9:04:53 EDT PM

“The pain’s coming every three minutes.”

Under different circumstances, I’d be starting to boil water and tear rags. But this isn’t some poor woman in the final stages of labour. This is my husband John, struggling with what he’s been insisting for the past eight hours are “just gas pains.”

And now it’s 2 a.m.

My mind rockets back to our years in Africa when John would occasionally wake up at night and ask plaintively, “Is your stomach upset, too?” Never good news.

Instantly I’d fire up the mental jets and calculate backwards the time needed to get him to Johannesburg, our nearest medical evacuation centre: an hour to contact the insurance company and arrange for the medevac plane; two to five hours — depending on which country we were living in at the time — for the flight to arrive from South Africa; 20 minutes by car from our house to the airport; and then the long trip back to Joburg, followed by an ambulance dash to the hospital.

“Are you having a heart attack?” I’d snap, Nurse Ratched-like, my blood congealing with anxiety as I assessed the seriousness of the possibilities. And John, curiously comforted by my question, would snuffle something like ohfurheavenssake and promptly go back to sleep, leaving me with enough residual adrenalin coursing through my body to power the Queen Mary. It was always an unfortunate interruption in an otherwise sound night.

But we don’t live in Africa now. We live in Canada, 22 km from Kingston General Hospital. On a ferry-dependent island in Lake Ontario.

I dial 911, nervously aware that the ferry crew, all fellow islanders, have just tied up for the night and are probably already asleep. Is this serious enough to get them up again and back on the boat for, I wonder?

But within seconds, the island’s volunteer First Response Team pulls into the driveway. Out of the vehicles stream Vicki, Mike, Laird, Andrew, Alex and — stepping down from her truck with gravitas — Maureen. According to local wisdom, if you’re really sick, you want to see Maureen at the foot of your bed. An experienced nurse, her sensitive, capable skills are the crux of our emergency services, and her humour defuses the tension of even the most serious situations.

“Do we really need to call out the ferry and ambulance?” John asks hopefully, his complexion a distinct ochre against the white pillow. “Can’t Alena just take me to the hospital herself?”

“Not unless you want to go by canoe,” says Maureen, “with a flashlight.” Lake Ontario can be such a nuisance. “And what if you stop breathing while she’s driving? Which would you want her to do first: step on the gas? phone for an ambulance? or pull over and give you CPR?

John ponders the choices, eyes closed.

Laird is already on the radio, declining more help (“we’ve got a crowd in the bedroom; no more needed”). Someone has fixed the oxygen mask over John’s nostrils. Alex, our island’s fire captain, checks vitals and radios them back to KGH. We are in good hands.

Suddenly, John opens his eyes and spots a hole in one of his socks. “I can’t go to hospital like that!” he announces, pain momentarily forgotten. John is the embodiment of dignity. If a thief ever tried to break into our house in the middle of the night, John would be there to greet him in his dressing gown, hair and teeth brushed, and smelling of aftershave.

Alex reports the ferry crew is back on board and heading for the mainland dock to collect the ambulance already waiting. And KGH is poised for the patient whose pains are coming every three minutes.

Normally, the ferry takes 19 minutes to make the crossing. Tonight it seems to take just five. Before I have time to rifle through John’s sock drawer, the ambulance is in front of our house and a gurney is being unloaded onto the lawn.

There’s no time to primp. I grab my purse and keys, and squeeze our car out of the tiny garage, trying hard not to disgrace myself by running one of the side mirrors into the door frame again (we are the only people I know that shop for a new car with a tape measure). I follow the ambulance — John tenderly stowed inside — onto the ferry. The captain has the engine running, the crew has untied the ropes. They’re ready to go. On daytime emergency runs, one space is always cleared for the car carrying the patient’s family, but tonight I’ve got the run of the thing. It looks like the deck of an aircraft carrier.

I begin by apologizing to everyone for calling them out.

“Don’t even think about it,” they answer. “That’s what we’re here for.”

We reach the Millhaven dock in no time. The crew races to lower the ramp and the ambulance turns onto Bath Road with me in pursuit, heading to the hospital’s emergency department, where the medics will take control.

Our indomitable first responders and ferry crew — the night’s heroes — return to their beds, their pagers perpetually activated in anticipation of the next call-out.

And I sit in the emergency waiting room and think again how fortunate we are to have them all: minor disagreements, major feuds, even the acrimonious wind turbine issues that have riven our tiny population into two camps — none of this matters to them. They are one of the bonds that hold our island community together — in good times and in bad.

Postscript: Privacy legislation — and John’s dignity — prevent me divulging why he was a guest of the KGH. But I can reveal that he had brand-new brown socks awaiting his return.

Alena Schram is a resident of Amherst Island. Her book, The Opinionated Old Cow: Ruminations from the Field, will be published this autumn.