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Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter

Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter

by Daniel B. McVey

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Breath of Lifetells the story of a volunteer firefighter's life as an EMT and a firefighter. Author Daniel McVey chronicles the harrowing stories of saving lives and facing death on a daily basis; he also shares stories of the dedication and professionalism of his comrades. He describes the small village on Long Island called Floral


Breath of Lifetells the story of a volunteer firefighter's life as an EMT and a firefighter. Author Daniel McVey chronicles the harrowing stories of saving lives and facing death on a daily basis; he also shares stories of the dedication and professionalism of his comrades. He describes the small village on Long Island called Floral Park, where he belonged to the Rescue Company of the Floral Park Fire Department. While they were primarily responsible for medical emergencies; the stories included in Breath of Life provide an intimate view of the dangers these heroes faced as volunteers who also had full-time jobs.

Growing up in Floral Park, McVey set his sights on becoming a volunteer firefighter after taking a CPR course taught by three members of the Rescue Company. From that point on, his stories give a realistic picture of the stresses of emergency care for life-threatening emergencies. Covering the period from the mid to late 1980s into the 1990s, McVey chronicles how the morale of the Rescue Company had many ups and downs and how several members brought the company back together again. In July of 1999, he responded to his last call, thus ending an exciting time as a volunteer firefighter.

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The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter
By Daniel B. McVey

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Daniel B. McVey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-5421-3

Chapter One

Burning Desires

It was the night of the February council meeting. Pete Feehan was sworn into the Rescue Company. Robert Lofarro was sworn into the Reliance Engine Company. Kevin Green was sworn into the Alert Engine Company either that night or at the previous month's meeting, when I had been sworn in.

This night, however, Pete was in the Rescue room filling out paperwork. Meanwhile, as most newcomers did, we were talking about the abuses we Probationary members knew we were about to face. Pete was already receiving a hard time from the other members, since his father was the village clerk and there was friction between the village political arena and the fire department regarding the ambulance we were going to get. Meanwhile, the town had only a heavy-duty rescue truck that transported victims in critical condition or members of the fire department or their families. In all other cases, the county police ambulance was used to transport patients to the hospital. I knew it was just a matter of time before other members started abusing me since I was one of the new boys on the block. I later found out that it would be like walking on eggs to get approval and acceptance from them.

I was still waiting for my first call. One night I was on Jericho Turnpike. buying a pack of cigarettes. The horn alarm system did not sound because it was after 11:00 at night. However, I heard the siren of the rescue truck from a distance. I knew we had a call. I responded to the firehouse. The black board in front of the firehouse gave the location and I responded. By the time I arrived at the scene, the Nassau County police ambulance was already there. They were carrying the patient on a stair chair. Gary Krug was holding an emesis basin while the patient was vomiting. I knew this was something I had to get used to. I was confident that I would get used to it in a matter of time. Mike Ostipwko told me he was suffering from a hiatus hernia. I said, "That is not life threatening, is it." Mike said "No but it can scare the hell out of you." A hiatus hernia often has the symptoms of a heart attack. This patient was removed to the hospital by the police ambulance. This was the first call I responded to. I knew I had a lot to learn and I had to get used to facing people who are sick or injured. I was determined to develop enough confidence to do just that.

By this time, I was starting the spring semester of my junior year at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. I was at home, doing homework, when I heard the alarm horn sound. It was a 22, which meant a rescue call. Then I heard my radio sound, after which it gave the location and the nature of the emergency: a woman was paralyzed. I ran downstairs, out the door, and to my car. On my way there, I was stopped at a red light on Carnation Avenue and feeling anxious. I remembered what people had said about speeding to the scene and trying to be a hero, however, so I waited. I saw the reflection of the rescue-truck lights shining on the building across the street from the firehouse. They were waiting for the full crew. Finally, they pulled away, sounding the siren, and off they went to the scene. I knew it would be better to miss the truck than to violate traffic rules, so I drove my car to the scene.

When I arrived, I walked into the house. This was the first time I had gone into a house that we had been called to. On the previous call, I had arrived when they were carrying the patient out to the ambulance. Inside the house, I observed an elderly woman lying on the floor, with a cane next to her. She was in a semiconscious state. The men from the company were putting the scoop stretcher under her and splinting her leg.

When they snapped the scoop stretcher, she cried, "I'm dead!"

Jim McEntee said, "No, you're going to be all right."

The Nassau County Police ambulance transported her to the hospital.

Meanwhile, I was shivering due to a combination of the cold weather and the excitement of the call. The crew had acted very professionally, and I knew that this was the way I would have to act if I were to be the one doing the work.

After the call, I was told that she might have had a stroke and that they had splinted her leg and spine to treat for the worst, since she apparently had fallen. The splinting was also done for "psychological first-aid" purposes. The splinting was to make her think that she was not having a stroke.

It was good to talk about calls when they were over so we would all know what to do the next time we ran into a call with similar circumstances; John Bennett had always stressed that idea with me while I was in my first year. Noel Beebe was the captain at that time and had told me that John was very good like that, for training purposes.

We were back in the chief's office when we heard the sirens go off again.

"That's us," Chief Nahas said.

John said, "Okay, I'll drive."

This was my first time responding to a call in the rescue truck. The scene of the emergency was on the north side of town. It was a woman in her sixties who had injured her arm. We splinted her arm and took her vital signs. It was standard procedure to take the pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure. Her vitals were stable, so she refused transportation to the hospital by ambulance and had her son drive her by private auto.

I recognized her son from the village swimming pool. He was a friend of Ronnie Walsh, the crossing guard. I had helped Ronnie out a few times by taking her to the doctor for routine appointments. Once, I had taken her and her daughter to the doctor's when her daughter had broken her arm. Sometime later, Ronnie and I ran into this patient's son at Roy Rogers on the turnpike, and Ronnie told him that I was good at helping her in crisis.

The man said, "Yes, he helped me out when I was in a crisis. My mother injured her arm and he showed up with the Rescue Company."

It felt good to hear such praise. At meetings, we would get thank-you cards and read notices of thanks published in the local newspaper.

Another night while doing homework in my room, the radio went off. This time it was a woman passed out in a restaurant on Jericho Turnpike. My first impression was that it could be a cardiac arrest. I drove to the firehouse and made the truck. Terry Carney was the driver. When we pulled up to the scene, I still did not know what we were getting into. I was relieved to see that the woman was conscious and breathing, sitting in a chair. She was suffering from an allergic reaction to eating shellfish. We carried her to the rescue truck in the stair chair. We hooked her up to an electrocardiogram in the back of the truck, and she remained stable.

All she kept saying was, "I had such a good dinner and now this has to happen!" At least, she was feeling better, which made me feel better. I guess I felt a sense of relief that it was not a cardiac arrest. But then, that also meant I was still waiting for my first cardiac arrest—something I was not looking forward to at the time. I still needed to build up my confidence for such an event. Little did I know that the only way to get to do was to face the event when it came.

One day after classes, I was at the firehouse when a call came over and the horns sounded. It was an unknown need for aid, per the message over the radio. I was in the rear of the rescue truck waiting for a crew. I was kind of nervous. Pete Walters arrived, entered the rear compartment of the truck, placed a pillow on the bunk, and lay down. I guessed this was just second nature to him.

As we pulled up to the scene, Pete got up from the bunk and pointed to the trauma kit and the resuscitator. "Take that and that," he told me.

Ex-Chief Robert Meehan was outside the house awaiting our arrival. He said we didn't need the resuscitator, because the patient was conscious and breathing. So we brought only the inhalator and the stair chair, since the patient was upstairs. Of course, again, I was relieved that it was not a cardiac arrest. Paul Abbruzzese was upstairs reassuring the patient. I was given the book and told to get the patient information from the police officer.

While I was writing down the information, Sergeant Robert Wagner asked me, "Are you in Rescue now?"

I answered affirmatively.

"That's nice. You will be always helping people in there," he replied.

I had known Sergeant Wagner since I was fourteen years old. I'd seen him a lot at the local swimming pool in the summers. Now he and I would see each other on all of these fire and rescue calls.

Meanwhile, the police ambulance removed the woman to the hospital. I was later to learn that this was a routine call; the woman had been suffering from pulmonary edema, a condition in which the lungs fill up with fluids. I found out a day or two later that she had expired in the hospital.

One cold snowy night, I was hanging out in the firehouse, when a call came over: a possible stroke in the hillcrest section. We already had a crew, so I picked up the police phone and said Rescue would respond.

The cop on the other end said, "Okay. Drive carefully, because it's bad out there."

Off we went, with the siren sounding. The crew and I were in the back of the rescue truck, and Steve Kelly was the driver. Fourth Assistant Chief Kenneth Lynch was riding shotgun. While en route to the scene, I remember praying that I would do my best. I was thinking of Hank Krauss saying, "Don't lose your cool. Just put your knowledge to work and pitch in." I was looking forward into the cab, at the back of Chief Lynch's head. He had gray hair, combed back with no part, which is why he was nicknamed Silver Fox. I saw how relaxed he and the other guys were, and I knew this was how I had to be too. I had the oxygen and the trauma kit ready to go.

As we pulled up to the scene, John Bennett was running out of the house and waving his hands in a downward motion. That meant everything was under control and the patient was stable. I brought the equipment into the house and, there, observed a more experienced newcomer, Tom Koskey. He was fixing the bedclothes, preparing the patient to be transferred from her bed onto a stretcher for when the ambulance arrived. Since there was enough manpower in the house, the rest of us were told to wait outside.

Steve Kelly said, "There is not much you can do for a stroke. Just give oxygen and start an IV." I could give oxygen but an advanced EMT would have to administer drugs. I could not play with that ball until later on.

When the police ambulance arrived, I helped carry the trundle into the house. The cops were in another room talking about a police shooting somewhere in Nassau County. No cops had been hurt, but the suspects had been shot. I remember one cop saying, "The bad guys lost. That's good."

Tom Koskey helped package the patient onto the trundle, and I helped carry her out to the ambulance. From there, she was removed to the hospital.

There was something distinguished about Tom Koskey. He was a real pro at this. So I began helping him do cleanups on the truck, asking him questions. He helped me by answering them and showing me how to use equipment, which some of the other guys wouldn't do. There was a lot of competition for glory, I guess.

Another more experienced newcomer was Gary Krug. He was a registered nurse. He had about a year in the department, as did Tom. I had met Gary while shopping on Tulip Avenue, at which point he'd said, "If there is anything I can do to help you, just let me know. I know that some of these guys enjoy keeping their knowledge away from others. I try not to do that."

The next time I met Gary Krug, he gave me a list of basic procedures to follow when approaching a patient. "Here, look this over when you're not busy," he told me. "This will help you get your feet wet." The list included questions that I should ask patients, such as "Are you on medication?" and "Are you under a doctor's care?" along with basic steps that I had observed other members taking while we were on calls. But it gave me an idea of what to do if I were ever the first one on a scene.

One night, about two or three in the morning, I was asleep at home when a general alarm came over the radio. It was a garage fire. I ran from my house to the firehouse across the street, and used the active company truck for transportation. While en route to the scene, the guys were talking about the nature of the call. We knew it was something big. I was sitting in the jump seat looking at the guys gearing up on the hose bed. I remember Joe Oswald buckling up his turnout coat, and the mars lights flashing in his face. Turning on the road after the Floral Park Railroad Station, Tyson Avenue, the floodlight truck had its siren whining. Then as we turned onto Jericho Turnpike, I looked through the front cab window and saw the garage fire, already in full swing. I left the Engine Company, reported to Rescue, and put on my turnout gear. Shortly thereafter, the fire was quickly under control. The only job left for the Rescue Company was to make a first-aid station. Nobody was injured as far as I can remember. I also remember trying to talk to one of our firefighters, and he just turned and walked away very slowly without saying a word. This kind of behavior was what made people from other companies think we were a bunch of snobs. From the time I had submitted my application, I had heard people talking negatively about Rescue. I think some of it was jealousy, but some of it was true. I didn't know. I was just trying to do the right thing. I was making my averages and I was enrolled in an EMT course.

It was around this time that I was to do my emergency-room observation training. I had a lot to learn yet, and I was just hoping that I would get the chance to overcome my inexperience. My EMT instructor gave us a form to document all our time in the ER. We had to do eight hours. We could document time in any ER, but he advised us to go to the hospital where we would take most of our patients. The hospital our company used the most was Nassau Hospital in Mineola, so I reported there. I went to the waiting room and spoke to the head nurse. Then I waited for about twenty minutes, after which she called me into the emergency room. She showed me all of the treatment rooms and explained how they put patients in different rooms based on the nature of their medical problems. She encouraged me to ask questions, but I was still so green in the medical field, the only way I was going to break the ice was to just do it. We arranged my schedule. I would be doing two days in a row, with four hours each day. Tomorrow was to be my first day.

The next day, I reported to the emergency room. The same head nurse told me to stand by the door where the ambulance crews wheeled in patients. So I did, and waited for further instruction.

About five minutes later, she called me to the reception desk where she was seated and said sarcastically, "You can just stand there and watch the ambulances, or you can try to learn something by walking around and observing."

So I walked from room to room. Eventually, the Floral Park Rescue team brought in an overdose case. When I saw the truck backing up, I knew it had to be serious, because our truck didn't transport unless it was a matter of life or death. Terry Carney told the attending nurse that it was an overdose—in fact, it was the typical overdose behind Lee's Drug Store on a Saturday night. Our guys wheeled in the patient, who was in a semiconscious state. His eyes were sunken and lackluster. Mike Ostipwko said that my average was going to hell; they must have had a few calls while I had been out of town.

They wheeled the patient into the trauma room. One doctor put a gastric tube up his nose, and the patient started to violently gag. I saw the stomach contents travel up the clear, colorless tube. Another doctor took a syringe, "vacuumed" up the vomit, and put it into a jar. As the patient continued violently gagging and thrashing about, I started to feel nausea. I walked out of the room and out of the emergency entrance for some fresh air. This was my worst nightmare. Every member of Rescue had the same fear when first starting—they worried about getting sick on a call. And some did. One member responded to a DOA and vomited on the body. Another time, when a cardiac arrest victim vomited all over the ceiling of the truck, about five or six of the guys stuck their heads out a window and heaved while the patient's vomit dripped from their heads. I never did vomit on a call, but I thought I was going to on this particular night.

I went back to the trauma room, and they were still pumping out the victim's stomach. I was still unable to face the scene, so I went back out into the hallway for more air.

The head nurse came out and said, "If you want to stand by the door and watch the ambulances, that's fine. But I would suggest you go inside for the experience."


Excerpted from BREATH OF LIFE by Daniel B. McVey Copyright © 2011 by Daniel B. McVey. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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