13. October 2004 · Comments Off on OFF THE CLIFF · Categories: General

As I write this, there is a story unfolding on Fox News: A car has gone off a cliff in the Malibu area of California. They relate that a rescue is in progress, supposedly two people are in the car, and no one knows how long the car has been down 500 feet below the highway. Details to follow as things develop.

This story brings back a flood of memories from a few years ago. The incident will be a chapter in my upcoming book, “LIFESAVERS: True stories from the files of Paramedics”, the book is a compilation of my experiences as a Paramedic for 27 years.

The incident I mentioned took place in the early 1990’s, when I was in Colorado. I lived in a small town where we had a volunteer fire/rescue department. A mountain in our back yard was the source of a number of emergency calls. One of the most urgent was that a car had gone off the cliff on one of the switchbacks. Rushing up the gravel road as quickly as we could, we found a car down about 700 feet below, lying upright on top of a tree that it had landed on. The tree was flattened, and a witness who had seen the car go over said there were two girls in the wreck. Throwing over our long roppes, anchoring them to fire trucks, we suited up for the plunge. I had a bag with oxygen tanks, and a medical “jump kit”, containing the basic supplies I might need to save lives. In this case I was the only full-fledged Paramedic on the department, and we had just received our certification as an Advanced Life Support unit. The rest of our people were firefighters and EMT’s, qualified in Basic Life Support. Down I went, over the edge, clinging to the ropes, stumbling and sliding, in a great hurry, concerned that someone was in great danger. We had called for the nearest LifeFlight helicopter team, and they were being directed in for a landing as I went flying down the rope. Reaching the bottom, we found two teenage girls, who had already been extricated from the car. I was amazed to find them both conscious, alert, and with seemingly only minor injuries. Of course, because of the mechanism of injury, i.e., a long flying ride off a cliff in a car, we had to treat this as though they may have hidden internal injuries that we could not diagnose on the scene. Two stokes baskets were sent down, and the flight nurse from the chopper slid down the ropes to help. We bandaged, splinted, checked vital signs, and packaged the victims for transport. Then a group of firefighters began the long, difficult climb, supporting the patients and keeping them stable, as teams of rescuers up above began pulling them up on relays of ropes. After cleaning up the scene, it then came our turn to go up. The thought then struck me for the first time: Good grief, I forgot when coming down that I had to get out of here! How in the world is a 50-year-old, out of shape, overweight and not-so-strong guy going to do this?

I shouldn’t have worried. I was not so bad! In fact, I sort of outdid some of the younger folks! I came up that rope line like it was nothing. I was surprised, and pretty happy about how well I had done. I had quit smoking less than a year before, and my body had begun rebuilding itself after years of abuse. I was convinced that the nonsmoking lifestyle was really worth the fears of what would happen when I put out that last cigarette. No problem, and now life was good!

As for our patients, they were airlifted to a nearby trauma center, and both did well, with no serious injuries. A few broken bones, some bruises, and a newfound respect for mountain roads. Their brakes had failed after too much use while coming down the mountain, a common occurrence in mountainous territory, when people not accustomed to mountain driving do not realize what can happen to hot brakes. One nearby mountain, Pikes Peak, has brake check stations where park rangers check people’s brakes and make them stop for a while if they have hot brakes. One tip for mountain driving: Use gear reduction, putting your transmission in low gear so you don’t have to use so much braking. I had been up and down Pikes Peak so many times that I had learned how to use reduction, I could make it all the way down from the top to well below the tree line without even touching the brakes in my old van. (I was a volunteer with the annual Pikes Peak Hillclimb Races, checking speeds of the racers at points along the course.)

Being a paramedic exposes one to many different experiences, that goes almost without saying. Some experiences are frightening, some are intense, with a life on the line and the medic fighting like a tiger to keep someone alive until they can get them to a hospital, and some of those experiences are downright funny, even hilarious, when a nonthreatening event shows a patient’s faubles that put them in an embarrassing but otherwise not emergent, position. This one had presented itself as a bit frightening to the medics, worried that a life was in the balance, and it was a relief to find that there was no lasting effect upon the victims, except maybe a healthy respect for mountains. Back to the barn, put it all away, ready for the next call. What would it be?

Now we’re waiting to find out what happens in Malibu……


P.S. Anybody know a publisher??

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