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Schrödinger's Patient

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I became an EMT to help people. I was never great with anything intellectual, but something about the adrenaline running through my veins switches my head into a different mode, it's like I'm on autopilot, an out of body experience. I flew through my basic training, only five weeks before I was out on call. I was shocked at how little time it took them to get me out there. But to be honest, there's a large need for EMTs in our state, it's not a job people stay in for long.

I remember my first time as if it were yesterday. John Stanton was senior Paramedic on duty; the call came in over the radio that someone had jumped from the roof of their apartment block. We arrived to a crowd that had gathered around the building; police flanked them and kept the perimeter. One of the officers beckoned us over, then let us through the tape.

She was only a teenager. She wore pyjamas and lay splayed on her front, head turned to one side, cheek resting on the cold pavement. John put his arm out, gesturing for me to stop. The girl's legs and arms moved erratically. I pushed him out of the way, lying down next to her, looking for any sign of life.

"Don't bother, she's a twitcher," John said, staying where he was.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Her eyes darted from side to side, peering right into mine.

"She's still alive, John!"

"I know," he responded, "but it's too late."

"Help me get her on the stretcher."

"There is really no point moving her, as soon as we do, she'll fall apart. Literally. Her spine's been crushed, that's what's causing the involuntary movements. Do you really want her last few minutes to be absolute agony?"

I guessed he was right. I sat next to her and cried. It was fifteen minutes before she stopped moving altogether and John was happy to help me get her on the stretcher. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.

I read the report in the paper the next day. She'd had an argument with her father before bed, stormed out of the apartment, onto the roof. Stood next to the edge while shrieking at her petrified father that she hated him and wished she'd never been born, before slipping on the moss that covered a large portion of the roof. An autopsy showed she had broken her back in five different places, had twelve broken ribs, both legs were shattered, and one lung perforated; I think the only part of her body that was unscathed was her hair and that was already dead.

John was my partner throughout my three-hundred hours of training. Only one other time did we encounter a twitcher as he put it. I had been warned about people like John. It was sort of off the record, but upper management had urged anyone who suspected an EMT or Paramedic of being a killer to come forward. A killer is someone who actively allows patients to die, withholding the help that they so sorely need.

Background checks are performed on all future employees in the State's emergency services, but if you've never done anything illegal, there was nothing stopping you from being hired, assuming that you passed your training, that is.

I spoke with my superiors and explained my feelings that John was a killer and he actively avoided helping two patients, that I knew of at least. I mentioned the conversations we'd had about serial killers and his theory on the JonBenét murder, as well as the Zodiac Killer, that he'd hope to write his own book one day on what he had encountered.

When I left the room, I felt dirty, like I had betrayed a best friend. And John was a friend now, a good one. There are only so many deaths you can witness together before you feel an attraction to each other, and I'm not talking about a romantic one. More like your souls are touching, that a connection has been forged between the two of you. This is why it hurt so much more when I saw John's face as he left the office. He'd been called in ten minutes after arriving for his shift. He spent around twenty minutes in there with our superiors, before leaving and looking straight at me. He didn't appear sad, he was just disappointed. I got called in after.

They thanked me for coming forward, confirmed they took my worries on board, but didn't think there was enough evidence to take things any further. I reiterated that I saw him on two occasions willingly allow people to die without helping. They thanked me again, and I left.

John sat on the opposite side of the room to me as we drank our coffees. I tried to catch his attention with my eyes, but as soon as our gaze met, he looked away. I felt sick, a nausea that rose to the back of my throat that made it hard to swallow; a sense of betrayal that not only I felt, but could be seen on John's face.

We sat in silence while we drove, but spoke professionally as we went about our jobs. We saved an old man that day. He had choked on some steak. By the time we arrived, the man was on the floor. His daughter hugged her husband, mourning her father's death. I could feel a faint pulse, I told John; who quick as a flash, picked him up and performed the Heimlich Manoeuvre on him. His daughter said later, that flying piece of meat was the most incredible thing she had ever seen.

John drove the ambulance at the end of our shift. I was buzzing. I could tell he was too. I stole glances at him, checking for some recognition he was okay with me.

"I'm sorry," I said.

He was silent.

"I was wrong, I shouldn't have reported you," I continued, "I was scared. With all the rumours and how much you talk about true crime and murders, I thought you were..."

"A killer?" John interjected.

I hung my head.

"Like I said at the time, there was nothing we could do. They were Schrödinger's patients. Someone who's alive and dead at the same time, they look and are alive, but when you try and help them, they die. The best thing you can do in those situations is just allow them to die in peace."

"But what if you were wrong?" I asked. He didn't respond.

"Have you been wrong before?"

"No, but."

"But?"

"Terry Chuck Miller."

He winced, I wasn't sure if it was a smile or a grimace, or a bit of both.

"I was an EMT myself back then. Like you, I was very eager to help, I was lucky and hadn't had anyone die on me.

"Terry had left a friend's house late that night, clearly too drunk to drive. But you know what it used to be like, drink driving was something most people did. The roads were very quiet, and outside the city they were sparsely used at that late an hour.

"He was about five miles into his journey, only two to go, but he really needed a piss. All that beer was screaming to get out. Instead of keeping it in, he parked up, left the road and began to relieve himself against a tree.

"In his intoxicated state, he didn't put the gear into park, the car gradually veered off the road, and gathered speed. He turned around just in time for the car to impale him against the tree."

"Oh God!" I responded.

"It was early morning before a passing motorist saw the car. By that time, Terry was lying on the bonnet, apparently lifeless. The motorist phoned it in and we arrived fifteen minutes later.

"Terry was in and out of consciousness. I pleaded with my partner to move the car so we could get him onto a stretcher. He said it was too late. He talked to Terry. Terry told him about his wife, she'd be worrying about him. Terry knew time was running out, he had that calmness only the near dead have, an expectance of what is to come. He asked for his wife. My partner radioed in, told them he'd got a Schrödinger who wanted to see his wife.

"He got out and lit a cigarette, offering it to Terry. I was livid. I wanted to help this man, but all my partner wanted to do was smoke a cigarette with him. I told him, we have to do something. He said, it's too late.

"I vowed I was not going to let the man die, that if I needed to carry him on the stretcher myself, then that was what I was going to do. I opened the driver's side door, turned the ignition and put the car in reverse. The wheels spun against decaying leaves under the tires. I could hear my partner shouting for me to stop, but I was not going to relent until I helped this man.

"When the car finally found traction, it lurched backwards with some speed, Terry's hands slid down the bonnet until his body crumpled on the floor.

"His wife arrived a couple of minutes later, before the police. She was coming to say good bye, but all she saw was the mangled remains of her husband in a broken mess on the floor.

"My partner later told me that the car was acting as a tourniquet, stopping the arteries in his legs from losing too much blood. As soon as the car was removed, the floodgates opened and the blood gushed out. Terry was unconscious at the time, but he never got to say goodbye to his wife, and she didn't get to say it to him."

We drove the rest of the way in silence.

That was the last time I went out on call with John. I don't know if he asked for a different shift, if it was management trying to split us up, or whether it was just coincidence, but I missed him. It was as if a part of my soul had been taken away from me, that my heart cried out for.

In the next year or so, I finally became a paramedic and had my own EMTs to help me. It was odd being on the other side of that equation. Being the one the buck stopped with. I knew I could always look to John for help, but now, people looked to me. It was scary, but ultimately so much more rewarding. When a particular strategy worked out, the sense of satisfaction was immense.

I had my first killer EMT within the first couple of months of being a paramedic. I had no idea how he had made it past the interview stage, he had such an obvious fascination with death. He would ask to ride in the back when we were unsuccessful in saving someone. He moved on before he was pushed. He was the first of countless others who were more interested in the patient's status than doing their job right. And as sick as it may sound, as long as they aren't actively killing them, they are the best we've got.

However, it didn't matter how many EMTs I went through, I never ran into Schrödinger's patient. I mean, there were times where it seemed better to leave them and wait for more paramedics, and be careful splinting people before lifting them onto stretchers. But there was never someone I couldn't help that was still alive.

John retired before he was too long in the tooth. Investments he had made when he was younger did better than he expected and he didn't want to work a moment longer than he had to.

I didn't attend his retirement party, I was on duty. I thought it best for as many of his real friends to make it as possible. I'd not spoken to him for a while; nothing had been the same since the day I reported him. I respected his space.

I was eating a sandwich in the break room twenty minutes before the end of my shift when the call came in. A car crash off the interstate. An officer running a speed trap saw the car in question roll down the embankment from the interstate above and onto the verge of the road near his patrol car.

I drove fast but careful, the last few hours had seen a light layer of snow coat the roads. That probably contributed to the crash, I thought. When we arrived, the patrol officer met us. He moved his vehicle to let us through.

My heart dropped when I saw the license plate of the crumpled car. There was a single passenger, a man who held his hands to his face in shock. It was John.

"I'm going to get you out of this," I announced.

He moaned at me in pain.

I opened the driver's side door. He looked at me. I could tell he had been crying. I could smell alcohol on his breath.

"John, were you drinking?" I said to him, pissed off.

I was just glad he was alive.

I opened the door and I leaned in to undo the seatbelt, he groaned at me again.

"I need to get a good look at you, you know the procedure. James," I shouted, "Get me a neck-brace will ya?"

"Sure thing," he said, going back to the ambulance.

John began to cry, and a mournful wail sounded out through the fingers that clasped his chin.

"You'll be okay, but don't think I'm not going to be pissed off at you. When you're back on your feet, I'm going to kick your ass for being so stupid."

A tear ran down his cheek. I unlatched the seatbelt. By that time, James had arrived with the neck brace. I slipped it behind John.

"Okay, I need you to move your hands, so I can secure the brace."

He wailed again, it sounded even more desperate than before.

"Calm down, I need to secure your neck before I get you out of the car."

I grasped at his hands.

"It's okay, John, you can let go, everything will be alright."

With that, the tension in his hands relented, as if he just gave up. He gazed into my eyes, he had that look on his face that he had when he came out of the office all those years ago, that same disappointment. With his hands in his lap I went to secure the brace. It was as if it happened in slow motion. Like a giant redwood being felled in a forest. His head rocked before slumping forward, swinging from side to side. He had an internal decapitation. Later, I was told he would have felt nothing, the remaining nerves would have snapped as the head fell. They tell me there was nothing I could do, he was a Schrödinger. But that was no consolation for me.

I was mad at John for a long time after that. Mad he put me in that position, in an un-winnable situation. He chose to drink and drive that day. I chose to help him, and think that is the only thing I could do.

James has worked with me for a while now, he's only fifty hours short of becoming a paramedic himself. He says he's heard of people talking about Schrödinger's patient, and what do I think? I tell him, I don't think there is such a thing. There's people that need help and you have to be willing to do your best for them, and there's people that need help who will die anyway, but you still have to help them, just in case.

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