A shrill, frantic voice came over the radio in rapid Spanish. “Sir, can you come help us? My brother – he was drunk and threatening the police with his machete – he’s started the house on fire and pushed my mother and pregnant sister around. Please!
We were in the back of a Mexican ambulance, we three Americans: Tamara the nurse, Matt the EMT, and I, the interpreter. I was a very young, inexperienced middle-class American from the soft life. Carlos, the doctor, was driving, his pregnant wife was in the passenger seat. The voice on the radio was a young Red Cross volunteer with whom we had worked the last few days.
My heart started pounding as I translated to my companions. I absently observed their bodies switch into emergency mode as they asked for details.
The ambulance made a U-turn as Carlos gunned up the hill. Arriving, we saw a plume of smoke rising into the air. As soon as the vehicle slowed, the crew jumped out and sprinted for the house. I felt as if I were outside my body, taking in this scene of urgentcy. I dazedly followed Carlos and Matt, assuming that I would need to interpret for them. As I trailed along, Matt fired off questions about the gas tank and contents of the house. I did my best to translate quickly, but I believe Carlos had already understood in that universal language that only dire emergencies can bring out.
“Is there a flashlight in the ambulance?” Matt threw the question over his shoulder as he began to shovel dirt and sand into the house to quell the fire.
“Hay una… como…. luz…” I tripped over my tongue desperately searching for the word. “Ahhhh!” I blurted in frustration. Matt grew impatient, and decided to take things into his own limited Spanish. “Luz, luz…” he repeated. Carlos’ wife finally understood, and moved awkwardly to fetch a flashlight from the ambulance.
Tamara had begun examining some of the family members standing at the sidelines. “Where should I go? Who needs me more?” I thought in panic. Suddenly Matt dashed up. “We don’t know how far the brother went, or if he has a gun, so take Carlos’s wife in the ambulance and have her ready to lock all the doors. If there is danger, take yourself and the family members inside also.” I interpreted this to Carlos’ wife, feeling machine-like.
The sunny warmth of the day seemed to mock me as one thought seized my mind relentlessly. “There’s someone out there with a machete, and probably a gun. He’s drunk. He’s angry at his family. He could conceivably fire off shots as we’re running around in confusion. My heart seemed to be skipping beats. My thoughts, however, continued to fixate upon one thing: my vulnerability. I was terrified. Never had I been exposed to this sort of danger.
Carlos confirmed my fears. As we slowed our frenetic pace, he commented, “This man is known to be a killer in this town.” I interpreted to my colleagues, assuming a flat affect designed to mask my dismay.
On the outside, I had remained fairly calm. I had had to; there was no other option. As the fire began to abate and the atmosphere to calm, we turned our full attention on attending to the mother and pregnant sister. I interpreted some questions in a forced, steady voice. I was to find out later that the woman lost her baby.
Hours later, we returned to the mission, ostensibly to eat lunch. But there was no ingesting food for me. I have never felt such overpowering exhaustion. I was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually drained of everything. My numb mind was trying to comprehend possible outcomes to the recent scenario, the “what ifs” and the “Thank God’s.” My face felt a sickly color, my eyes staring blankly ahead.
I fell into a light sleep on the couch, the only soft piece of furniture in the house, while the others ran some errands. When I woke up later, I was alone. Everything came flooding back to me, piece by piece, like watching a screenplay. The ambulance call, the out of body feeling, the flames dancing through the windows of the house, the machete, the “killer.” Suddenly, sobs began to push themselves up out of my gut, through my tightened throat, tearing themselves through my whitened lips. I will never forget the depth of those cries, those cries when I met the hard life.
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