We run our strips. We go home.

flatline (3 of 3)lowres

Damn, I was just about to go to bed.

Halfway to the bunkroom to wake up the next guy on watch, the tones went off. I shook the sleep out of my head as I spun in place and headed to the desk. I didn’t catch the dispatch, so I grabbed the printout and read it as I grabbed the intercom mic.

“Engine, engine. Medical local, for the…”

I paused as my eyes finished the page a split second before my voice did. Dammit.

“…cardiac arrest.”


A hysterical wail cut through the air to my left, now audible only because we had turned our sirens off. I grabbed the medical bags and started in that direction (it’s usually not a good sign, but it ain’t a bad locator beacon, either).

As I had pretty much expected, there were three things present inside the apartment:

  1. some bored-looking cops;
  2. a hysterical family member;
  3. a motionless body.

As I passed the first, deftly avoided the second, and approached the third, one of my hands found a place near the side of her head and tried to position her airway—the other snaked up beside her neck and felt for a pulse.

I recoiled slightly; she was as cold as the sidewalk outside, and about as flexible. Rigor was setting in, so I turned to my crew (who, wonderfully, had grabbed a BVM, oxygen, and a tube kit out of my stuff) and gave them the curt headshake reserved for TV characters who have to stoically answer the female lead’s tearful rendition of “Did he make it, doctor?”

“Just the monitor, guys.”

I still feel strange running EKG strips on obviously dead folks. I mean, in certain DOA situations, our patient is exhibiting obvious “signs incompatible with life” (decapitation, dependent lividity, rigor mortis), and yet… we must prove it.

So, we put EKG stickers on cold limbs, palpate depressurized arteries, and take pink and red pictures of motionless hearts.

I folded the paper up and turned to leave. By this time, the screaming daughter had left, replaced by a much calmer son with a thousand-yard-stare.

“Excuse me.” It was barely a whisper.


“So, what’s the situation?”

“Well, she’s been down for too long, so… there’s unfortunately nothing we can do for her.”

I kept it simple. I’ve tried the other route, and it doesn’t usually work out so well in these situations. So, I swallowed all the typical, feel-better phrases that I’ve heard used countless times before. They sound like bullshit, and they feel acidic in your throat.

“So, she’s gone?”

I stared for a second.

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

“Oh, okay.” His thousand-yard stare turned from me, scanned the room, and stopped on Mom.

I left without a word, seeing his back still turned on me and his head slowly nodding.

We run our strips, and we go home.

flatline (2 of 3) lowres


  • Medic 22 says:

    Well written. It’s a crummy part of the job…

  • Smitty says:

    Great post! I think the worst emotionally is when you run on those calls where there is nothing you can do. The family called us because they thought we could help. It is tough when they do not understand there is a very small window of time that we can help. I was on a called where a wife was doing CPR on her husband who blue, cold, and rigor mortis had started to sit in.

  • Medic999 says:

    I think the same sometimes. In fact just 3 days ago, I was at a sudden death, I walked upstairs found the deceased gentleman lying in his bed. He was as cold as a fridge and as stiff as one too, so I filled in my forms and went to speak to the police who had arrived. As I was filling my forms I wrote the normal ‘Rigor present, along with post mortem lividity’, when I realised I hadnt actually checked for lividity.
    It didnt matter that he was solid and as cold as stone, I couldnt leave the scene without first satisfying myself that I had actually seen his post mortem staining…..Oh and whilst I was there, why not run off a quick asystole trace right?

    Call it paranoia, but its just what I do!!

  • Jeremy Black says:

    You captured the moments perfectly.

  • medicthree says:

    Odly We don’t have to run a strip on DOA’s here. If they’re dead, they’re dead.

    We also end up having a little more conversation with the family, since we have to communicate with the coroner to provide time of death and we are responsible for arranging body transport to the funeral home. I’m almost envious of you for being able to scoot out of there. That is the hardest part of our job–being able to do nothing.

  • Trey Johnson says:

    It always sucks when you are in that situation, you really want to help but can’t do a thing. Great blog by the way, just started one myself and can only hope it will be half as good as yours1

  • Called on you guys the other day. says:

    I know it’s a pain…

    but thank you.

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Alex Capece

Washington, D.C. Firefighter and Paramedic

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