It was Christmas Eve forty years ago. I tucked my baby girl into her crib, placed one last kiss on her downy head, and backed quietly out of the room. I drank a coffee, kissed my husband, and grabbed my medical bag. Outside it was snowing gently in those big fluffy flakes that so often decorate Christmas cards. I got into Rosie, my little red car, and drove to the Picasso Restaurant on St. Jacques Street. Here, all the ambulance drivers, cops and emergency homecare drivers and docs were gathered at one of the only places open on Christmas Eve.
What was I, a nice Jewish girl and new mother, doing out on a cold Christmas night riding around in an overheated car doing home visits? Well, someone has to work Christmas and it may as well be me. Having finished my rotating internship on June 30th and given birth on July 26th, I was between jobs and in those days, there was no such thing as maternity leave. After 6 months, I was ready to do something but not go back to residency. Luckily I had a GP license, so I worked 8 pm to 8 am twice a week now that my baby was sleeping through the night. I made more in those two nights than I had working the ridiculous hours of a rotating intern. Doing emergency home visits taught me a lot about people’s lives, but it was not always easy.
I looked for Martin, who was my usual driver, but he was not there. His tall, burly form and booming, friendly voice were missing. Instead, a short older man wheezed over to me with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. “Hello Doc,” he said, “Martin, he is off for Christmas. He has kids, you know. So I will be your driver tonight. They call me Pops.”
“Glad to work with you, Pops,” I said, though, in truth, I was a bit nervous. This short man with his obvious COPD did not inspire the feelings of protection that Martin did. A few weeks before, we were called to a run-down looking house in Lachine. The dispatcher said that there was someone having a heart attack. As we pulled up to the house, Martin looked at the door. “Tabarnak,” he growled, “that’s where the guys got rolled last week for their Morphine!”
“What are we going to do?” I asked, “We have to go in if someone is dying!”
“Just wait a minute,” he said. Then, getting on the radio, he called for emergency police back up. As the cops rolled up with their lights and sirens going and parked in front of the house, the door burst open, and a man vaulted over the back fence and disappeared. The police went in the back door and came out the front. “No one sick in there,” he said, “now we have to go try and catch the bastard, bye!”
Tonight, though, with Pops driving, I hoped that we would not run into any trouble. The early evening was relatively quiet. Some depressed people, some falls, and lots of sitting around with hot chocolate. I snoozed in the car, making Pops go outside to smoke. Then, around two a.m., we got a call to a bar in Verdun. I had never seen a place like that. There was an elaborate neon sign of naked women, the red lights in their nipples flashing on and off. We went up a steep flight of stairs, Pops puffing as he carried our heavy box of supplies. When we got to the bar, it was eerily quiet. There were groups of guys in leathers with gang patches playing pool and studiously ignoring us. A skinny man with a dirty white apron was sweeping up a pile of broken glass.
I went over to the bar. The bartender had a Harley-Davidson T-shirt straining across his belly and a Santa Claus hat perched on his head. “Where’s the patient?” I asked. The bartender leaned down, pulled a guy up by his hair, and dumped him on the bar top. The patient was blindly and incoherently drunk, mostly passed out. He had a scalp wound that was oozing blood.
Most importantly, his right thumb had been sliced, so that the cut ends of his flexor pollicis tendon were visible in the wound. His hand, wrapped in a napkin, was bleeding. It was not spurting, so no major arteries were cut, but it was a bad injury. This guy needed a tetanus shot, a skull x-ray and a plastic surgeon!
“Why did you call me?” I asked the bartender. “This guy needs to go to the hospital.” The patient’s eyes fluttered open. “Don’t wanna go to the hospital,” he groaned.
“But sir,” I said, “you could be bleeding inside your head. Also, you may well lose the use of your hand if you don’t go.”
“Don’t wanna go to the hospital.” Then, he slurred, “I don’ work, don’ need my hand.”
This is crazy, I thought. I looked at the room full of bikers who were eyeing me curiously as I stood there, uncertain. “Let’s call the police,” I said to Pops.
He gave me a look of grave reluctance and did what I requested while I tried to clean and close some of the wounds.
When the cops came, the room was significantly emptier than it had been. They came in, eyeing the remaining patrons with a knowing look. They asked me what I wanted. “Can you take him to the hospital?” I asked.
“Don’ wanna go to the hospital!” the patient reiterated.
“Nope,” said the policeman. “He’s a grown-up. He doesn’t have to go.”
“But he’s drunk as a skunk and incapable of making a good decision. Can you at least take him into custody and bring him to the hospital when he is sober enough to care?” I begged them.
“Nope,” said the cop. “I wouldn’t worry too much about this guy.” They left.
Now completely stymied, I walked into the center of the room. Pulling myself up to my full 5 ft 1-inch height, and as loud as I could, in my little Minnie Mouse voice, I addressed the room. “If any of you F…..s are his friends, take him to the hospital before he loses his hand! This is now on you! Merry Christmas.
Then we left. The snow had ended, and the streets were covered in dirty slush. I felt upset and dissatisfied. I wished I could have found the magic words that would have taken that man to a hospital. I wondered what traumas in his life would have led him to believe that losing a hand was not a big deal. When I got home that morning and snuggled with my husband and baby, he asked me, “How was your night?” Kissing them both in that warm circle of love and protection, I replied, “A little frustrating, but OK.” I spared him the details.