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Blue Uniforms & Yellow Jackets

I blame yellowjackets. If they hadn’t stung me two years ago this week I’d never have become an EMT, sitting long shifts every week in the Anderson Valley Ambulance Barn waiting for impermanence to flex its muscles on the fate of our neighbors.

I am out raking hay by hand on that nice June morning when four of them little suckers roar out and sting me for scraping over their nest. I do the normal things: run away cussing, rip off my shirt to facilitate their retreat, and struggle with humiliation to be laid low by critters that weigh less than a gram. Then after admiring how my hand is swelling up where two of them have hit me, I get hold of myself and go back to raking. I’m over six feet tall. I’ve been stung many times. I can handle this. Stand back.

Rake, rake, rake. . . And what’s that? I lean on the handle a minute and feel my heart racing and my armpits starting to itch, where I know they didn’t sting me. Is it the heat? No, I think. Must be adrenaline. But what about this feeling woozy? Well, I blow right by the obvious sign, thinking a shot of scotch would be just the ticket to settle me down, even though it was before noon. Mind you scotch, though a lovely drink, is something I save for company and Christmas. Well, 4th of July, too. Anyway, I set off for the house, thinking I’m clever to be so creative and present.

But my lady is smarter than me. (Duh, she’s a woman.) Next thing I know I’m in an armchair, taking Benadryl and preparing to look bright and balanced to fake out the ambulance people who she’s called all the way out to the Deep End on a Sunday. I’m only partway through putting on my calm face and working up my story when firefighters in helmets and full gear and folks in civvies are walking in, radios on their hips blaring to some dispatch called Howard Forest. They hit me with questions and I’m eager to give my speech but, damn, if they’re not talking with a helicopter circling overhead, trying to figure out the best place to land.

Okay. Now I want to die. Maybe that will teach them a lesson for making such a big deal of things. Though I’m not sure how that’s going to salvage my dignity with Valerie, who’s wringing her hands in a way that makes me think she wants me to die, too. And that should have been another sign. She rarely casts a murderous thought in my direction.

Then the boys in ambulance-blue uniforms come in with medical bags along with a fellow smelling of apples with a last name of Gowen, and they’re poring over me. I’ve got a blood pressure cuff on and some weird medical squeezing-thing my finger and they’re flicking a flashlight in my eyes like I’m a drug addict. The only thing that keeps me from calling my lawyer is the fascination that I know a lot of these people. Mark Pitner, a damn fine builder is the lead EMT and Charlie Paget-Seekins, the tree surgeon, (now the pump and water guy), is the driver EMT. What are they doing wearing ambulance uniforms and how come I didn’t know about their secret lives? And I do yoga with Kyle Clark who has come in case she’s needed and there’s Martha Hyde smiling, having rumbled down the long dirt road from Holmes Ranch. In my confusion, I presume they’ve all come for the religious service I didn’t know I was about to give.

I look for the microphone and instead they slap an oxygen mask on me, though I hear them say that it doesn’t look like I have sign of—and they use some long medical word—yet. But that they should take me to Ukiah just to be sure. I look at Valerie and she’s nodding, right as I hear that the helicopter has landed down at Handley Vineyards. And I realize I haven’t sheltered my meager funds or updated my will the way I’d meant to.

The story would be better if I had really died or needed some four-inch needle jammed into my heart to bring me back from wherever it is that the White Light lives. But it turns out I’d had my first ever allergic reaction and my body handled it pretty well, with the help of Benadryl. And after a sweet ride with Mark in the back and watching him carry himself like a medical angel, I hung out in Ukiah Valley Medical Center’s ER, where I seemed stable enough to the staff to barely make them look at me. Very anti-climactic.

Still, with the sheen of my invincibility gone, I was now set loose on the slippery slope leading to death, and to prove it, I came home with two Epi-pens in my pocket to give me twenty more minutes of heartbeat if I ever got stung again and fell into full-fledged “anaphylaxis”—that’s the word they used—all for the low, low cost of $180 after the medical discount. (Valerie had been smart enough to sign us up for the ambulance membership—the best insurance deal in modern America, so the trip was free.) Gradually I realized I’d been missing some basic clues about how this valley operates. A whole darn volunteer ambulance service operates here 24/7, made up of people you see in the stores, at the Grange Pancake breakfasts or wine tastings. They show up when you need them and leave without any fanfare. Cool, I thought, as I flew back East to take care of things in Vermont.

While there, we heard news that Mark had a stroke, a bad one, and we were just recuperating from that when we learned that Charlie fell out of a tree and would be months in rehab. I did some quick math. If they’re all volunteers, they would need people. So I become a driver as soon as I could get processed. And I have met a wonderful set of women and men who do miracles and who blush when you raise that point with them. They study hard, train regularly and give big parts of their lives so the rest of us can have longer ones ourselves.

Drivers are important, but the real need is for EMT’s and the five-month course taught by our own Sarah McCarter and friends that is given every two years has just graduated 16 students. I’m one, the oldest dog in the room. I hereby dedicate my time and growth on the ambulance to Mark Pitner because his grace before and after his stroke has shown me the way. We’d prefer, of course, not to have to call on you, but we’ll come if you need us. Our number is 911.

Lastly, on the practical level, consider signing up for membership in the Anderson Valley Ambulance. Call 895-2963. You don’t want to know the cost of rides without this insurance. Helicopter trips are covered as well. But you must sign up before June 30th.

One Comment

  1. George Hollister June 28, 2016

    Tom, great story. We can not thank our volunteers enough. Thanks for your efforts. The Benadryl works pretty well, doesn’t it? Good to keep some around. My youngest son had an allergic reaction from a yellow jacket sting, some benadryl snapped him out of it. I was really surprised how fast and well it worked. Like you, he now carries an Epi-pen.

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