“Rampart, we have a firefighter down. Request that you stand by.”
* * * * * * * *
“Standing by, 51.” Brackett didn’t think twice about hearing Chet Kelly’s voice. It wasn’t unusual any longer for engine crews to assist paramedics in the field.
Also in the base station room, using the landline, Mike Morton overheard the call. He finished making arrangements with CCU for the patient that 99s was bringing in, then turned to Brackett.
“Did 51 say who it was?”
“Can you ask if it’s Gage?”
Shooting Morton a puzzled look, Brackett went ahead with the transmission. “County 51. Is your patient John Gage?”
“That’s affirmative Rampart. He’s having a lot of trouble breathing. Possible smoke inhalation. Vitals coming up. Stand by.”
“How’d you know, Mike?”
“Gage was in the exam room less than an hour ago, with a severe cough and wheezing. I barely had a chance to listen to his lungs before they took off. I didn’t like what I heard, and was about to arrange for some tests, when they got the call. He was supposed to come in as soon as they wrapped things up at the fire.”
Brackett shook his head. “With Johnny’s recent history, that’s not a good sign. If he inhaled some smoke on top of whatever he’s got this time, it could be pretty rough.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t have let him go.” Morton silently chastised himself.
“Mike, we both know Johnny. You couldn’t have kept him here even if you had sat on him. Let’s just hope it’s not too serious.”
“Rampart, this is County 51....”
* * * * * * * *
Roy’s brows knitted in a frown as he listened again through the stethoscope. Pulling it away from his ears, he checked the oxygen flow again. It seemed to only bring minor relief. Johnny was still moaning, confused and unable to answer questions in complete sentences.
“Cap, can you see if there’s an ambulance available? I need a gurney over here. We’re gonna have to transport right away. He’s not getting enough oxygen. Marco, what happened in there after I left? Was there any sign that anything fell on him, or that Johnny was injured in any way?”
“No, not that I could see, Roy. He was slumped against the wall, trying to take his air mask off. He wouldn’t even let me help him at first.”
Stanley returned quickly with an ambulance team and a gurney. “What do you want us to do, Roy?”
“Can you get Johnny on the gurney? Tilt the back up. Keep him in a semi-fowlers position, and make sure the oxygen mask stays put. Then turn him so he’s on his left side. Watch his IV, too. Be careful it doesn’t get pulled out.”
Roy took the receiver from Chet to talk to Brackett himself.
“Rampart, this is County 51 again. Rampart, IV D5W has been established. I’m detecting decreased breath sounds on the left side. We’re changing his position to see if that doesn’t ease his breathing some.”
“51, is there any evidence of chest trauma or rib injury?”
“That’s negative, Rampart. At least as far as I can tell. Johnny was complaining of sudden chest pain and shortness of breath. It doesn’t make sense....”
“Once you’ve got him repositioned, get a new set of vitals. Get him patched in and send a strip right away.”
Roy dropped the phone and went back to Johnny’s side. Crouching by the gurney, he was relieved to see that the blueness around his lips had disappeared and some color had returned to Johnny’s face. He was less agitated and more coherent. The pain was diminished, and his struggle for air lessened. Still far from all right, it seemed he’d survived a crucial moment.
“Johnny? It looks like you’re feeling a little better, huh? Don’t… don’t try to talk. I need to get some new vitals and get you patched in, okay?” Keeping his voice low and steady, Roy continued to reassure Johnny that everything would be fine. “You just relax, and try to take it easy.”
Johnny closed his eyes and nodded, while Roy checked his pulse and took his BP again. With his eyes still shut, Johnny missed the look of relief on his partner’s face.
“Rampart. Pulse is still rapid, but down to 110, respirations are shallow and labored. I can hear wheezing, but he appears to be more comfortable.”
“All right, 51. Keep a close watch on his breathing. Standing by to receive a strip.”
“EKG comin’ up. This will be lead two.”
* * * * * * * *
“So, what do you think?” Morton asked. “It sounds like a pneumothorax, but the absence of trauma…?”
With his hand still on the radio, Brackett thought it over. “Could be a primary spontaneous pneumo… he fits the profile -- tall, thin male between 20 and 40. It’s possible it’s a secondary one, given that there may have already been respiratory complications. Spontaneous pneumos aren’t very common, but then....”
“… Gage doesn’t usually present us with common problems.”
“Exactly. Why don’t you have Carol help you get a room set up, Mike. If that is the problem, we may have to go with a chest tube to get that lung re-inflated. We’ll see how big it looks on the X-rays before we decide. It might depend on what the problem was before this happened, too.”
“I’m on it right now, Kel.”
“They’re not very far away. The ambulance should be here in just a few minutes. I’ll be in my office. There’s something I… I want to check. Just let me know when they get here.”
Morton paused at the door. “This isn’t good, is it?”
Brackett had a grim look on his face. “No, Mike. It’s not.”
Not good at all.
* * * * * * * *
Roy quietly slipped into the room, not wanting to wake Johnny if he was sleeping. They'd sedated him before inserting the chest tube, and he'd fallen asleep as soon as they moved him to an observation room. The heart monitor indicated a near-normal rate now, and he was breathing easier through the oxygen mask. Roy was about to leave, when Johnny stirred and opened his eyes.
“Hey, Johnny. Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."
"No. 's okay."
"I just wanted to check on you before I took off. I gotta get back to the station. Chuck’s comin’ in at eight to finish your shift. You… uh… you doin’ okay?”
“Y-yeah. Doesn’t hurt as much now.”
“Well, don’t try to talk. Dr. Brackett said you’d be feeling a lot better this time tomorrow. I’ll stop by in the morning before I go home. You try to get some rest.”
“Easier said… than done ‘round here.”
“Yeah. Just don’t give the nurses a hard time. Remember they’re just doin’ their job.”
“I… I never give anyone a… a hard time, Roy.”
“Right. See you tomorrow, John.”
“Roy? Tha-thanks. Tell the… tell the guys thanks.”
“I will. Goodnight, Johnny.”
Roy waited a minute, then left as quietly as he came.
“Roy took the news pretty hard, didn’t he?” Joe Early poured the cold coffee down the drain and rinsed his cup.
“Not half as hard as that partner of his is going to take it.” Brackett set his cup on the counter, and folded his arms. “I know Roy won’t say anything when he goes in there, but he has a hard time putting up a good front. Johnny’s gonna see right through him, if he’s not careful.”
“I still think it’s too soon to make any predictions about his prognosis,” Early cautioned. “Until we’re able to run some tests, we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. We could be looking at something as simple as an onset of asthma, or possibly chronic bronchitis. Asthma could be controlled easily enough, and with proper precautions, even the bronchitis could be managed.”
“You’d be right, Joe… if we were talking about an average person with an average job. But, we’re talking about a firefighter here, and a paramedic as well. Someone with one of those diseases, whose workplace environment repeatedly exposes him to all sorts of dangerous conditions, is only going to get worse over time. Even precautions and medications can't postpone the inevitable.”
“I suppose the fire department would consider that a future risk, and think twice about letting him return to work,” Early conceded.
“What’s worse is we could be looking at something even more serious. If it's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, Johnny certainly won’t be returning to work. Between the risk of being exposed to infectious diseases and the potential for inhalation of smoke and toxic fumes on the job -- his lungs couldn’t handle the punishment. Now that he’s suffered a pneumo, the odds of that happening again are 50-50.”
Brackett hated playing the devil’s advocate, though he preferred to think of it as being realistic. Knowing that Gage would argue his case all the way to the Supreme Court, if that’s what it took to keep his job, the doctor reminded himself that John’s life was his concern, not his employment. After all, a job wasn’t worth dying for.
Deep down, he knew he was only kidding himself. He and Johnny were a lot alike in one respect. They identified with their careers so strongly, it wasn’t much of a life if they couldn’t do what they loved.
Thinking back to the car accident that had started this whole chain of events, Brackett sighed.
Roy was right.
Justice hadn’t been served.
* * * * * * * *
Dixie glanced at the TV screen before Johnny turned it off with the remote control. Something about that organ music....
“I just had the strangest sense of deja vu,” she said with a smile.
“Hey, Dix. I didn’t know you were back. How was the vacation?”
“It was great, until I got home and heard the news. It looks like I’m just going to have to stop taking time off. Every time I do, you wind up in the hospital.”
“Well, if that’s what it takes to keep me outta here, would you mind?”
“What, and keep you from catching up on your favorite soap opera?”
“I tell you, Dix. It’s been almost six months, and… and I think she’s still in that same session. I kinda thought by now she and the doc would have… well, you know.”
“John Gage -- you devil, you. So tell me. The rumors I’ve been hearing about you since I got here this morning.... Are they true?”
Johnny frowned. “Wh-what rumors?”
“The nurses tell me you’ve been a model patient. You’re taking your meds, you haven’t complained about anything, you’ve been eating all your meals, and… I hear you’re even nice to the respiratory therapist.”
Sighing in defeat, Johnny gave her a hint of a grin. “A guy just can’t win around here. Seems like I get a reputation no matter what I do.”
He groaned softly when he shifted his position in bed. It wasn’t for sympathy. The discomfort was real enough, although not as bad since the chest tube had been removed. Johnny laid his head back on the pillow, and slowly blinked his eyes.
Besides tired, Dixie thought he looked kind of sad. “What’s wrong, Johnny?”
“I want to go home. I want to lay flat on my back for just five minutes. I want to sleep for more than two hours without someone waking me up to... to make me cough and make me breathe deep, or to take blood. They wake me up just to ask how I’m feelin’. And... and then they wonder why I’m so tired.”
“Johnny, you know they have to make sure this doesn’t turn into pneumonia. They’d have let you go home already, if it wasn’t for that. It’s only been three days.”
“I know. I know. Sometimes the cure is worse than the ailment, though. I- I just want to be left alone. No offense, Dix. I need some time to think.”
“No offense taken. I understand.” Dixie studied him closely. There had been something unspoken in what he just said. “Johnny, what is it you need to think about?”
He raised his head and shifted again, trying to get comfortable. “I don’t know why everyone thinks I need to be protected from the truth. They seem to… to think I can’t figure it out for myself. They’re worried I can’t go back to work, and I’m worried that I can. Every time I try to bring it up, the subject gets changed. Roy doesn’t even want to come by any more, ‘cause he’s afraid I might want to talk about it.”
“Johnny, from what I hear, no one really knows for sure what the problem is. Until your lung is healed enough to run some meaningful tests and take some more X-rays, they can’t make an accurate diagnosis. It’s too soon to talk about whether you can go back to work or not.”
Johnny took as deep a breath as he could, then exhaled. “Dixie, I’m twenty-seven years old. Sometimes, like right now, I feel twice that age. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m gonna make it to thirty, let alone fifty. The job’s killin’ me. Maybe I shouldn’t go back.”
“Well, you knew when you became a firefighter there were risks involved. It’s never seemed to bother you before. I kind of thought you thrived on the danger."
“Maybe. But, there’s times when I think my luck’s gonna run out. I’ve gotta have the worst record in the department. The average firefighter doesn’t even end up in the hospital once in his career. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been here.”
“Well, maybe that’s because you’re not the average firefighter.”
“That’s not the point, but don’t make it sound like I’m better’n anyone else. Every firefighter puts his life on the line just by… by showin’ up for work. But, you know, Dix, I’ve been close to dying more than once, and every time, it’s been because of my job. The virus, the snakebite, the car accident. That’s not to mention the times I’ve been blown up, caved-in on, or knocked down. Maybe I’ve been in the wrong place at the wrong time, I don’t know. I just know it’s time to… to stop and think about it, before it’s too late.”
It was pretty hard to argue with his logic for a change, but she wasn’t going to agree too readily. “Okay.... Who are you, and what have you done with the real Johnny Gage?”
He picked at some fuzz on the blanket for a long minute, before meeting her eyes. “I don’t know where he is right now, Dix. Maybe this is the real me. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this any more.”
“I guess you’re the only one who can figure that out, Johnny. I’ve got to get back to work. Just do me a favor, will you?”
“While you’re trying to decide....”
“See if you can’t find the other Johnny Gage. Ask him why he became a firefighter in the first place.”
Dixie left the room, and Johnny picked up the remote control and turned the TV back on.
He’d think about it later.
Right now, things were heating up in the doctor’s office.
* * * * * * * *
Roy pulled into the driveway, glad to see Johnny’s truck parked there. He hadn’t called ahead of time -- a rare impulse had brought him here. They hadn’t seen each other, or talked much, in the last three weeks. Roy had been busy working some overtime, but he’d gotten the feeling that Johnny had been avoiding him.
Dixie had told him that Johnny had been in for his tests a week ago, and had spent a long time talking to the doctors. Not that she would have divulged the information anyway, but she didn’t know what the results were, or when he’d be able to return to work.
It was dusk. The March sky was gray and clouded. Smoke curled lazily from the chimney, then was swept away by the chilly breeze that signaled the arrival of a storm from the north. Roy got out of his car and took a deep breath. The smell of the wood fire, mingled with the promise of rain in the air, and the scent of the fresh grass clippings that covered the front lawn, was a refreshing change from the asphalt and gasoline smell of the city, just a few miles away.
It had been months since he’d been to Johnny’s place. He’d forgotten how peaceful it was in the hillside canyon. Pulling his jacket around his neck to keep the wind out, Roy crossed the lawn and stepped onto the porch, hesitating a moment before ringing the doorbell. He smiled when he heard Johnny’s voice from inside, telling the dog to be quiet, before the door opened.
Johnny didn’t look the least bit surprised to see him.
“Come on in, Roy.” Johnny held the door open wide, with a glance at the sky. "Looks like rain any time now."
Roy stepped inside at the invitation, feeling suddenly awkward for the impromptu visit. “Sorry to just drop in, Johnny. I… uh… hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
“No, not at all. I was just gonna have something to eat and watch a little TV and turn in early tonight. One of my neighbors brought over a meat loaf and some other stuff. She thinks I don’t eat enough, so she’s always dropping by with something for me.”
“Women seem to think it’s the way to a man’s heart. You better watch out.”
“She’s almost eighty-years old, Roy. I think my bachelorhood is safe.”
Johnny led the way down the hall to the kitchen and large den at the back of the house. The logs were blazing in the fireplace, the stereo was playing some soft jazz, a glass of wine sat on the coffee table next to some magazines. The dog was curled up on the couch, already snoring softly.
Roy wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but he was glad to see Johnny looking relaxed and in good health. “You sure I’m not interrupting anything? I should have called....”
“Roy, it’s okay. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been plannin’ to call you, I just haven’t gotten around to it. Been kinda busy, you know?”
“Yeah? That’s good. Me too.”
“Why don’t you get the meat loaf out of the oven.” Johnny tossed him some hot pads. “You want a beer or a glass of wine?”
Roy smiled in amusement. “Around my house at dinnertime, it’s a choice between milk or coffee. A glass of wine sounds kinda nice for a change.”
They settled in the den with their plates on their laps, making small talk while they ate. When the dishes were cleared away, and the glasses filled again with a mellow cabernet, conversation drifted away for a while. Johnny finally got up and put another log on the fire, then sat back down on the edge of the chair, not knowing how to begin.
“You know I… uh… I’ve been cleared to go back to work next week.”
“Johnny, that’s great!”
“Yeah. Yeah, it is.” The lack of enthusiasm in his voice was under-whelming.
Roy brushed that aside for the moment. “I take it they figured out what was wrong?”
“The good news is that I... I don’t have asthma or chronic bronchitis, or anything more serious. It seems we forgot to tell the doctors about the fumes at that factory fire. You remember that? They did some checking, and found out I had some low-level exposure to sulfur dioxide gases. It might not have caused a problem if I hadn’t already had a bronchial infection, but the combination was… obviously not good. Then I let it go too long, and, well, you know the results.”
“That is good news. But, why do I get the feeling there’s some bad news? Was there a problem at headquarters?”
“No. No, not really. I guess once they found out what caused it, Brackett and Early were able to convince them I wasn’t a risk to myself or anyone else. Of course, they… they kicked my ass from one end of Brackett’s office to the other for not coming in right away. I probably could have avoided the whole thing if I had. I’m under strict orders to clean up my lifestyle a little. You know, eating better, sleeping more, not letting myself get run down. I should have been doing that ever since the accident, but I got kinda lazy. I don’t think I’ll make that mistake again.”
“I suppose that’s something we should all start doing. But, Johnny, you still haven’t given me the bad news. You’re not still thinking about quitting, are you?”
“Dixie told you, huh?”
“Well, not in so many words. She really didn’t have to. After all these years, I can tell what you’re thinkin’. She just kind of confirmed it.”
They both stared at the fire for a few minutes. Only the popping and crackling of the logs broke into their silence, until Roy couldn’t stand it any longer.
“What are you gonna do?”
“I… I’m gonna go back to work. I don't think there was ever really any question about it. But.... I don’t know. Something’s changed. It’s hard to explain. I feel like I’m runnin' out of time. I need to do something different. You know, my ten-year anniversary with the department is coming up. I talked to people at headquarters. They’re planning to give the Captain’s exam next month, and probably again in August. I’ve decided to take the exam then. I think it’s… it’s time to move on.”
“You’d give up being a paramedic?”
“It wasn’t an easy decision. I thought about a lot of things for a long time. But, yeah. It’s time to let the youngsters handle the rescue work.”
Roy looked up from the spot on the floor he’d been studying, to see a smile on Johnny’s face.
“Well, old man, it sounds like your mind’s made up.”
“It is, Roy. What about you? Why don’t you think about it again? You’ve already got your ten years in. You could take the exam next month if you wanted to.”
“That’s not much time to prepare. Besides, I’m not sure it’s what I want. You know me. I’ve gotta think things through, talk to Joanne, and think some more.”
“I do know you. You’d make a great captain. Besides, with me gone, who else could put up with you for a partner as long as I have?”
“Put up with me? I think you have that backwards.”
“I… uh.... You understand why I’m doin’ this, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. A lot of things have been bothering you lately that never used to. I don’t even think you realize it, but I see it. I guess I’m not surprised. Just a little.... “
“Yeah, I know. Me too.”
The fire was dying. The rain had started, and darkness had fallen hours ago. Roy checked the time, and was surprised at the late hour. He rose to go.
“You mind if I use your phone, Johnny? I want to call Joanne and let her know I’m on my way home. She worries, you know.”
“You’re a lucky man, Roy. Phone’s in the kitchen.”
“Anytime. Just be sure to leave the dime on the counter.”
“Hey, I’ve been off work for three weeks. Gotta pay the bills somehow.”
Roy pulled a quarter out of his pocket and flipped it at Johnny, who caught it in midair.
“Keep the change.”
“Don’t mind if I do. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. That’s what partners are for… partner.”
“No, Roy," Johnny gently corrected him, "That’s what friends are for....”
* * * * * * * *
This story started out as a submission for the "Make Johnny Cough" contest at Juniors Journals, but I decided it belonged here at Emergency! Universe after all. When finished, it was apparent that it is a companion piece to a new story I'm writing, which is a "missing scene" from the Johnny/Shannon series.
My friend "Sparky" sent a contest entry to JJs instead, called "Not a Good Day to Die." Check it out on the contest page, if you haven't already.
Thanks to MJ and Tigger for their contest inspiration that got this started, to Becca for her insight, and as always, thanks to E!U for the gracious support and input.