Into the Night

Into the Night

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Into the Night

To be of service IS to be happy. What else brings greater satisfaction?

Honest Ed Mrivish

As the streetcar rattled down Roncesvalles towards Queen, the scene outside was eerie. There was no one on the streets, not even a police car. When you don’t even see a police car, you know it’s bad out there. It was a Sunday night in February 1978. I was on my way to report for the night shift with Metro Toronto Ambulance, and the snow was really coming down.

When I got to the station at 6:25 P.M., the day crew gave me a review of their day, including how passersby had to push the ambulance out of the snow when it was stuck. Not good, I thought. My partner, Joe, arrived a few minutes later, and the other crew went home.

The call came in at 7:20 P.M. The dispatcher was requesting volunteers to pick up an incubator and a special transport team of a nurse and a doctor from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, take them to McMaster Medical Centre in Hamilton, wait, and then bring the team back with a baby. The problem was this raging blizzard. All of southern Ontario was shut down, and nothing was moving anywhere. So they were asking for volunteers; they weren’t going to order anybody to go. The driving conditions were so bad that Metro Ambulance had not yet actually accepted the request from the hospital. Then I spoke to the dispatcher and listened to the story.

At Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, there was a baby with a healthy heart but near death and on life support. In Hamilton was another very sick baby who was waiting for a heart transplant. If we could get the Hamilton baby to Sick Kids in time, the parents of the dying baby were ready to discontinue life support for their child, and the doctors would be able to use its heart to save the other baby’s life. With our help that night, although one baby would die, the other one might live. That was the deal.

When I explained the situation to my partner, he just looked at me. And suddenly I said to the dispatcher, “Okay, we’re going. Let’s saddle up now.”

The ambulance slid out of the station onto the road. The trip to Hamilton would normally take about forty minutes, but who knew how long it would take tonight. We certainly needed a full tank of fuel, so we stopped to gas up, then headed over to Sick Kids. We picked up the incubator and the special team, and slowly began our journey down University Avenue. I took the ramp up to the Gardiner Expressway at about three miles an hour, and I think it was only because of the extra weight in the back that we made it up that ramp at all.

Faced with gusting winds and whiteouts, we inched our way along the expressway. As we passed the lights of St. Joseph’s Hospital, it felt like we were flying a plane in the middle of a fog—sometimes we couldn’t see anything. We slowly made our way west to Hamilton under near-impossible driving conditions.

We crawled onto the Queen Elizabeth Way. After what seemed like an eternity we finally passed Oakville and approached the Burlington Skyway—a great, high bridge, almost three kilometres in length that spans the Burlington Channel. Potentially dangerous in extreme weather such as this, the Skyway is often closed. However, we knew the most direct route into Hamilton was blocked by an accident, and we were forced to use the Skyway. We were not looking forward to it.

As we approached, there was not another vehicle in sight. I called the provincial dispatcher asking for any information on conditions. To our surprise, she told us the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) had a car on top waiting for us. Sure enough, as we made our way slowly up the steep slope of the Skyway, there was an OPP cruiser waiting for us at the top. Buffeted now by a severe crosswind as we followed our escort, I hung onto the wheel with white knuckles as we slowly crawled across the top and then back down the other side. Our OPP escort left us at the first exit, and we continued on our way to Hamilton.

After four-and-a-half hours on the road, we finally pulled into Hamilton’s McMaster Centre, and I gratefully shut the ambulance down. While the special incubator team went into the hospital, Joe and I tried to relax and stretch our legs. It had been a stressful four hours and the night was only half over. Forty-five minutes later the team returned, and we loaded the incubator into the ambulance. It now contained a small baby wrapped in tiny blankets, with a little tube in its nose and an IV in its arm. Standing back in the hospital’s foyer, clinging to each other, were the frightened, but hopeful, parents. The life of their precious baby was now in our hands. Once everyone was safely on board, we pulled out and headed back into the night.

With Joe now driving, I would normally sit in back. But with the medical team there, I remained up front. Driving conditions had worsened: The snow was very deep, and the highway hadn’t been plowed yet. We were now travelling even slower than earlier, and the west wind driving at our back made it difficult to steer.

Again, we were the only vehicle on the Burlington Skyway. Now, however, the violent wind was causing the ambulance to fishtail back and forth. Between the fishtailing and the deep snow, Joe had to really hang on. I think if we hadn’t had the extra weight in back, we might have blown right off the bridge. But Joe was a very skillful driver—determined and very steady—and he brought us through.

When we had arrived in Hamilton earlier, we had had just over half a tank of fuel left—more than enough to get back to Toronto. As we approached Oakville there should have been a quarter of a tank left, but suddenly, in what seemed like just a minute, the fuel gauge fell to just over an eighth of a tank. As we drove past Oakville and into Mississauga, I watched the needle sink even further. We were burning more fuel than usual because of our slow speed and the bad conditions.

As we approached Toronto, Joe and I were both watching the fuel level and not saying a word. We couldn’t get off the highway now. We would likely use up as much fuel trying to find a gas station as we would to just go for the final destination—Sick Children’s Emergency. It was not a calculated gamble: we had to go for the hospital. We set our sights on pulling the ambulance into Emergency without running out of gas a block before we got there.

By now the plows had cleared the Gardner Expressway to some extent, and once there it was pretty clear sailing. As we went down the ramp at York Street, however, I saw the needle going into empty as we rounded the curve. We were watching for the fuel warning light to come on any second. Now, on the home stretch, we put on our full emergency lights, and with everything flashing, we headed straight up University Avenue. As we passed Dundas and made that right-hand turn onto Gerrard Street, I swear I heard the engine make a little cough. I’ll never forget that tiny sound as we crawled past Toronto General, took another right-hand turn into Sick Kids, kicked it up the ramp and stopped right in front of the doors.

We shut off our lights, our engine—everything. Joe and I both took a deep breath, looked at each other and with a huge grin gave each other a high five! We called the dispatcher to say we were “10-7,” meaning we were out of the ambulance and had successfully completed our mission. It was now nearly five A.M. A round-trip that should have taken just over two hours had taken over nine!

A team was waiting for us at the Emergency doors, and before we even had the ambulance shut down, they had whisked the incubator with the baby through to the elevators and up to the fourth-floor cardiac ward. We later learned the surgery was a success, and one set of parents that day had cause to celebrate life. We were totally wiped, but also elated, knowing that because of our efforts, a baby had lived. When I got home later that morning, I dropped into bed exhausted—but fell asleep feeling good about myself, and my life.

Gary Robert Walsh
Toronto, Ontario

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