Another ascent and then the rain stopped. For a moment ourflight became steady and fairly quiet. Then came a pounding on the roof and thewalls of the helicopter. It sounded like someone was beating the helicopterwith a baseball bat.
"What is that?" I shouted at Venetra.
"Hail," she said. "That's hail."
We sat there, wedged in place, while all around us the metalseemed alive with the force of pounding rocks. I looked back down at mypatient. I had no way to listen for breathing sounds, so I had to trust thatthe tube was in place. As I pumped air, it seemed his color was better. Hispulse stayed rock steady at 75.
Suddenly the helicopter lit up as if it were on fire. Anexplosion, I thought. We've exploded. Then I thought, that can't be, I'm stillalive. I looked out the window.
"Lightning," Venetra said.
The intercom buzzed again. "Hang on," Skip shoutedto us. "I think we're through the worst of it." And then, as suddenlyas it started, the helicopter stopped bouncing around and settled into itscustomary glide. We broke free from the gray clouds, and the helicopter filledwith evening sunlight.
The patient's heart rate was 75.
When we landed, Skip stepped out of the helicopter, lookingshaken and pale. He stood at the edge of the helicopter pad, smoking acigarette, his head bowed, as if in prayer. When he looked up at me, he waswearing the same expression I had seen on doctors who had just lost patientsthey didn't expect to lose.
"I pushed the weather," he muttered as I pattedhis shoulder. "I can't believe how I pushed the weather."
"Well, we made it," I told him. "It's a happyending...."
And there was another happy ending. Mr. Prodham responded totherapy, the liver failure reversed itself, and his kidneys perked up enoughfor him not to need dialysis. I stopped by the ICU every day to see how he wasdoing. His wife was always sitting there, holding his hand. One day I found heralone in the waiting room, crying because her husband was doing well enough tobe taken off the ventilator.
"It's a miracle," she said, gripping my hand."All this has been a miracle."
"Yes, yes," I said, squeezing her hand in return.I didn't tell her that during our wild ride I saw no evidence of a miracle.Just fear, hard work, and--well--maybe a little divine nudge to the elbowduring the intubation.
Or maybe that's not true. Maybe something did hint at themiraculous. It was at the end of the flight, after we had cleared the clouds.First it was sunset, but as we flew east the sunlight disappeared, and it wasnearly night when we got back to the city. We were flying at about 1,000 feet,and at that height you could see the grid of streets below, lined withdollhouses and marked by streetlights. The lights were laid out before us,brighter and brighter until they formed a solid mass of light that edged theblack ocean. The skyscrapers were to the north and they, too, were marked outonly by light. The real buildings, the steel and concrete, were asinsubstantial as the night.
As I gazed out across the city, I wondered if Vietnam feltlike this: you rode like bats out of hell, through the land of death anddestruction, suffering everywhere you looked, until at some moment, after youbroke free from the ground fire, you'd see as you looked all around you howbeautiful the night sky was.
PAMELA GRIM (Vital Signs, page 44) is an emergency medicinephysician and a research scientist in Cleveland."In the ER, you never know if you've done the right thing," saysGrim. "You come home and think, `Should I have done this? Should I havedone that?' In my stories, I'm not the hero."