By Kay Slaughter
I’ve visited Ocracoke Island every year since the 1960s. I’ve crossed Pamlico Sound on the ferries from Hatteras, Swan Quarter and Cedar Island.
Never had I crossed in an ambulance.
On Ocracoke, I parked my bike at Eduardo’s Taco Stand, ordered my lunch of fish tacos and waited with a small lunchtime gathering.
“Kay, your order’s ready.”
As I picked my way among the customers, I stubbed my toe on the cracked macadam and tripped over a raised parking block. Careened forward. Fell. Landed on my extended right arm.
“Oh, oh, oh,” a bystander said. “Are you okay?”
Lying on the ground and staring at my arm, I recognized it as my arm attached to my hand. But it was like a mannequin’s appendage. I didn’t feel connected to it.
“Are you okay?” a man repeated.
“No, I’m not,” I replied. “Please call 911. I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder.”
“She’s bleeding,” someone commented.
“She hit her head,” added another.
Both were true, but only my shoulder hurt.
Someone retrieved my brimmed straw hat.
“Here, this will keep the sun off.”
The kindness of strangers, I thought.
Within a few minutes, the ambulance arrived and two female emergency medical technicians jumped out. Supporting my injured arm, they lifted me with the help of the male bystander onto a stretcher and into the ambulance.
“So where are we going?” I asked grimacing at the increasing ache in my shoulder.
“To the hospital at Nags Head,” replied Julia (O’Neal) the driver.
When I muttered something about the health center, the other EMT, Dana (Long), explained it was closed but that my vital signs were good enough to make the three-hour ambulance ride.
“If you were more seriously hurt, we’d have to helicopter you out,” Dana said.
“At least, I didn’t get bitten by a shark,” I rationalized.
But, boy. Did my shoulder ache!
“On a scale of one to 10?” Dana asked.
“Maybe a seven,” I replied. I experienced an incessant aching as opposed to sharp pain. Julia hooked up an IV to provide hydration as well as drugs to lessen the discomfort.
Dana called the dock master to hold the Hatteras ferry for us and then dialed my daughter, Margaret, who was on the island, to inform her about the accident.
“Please tell her I’m okay,” I prompted, fearing Margaret would think I’d had a heart attack or stroke. The only time I had previously ridden in an ambulance was 25 years ago with my aging father.
Unable to reach her at first, Julia finally succeeded as we neared the ferry landing.
As the ambulance clanked across the dock bridge onto the ferry, I recalled the incoming voyage two days earlier when I had posted on Facebook:
“It furthers one to cross a great water.” A phrase from the “I Ching, Book of Changes,” I associate with ferry crossings to Ocracoke.
In the current circumstance, the phrase resounded.
Viewing the Pamlico Sound from the rear window of an ambulance as I lay on the stretcher stretched my imagination as I searched for the familiar “bird island” and narrow Hatteras spit. On the ferry, Dana and Julia sat beside me, stroking my arm and comforting me. When the meds didn’t alleviate the ache, I kicked my legs against the stretcher to relieve tension.
By the time we left the ferry, driving up the Hatteras peninsula, I was weeping. Because I hurt. Because I felt vulnerable. Because I was tired of holding myself together. Because Dana and Julia were so kind. Maybe also because of the drugs.
Dana indulged my tears, even encouraging, “Sometimes a good cry is just what we need.”
From the stretcher, I watched the towns of the Outer Banks fly away like a speeded-up movie–Hatteras, Frisco, Buxton, Avon, Salvo, Waves, Rodanthe–familiar spots with which I usually marked my journey’s progress from the driver’s seat.
A glimpse of common white egrets above Pea Island Refuge zips past; it’s the last landmark before we cross Bonner Bridge and traverse the final section of the National Park.
At Outer Banks Hospital, the EMS transferred me to the emergency room but not before I thanked my two rescuers. A very competent RN wheeled me into a private room and promised she’d stay by my side. A student nurse assisted. More on that later.
The attending doctor agreed with my sense that my shoulder was dislocated . An X-ray confirmed the diagnosis.
The remedy? Despite the miracles of modern science, re-setting a dislocated shoulder into its socket hearkens back to the sawbones era.
The doctor wrapped a sheet around my shoulders, and instructed the student nurse to hold one end of the sheet while he held the other. The gig was to create traction by pulling in opposite directions as the doctor guided the shoulder ball back into its socket.
But first the anesthetic. The student nurse inserted an IV to dispense medicine the doctor assured me should knock me out within seconds.
After several queries of “Are you awake still?” and my response each time, “yes,” he instructed me to count.
I had reached 189 when someone noticed that the IV portal appeared to be in tissue, not my vein. The student nurse had missed the vein. A new port inserted and medication added, I lapsed into a relaxed haze as I heard the doctor say, “On my count of three, we’ll pull.”
Sure enough, on three, the click-click of my shoulder signaled the reconnect, but I felt no pain.
The procedure lessened the ache. The doctor fitted me with a sling and prescribed pain meds, a visit to my orthopedist, and physical therapy.
For the immediate present, I was free to resume my vacation.
Margaret arrived for the return trip. As we raced toward Hatteras, stopping only for a quick carry-out, a tune by Ocracoke’s Molasses Creek Band about missing the last ferry played in my head.
We pulled into the ferry lane just as the 10:45 chugged out of the dock. But we had arrived in plenty of time for the midnight ride across the Sound.
It furthers one to cross a great water.
According to David White, chief of operations division, Hyde County Emergency Medical Services reports 33 EMT calls on Ocracoke Island in July.
Of these, 13 were transported to Outer Banks Hospital and three flown via medevac to higher-level medical facilities.
The remaining 17 either were treated without need for transport, refused treatment and/or transport, or were not found when the ambulance arrived on the scene.
Kay Slaughter lives in Charlottesville, Va., and visits Ocracoke often. The event recounted above happened in July.