Back when I was in high school, a pal and I came up with a brilliant idea for an amusement park – a series of pools, but none filled with water. Instead, one would be filled with honey, another with ball bearings, another with super-saturated salt water, others with types of grain, etcetera. The point was to jump into the pools and… that’s it. Sensory amusement. Obviously impossible to implement due to sanitary reasons.
About a year ago, my ambulance director told us about a special training event, grain bin rescue, open to all Fire & EMS personnel in the region and taking place at the Coors plant. Grain storage warehouses and grain elevators are common around here, as barley (for beer) is one of the big crops in the area. I jumped at the opportunity to attend, even though it was just after my surgery and I still felt 90% non-functional. Not only was it an extremely unique training opportunity, it was one that would get me in the vicinity of a decades-old fantasy. I immediately volunteered to be a “victim” so I could half-bury myself in a mountain of grain.
Turns out pools of grain are extremely dangerous and can cause death and dismemberment.
Barley dust is nine times more flammable than coal dust. Our training was held in a gigantic warehouse (like, the size of a city block); a spark in that environment could cause an explosion that would rattle the building, which would kick up enough dust from the eaves and rafters to cause a second explosion that would level the warehouse. If someone is trapped knee-deep in barley, they have about 400 pounds of pressure on their feet. If they were to be pulled out with a harness from above, they would literally have their body pulled apart (dislocation occurs with about 150 pounds of pressure). In a grain silo, which is an enclosed space, oxygen can be replaced with carbon dioxide if some of the grain is molding. CO2 is heavier than oxygen and sinks to form a puddle in the lowest point. Depending on CO2 vs O2 levels, this situation can cause someone to fall unconscious or even die if they become trapped in the grain and can’t get to oxygen.
As a volunteer, I was asked to carefully climb up the mountain of grain and stand in a particular spot. There were trap doors all over the floor of the warehouse, and I was standing ankle deep in grain, about ten feet up the grain mountain, directly above one of these trap doors. A man with a walkie-talkie said “OK, open it up,” and I slowly began sinking down into the grain, drawn down as the trap door in the floor below me opened and the grain rushed through. The action created a sinkhole and I sunk. When I was buried to my waist, the walkie-talkie guy ordered the trap door to be closed, and there I was, stuck in a grain mountain. It was very, very cold in the grain. It was hard to even slightly wiggle my feet.
The grain is like a quicksand avalanche – you can’t be pulled out, nor can you dig yourself out without displacing grain from above, which slides down to fill the area you’ve dug and bury you further. To rescue someone who is trapped requires creating a chamber that is immune to the pressure of the surrounding grain. First, panels are placed above to block the fall of grain while rescuers work – you don’t want to go from one person trapped to three or four people trapped.
Then panels, which are slightly curved and slide together at the edges, are placed around the trapped individual. Rescuers use the ladder rungs to jam them deep into the grain, being careful to avoid the buried limbs of the patient. Then, a rescuer climbs into the steel compartment and digs out the patient, bucketful by bucketful. The full buckets are passed to helpers outside to be dumped. One of the panels has ladder rungs on the inside, so that both parties can climb out.
The view from inside…..
…there’s fire. And where there’s fire, there’s a slew of firefighters. And where there’s a slew of firefighters, there’s an EMT or two on standby in case they need us. Job perk.
It’s been unseasonably hot and dry ~ no rain and 100ºF temps since May. Add a midnight lighting strike and you’ve got fire (two, actually, at the same time). Add 40 mph winds and suddenly the fire has a 4000 acre perimeter ~ significant for around here but nothing compared to Colorado or Montana. It was out in about a week. Though I don’t want that sentence to minimize what it was ~ the local volunteer fire guys were working around the clock during that week.
I don’t have any actual fire pictures to share ~ on the first day of the fire, Mike and I drove out to see exactly where it was and where it was headed, knowing if it jumped a certain creek it would be headed right for Mike’s cows. I was so concerned for the animals I didn’t even think to bring my camera, an oversight I cursed when we reached the scene ~ midnight at noon under a black sky, entire trees alighting before us, smoke roiling over hillsides. It was…. gorgeous. It really was. But not something I wanted to go back into a second time just for photos ~ I still have shades of PTSD from my apartment building burning down in San Fran.
Instead, a photo from the staging area (where we were stationed with the ambulance) ~ the heli that carries water to the fire. The round thing on the right is the giant bucket.
I found my wounded Baby the Saturday before last after searching for him for four days, managed to get a horse trailer to him since he could barely walk, and brought him home. (Reason #979 why I’m so glad all my bovines are pets: Baby loads in a trailer as easily as a horse – easier, actually, as I don’t even use a halter on him.) I called my vet AND HE WAS OUT OF TOWN. Argh.
I didn’t want to give Baby any shots without direction but I wanted – needed – to get working on the massive infection that had swelled up his whole leg. So I got online and read about a charcoal poultice that others had used on wounds, for themselves and their animals. It made sense to me, especially in light of what I know about charcoal from the ambulance – we give it orally in certain poisoning cases as it absorbs (adsorbs?) the toxins – and thought perhaps a charcoal poultice could help draw out the infection. It was certainly worth a shot. Turns out this technique is amazing.
The paste works better if it’s a bit thinner than you would expect to want it – this stuff is like cement in that it looks runnier than it behaves. It’s also easier to apply and stays on longer if it’s not clumpy:
This is Baby’s hoof yesterday. On flickr, I posted a photo of his hoof from ten days ago for those who want to see the progress, which is remarkable. But don’t click if you don’t want to see a horrible wound!
One of the greatest benefits of this technique is that the charcoal layer serves as protection for the wound, keeping dirt out while allowing the wound to breathe and drain. It looks like a thin, neat coat when it’s first applied but over the course of 24 hours it puffs, or plumps, as it sucks out the infection. Then it cracks and falls off in chunks when it’s saturated. These chunks come away with a crisco-frosting-layer of puss coating the backside (there, I’ve just cured you of ever eating a grocery store cake again); gross to write, but great to see when it means your bull is healing. Then I apply a new coating of charcoal and the process continues.
Sometimes, the timing works out perfectly and I can apply the charcoal when he’s lying down. But sometimes he’s standing up when it’s time to put on a new coat, and you can’t tell a bull to lie down like you can with a coyote. It’s essential that he doesn’t move while I’m applying the charcoal so dirt doesn’t get kicked into the wound. Luckily, boys are pretty easy to figure out. I carefully apply the charcoal poultice with my right hand while scratching his balls with my left. He drops his head, his eyes roll back, and he drools a little, and he stands perfectly still. Once the charcoal is on, I have to sit there and continue with this perverse activity so he doesn’t take a step until it dries. You do what you gotta do!
This morning, I drove the ambulance on a call for the first time. I didn’t want to. The PRESSURE! Not just one life to be responsible for, but three! The patient’s, my partner’s, and mine. And everyone else on the road, for that matter. And the rig is huge ~ it’s an off-road, 4WD, mountain ambulance. I sat straight up in the driver’s seat, clenching my abs so that the rest of me – mind and body – would not be so tense.
Five minutes in, I was loving it. Lights flashing, I sped by two highway patrol. Cars, trucks, and semis slowed and parted in deference. I didn’t even have to wait at the wretched construction zone ~ the flaggers waved me through, and the pilot car, midway through a one-lane-only stretch, pulled his string of vehicles over to the shoulder as I zipped by unhindered. This, I thought, is what it must be like to be Mick Jagger.
Driving back from the hospital, I was relegated to “normal person” status: no patient, no lights flashing. I was alone – my partner stayed in town to go linoleum shopping with her husband – and while I was sitting, waiting, waitingggg at the construction zone, I found a camera in a side pocket of the ambulance. And I took pictures. And then I fixed the date. It hasn’t been 2010 for a while.
And when I got back to the ambulance barn, I backed that baby in. She’s just a tiny bit crooked.
Worked the ambulance during the rodeo this weekend.
These guys didn’t want our help.
But I had a nice view.