It’s Not the Fire that Kills You


So on the first day I was at home, I had no telephone land line and my cell phone was rapidly running out of power and minutes. So Steve added minutes and found my cell phone charger, which was no mean feat. Some small amount of my stuff had been transferred to Crouse Hospital, then a larger amount was transferred to the Iroquois Nursing Home. Then some of the Iroquois stuff went back to Crouse and other stuff went to Steve’s. And then summer turned in to winter and my apartment stuff was moved into storage and now, well, my stuff’s all over the place and about once a week Steve brings me stuff from either his place or storage and frankly I have no idea where stuff is at, but Steve gets me phone service again.

One the second day of being at home, the charger for my wheelchair broke down. I now could phone out but not get out. It takes a doctor’s order to get a wheelchair repair and I had no doctor. Steve set to work to get a new charger–$180 that I couldn’t afford on my monthly income of less than $850—and then Brian the massage guy came in and said, “Can you borrow a charger?” And, indeed, Jacquie downstairs loaned me her charger so I was back on the road again.

Then large quantities of fluid began to appear on my bathroom floor. Possible sites of origin: (a) me, (b) catheter bag, (c) toilet, (d) sink. After due diligence I ascertained that the toilet was leaking, called the office, and they made it Adam, the maintenance man’s, problem. Which he solved. One thanks God for a well-managed apartment building where broken things get fixed in a matter of hours not days.

And then the catheter bag broke. I am home alone without any aide in sight for possibly a month, and I’m leaking urine all over the place. I check and discover that, indeed, I do still have a back-up bag. Problem is, I don’t have the muscle strength to separate the plastic cone on the end of one tubing from the end of the other tubing. Twice—take apart and then put back together. So I have to call 911, expecting the fire rescue people to come. All I need is man-muscle. But instead Rural Metro ambulance comes, which is going to cost the citizens a bundle.

And then I came home exhausted from a trip to the drugstore and Chinese restaurant, and I’m sitting on the bed staring out the window prior to settling down for a nap when the fire alarm goes off and I hear the solid “thunk” of the electromagnetic thingies releasing the fire doors. In about a minute, the sirens of fire trucks can be heard approaching. I continue to sit on the bed and stare out the window. I’ve been living in HUD properties since 1991. Somebody burns the toast or lets a pot boil dry on the stove and we get fire alarms. It’s no biggie. We’re used to it.

Except that there are too many voices in the hall. I begin to reflect on the likelihood that some fireman is going to come down the hall checking apartments, and that it might be a good idea if I had my pants on. So I put on my pants and socks, turn to face the door and my shoes, and discover smoke hanging in my bedroom. Oh, this is not good. I go into the living room and discover heavier smoke. Okay, this is bad. I put on my coat, gather my gloves and keys, sit in the wheelchair and open the apartment door. Outside the door is the blackest black I have ever seen. Total darkness like you can’t imagine. And heavy black acrid smoke billows into my apartment. OMG.

I close the door and back across the living room to the window. I neither can reach the window nor move the stuff that is in front of the window—and should I open the window or not? What did I learn in third grade about drafts in a fire? I cannot get out of my apartment. There’s a world of killing smoke and a fire between me and the elevator. Oh, this is not good. This is so not good. I pull out my cell phone, call 911, and report that there’s a woman in a wheelchair trapped in the apartment at the end of the hall, and I’m having trouble breathing. 911 calls fire dispatch and then stays on the phone with me until the firemen come into my apartment.

They leave one fireman with me and then go back to the fire. In the next long, frightening minutes, firemen come and go. At any given minute there are between one and seven men in heavy canvas fire gear in my increasingly smoke-filled apartment. I cannot fucking breath. In addition to the apnea, I have pulmonary fibrosis. The caustic smoke is burning my throat. Listening to the fireman’s radio, I hear that someone on the fifth floor has gone into full cardiac arrest. And neither of the elevators is available for my use. And this is poor people’s housing—we don’t furnish with wood and leather and linen: we furnish with plastic, hence the petrochemical-fueled fire and choking smoke.

I start to cry. The fireman on duty picks up his radio and clearly calls in ‘woman in wheelchair on eighth floor needs oxygen.’ Instead of being one of many problems, I have just been moved up to the second problem, right after the guy who arrested. It is not the fire that kills; it is the smoke inhalation. The current fireman on duty with me pulls off his heavy oxygen mask, apologizes for the sweat, wipes the inner band, and then firmly holds his oxygen mask against my face. I breathe clean air. The fireman acknowledges that he’s not supposed to relinquish his air but imagine what it must be to him: he’s breathing clean air, standing next to a woman in a wheelchair who’s gasping for air. [To be continued]

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
This entry was posted in disability, Housing, Poverty, power wheelchairs, Values and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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