Those who Save Lives: Harry Watts

Harry Watts

Who was Harry Watts?

You probably haven’t heard of him, unless you’re English — like he was — and you lived in the 19th century — like he did.

That’s because he was nobody special. He wasn’t a prince or a pope, he never invented a robot or discovered a mountain. Probably never even kicked a ball on television.

What did he do, then? He was born in Sunderland and lived poor. Poor as hell; no shoes poor, family-all-in-one-room poor. His father was a sailor. He had two sisters, and two brothers, one of whom drowned during a storm while Harry watched.

Starting work when he was young, Harry made his living first as a sailor, then as a rigger in the docks, and finally as a deep-water diver (the guys who wear big brass suits and suck air from a hose to the surface). He married and had two kids.

Oh, right. Also, all on his own, he saved the lives of 36 different people.

 

What, what?

While apprenticing on his first ship, he watched his fellow apprentice take a fall overboard. Harry’s automatic response was to dive in after him, pluck him up, and pull him to safety upon some floating timber. That was number one.

On his second voyage, he was waiting to receive the captain who was paddling back to the ship in a small canoe. He suddenly capsized, however, and was floundering in the waves. Harry grabbed a rope, swam out to the captain, and towed him back to the ship’s ladder. That was number two.

Number three was on the same voyage, when a boy was thrown into the water during a major storm, and the waters were too rough to lower a boat after him. Harry went in, and somehow, they both came out.

He rescued four and five on his next cruise — at the same time. So at the age of 19, he’d saved the lives of five human beings.

“Did you get any reward for these doings, Harry?” he was asked.

“Rewaard ! Wey, sartinlees nut; nivver thowt o’ sich a thing. But we helped the two men wi’ dry claes an’ things.”

Indeed.

He got six more all together when an anchor line broke and dropped the anchor directly into a passing boat. There were six men aboard, and Harry went straight overboard while calling for help, landing directly on the wrecked boat in time to save them all.

Then one day at the dock, he saw a crowd gathering to watch a boy drowning in a rough sea. He leapt in, swam out to him, and brought the boy successfully back to shore on the verge of exhaustion.

At age 36, he made a career change from sailor to diver. At this point, he’d saved 17 people (plus one dog), most at risk to himself — sometimes grave. On one occasion he swallowed so much contaminated water from the Thames river (this during the cholera epidemic which had essentially turned it into a flowing sewer) that he was bed-bound for months and nearly died.

Many of those saved were sailors; many others were young children. And if you’ve never plunged twenty feet into rough water, wearing boots and heavy sailor’s clothing, and pulled out a panicked child (clinging like an octopus and trying hard to drown you)… well, you’re missing out. At this point, by the way, he had never received reward or recognition of any kind. As they say,

… There is a hackneyed platitude to the effect that virtue is its own reward, but it is safe to say that the average man does not find such a result sufficient. It might be so in an ideal world inhabited by ideal people, but in this work-a-day world, in addition to the approval of our conscience, we love to have the approval of our fellows and to know that our  acts are appreciated, and especially is this the case when we are actuated by altruistic motives. This is, of course, a form of vanity, but then vanity is almost a universal failing. [source]

But if Harry wanted applause, he certainly wasn’t clamoring for it. Just chugging along and saving lives as they presented themselves.

 

People take notice

Not long after that, he swam out to save two boys from drowning — while wearing one of his lead diving boots. (Yep.)

About a year later, he saved a couple more, and finally, there came the very first mention anyone had made of his efforts, a brief story in the newspaper:

Yesterday afternoon, about half-past three o’clock, a lad named Smith, about 16 years of age, son of an engineer employed on one of the Commissioners’ dredgers, narrowly escaped drowning. He was on board a dredger in the new Graving Dock, which was full of water, when he accidentally fell overboard. Mr. Harry Watts, in the employ of the Commissioners, gallantly jumped into the water and rescued him. The lad was very much exhausted, but restoratives were promptly used, and he was soon brought round. This is the twenty-second time that Watts has so nobly exerted himself in saving persons who have been in imminent danger of being drowned.

For a while, eyes turned away again. Then he hit number 25, and another story ran in the news, mentioning the man with “a perfect penchant for rescuing lives.” After that, people finally began to notice, and most of his saves received at least a little local attention.

He had countless saves while diving, such as the man who became tangled in a chain and was whipped overboard by a sinking weight — Harry dove in after and managed to free him underwater before they both drowned. Between rescues, he had plenty of interesting adventures, diving at the time being a trade full of explosives, accidents, and rockslides (he even had one memorable fight with a giant angler, or “devil fish,” which he ended up dispatching with a boat hook).

If that was his job, however, his hobby was volunteering with the Sunderland Lifeboat service; there was hardly a wreck nearby that Harry didn’t attend, they would say, and he was involved in rescuing over 120 sailors in extremis during storms. (Those don’t count on his score, of course, since they were team efforts. Just icing on the cake.)

He was 27, and up to 23 lives, when he received his first parchment award from the Royal Humane Society. A little while later when he ticked off number 25, they gave him their bronze medal as well, and when the local “Diamond Swimming Club and Humane Society” heard about that, they thought it just wasn’t cutting it, so they awarded him a gold medal of their own. The RHS gave him another parchment at number 26, and he continued to accumulate medals for his diving and rescue work — even one from the local temperance society for his good-natured efforts against the evil drink.

In fact, when he reached number 32, the local sailors (“gentlemen,” noted the newspaper, “because what constituted a gentleman was the performance of gentlemanly acts”) personally chipped in to cast him a silver medal in recognition of everything he’d done for them, despite the many years since Harry had personally sailed. Later, by widespread acclaim, his mayor wrote to the Queen to recommend Harry for the Albert Medal. Due to bureaucracy or who knows why, nothing came of the request.

An unfortunate turn came when Harry loaned his medals to the local church for an exhibition, and as night rolled around, the entire set was stolen by an unknown burglar. Harry was crushed, and the town of Sunderland felt it a slur on their name; the burglar was caught before long, but the medals were melted and gone. A popular movement arose, and within weeks they had struck replacements for the lot, and they returned them with dignity at a town ceremony. There, the thief himself expressed remorse, saying he wished he were drowned; Harry replied, “Mister, if ye were droonin’ aw’d pull ye oot bi th’ neck!”, and refused to press charges against the man.

He was 51 when he was approached to dive 150 deep to effect a mechanical repair. He was a little past such stunts for pay, he said, although of course he’d do so to save a fellow man, and he recommended some others who were younger and more willing. Their diver went down, and contact was soon lost; they returned to Harry and asked him to live up to his words, as nobody else was willing to go down to attempt a rescue.

He suited up and dived. The working depth was perhaps 120 feet, but it was upon a tiny platform across a bored-out shaft which continued another 300 feet past that; anybody who slipped was going a long way down until they looked like a recycled soda can. Feeling around, he located the other diver, who was dead (fainted, probably, then asphyxiated). He resurfaced, reported the news, then dived again to retrieve the body.

At the ripe age of 52, Harry was one of the divers who volunteered to recover bodies after the Tay Bridge disaster. He offered his services for no charge; when the diving commission attempted to pay him afterwards anyway (maybe because he was a million years old and a living legend), he politely refused and asked it be passed to a charity of their choice. (The man got around; somehow he was on hand at the Victoria Hall disaster as well, and widely applauded for his assistance in the aftermath.)

But never mind all that. His last life was saved at age 66. He and his wife were walking along the docks toward their home when he heard the cries of a drowning boy. His wife begged him not to, but he went; relenting, she cried, “Be quick, Harry!” and in he dove. Grab hold, haul over to a rope, out they came.

Thirty six lives. Not bad for a poor old seaman.

 

Harry finally rests

When he was 70, Harry retired at last. And although many people didn’t realize it, his wallet was thin; the diving commission didn’t offer a pension, and he’d quietly turned down others from grateful benefactors. That’s how things were when Andrew Carnegie passed through Sunderland to open a library.

Visiting the local museum, Carnegie saw an exhibit of Harry’s medals and asked after the man, now 84 and still full of vim. Surely he must be a war hero of some kind?

Nope. Just a life saver. When he learned who he was dealing with, and had the pleasure of shaking his hand, Carnegie inducted him into his Hero Fund on the spot.

At long last, Harry Watts no longer had to worry.

In Carnegie’s words,

I have to-day been introduced to a man who has, I think, the most ideal character of any man living on the face of the earth. I have shaken hands with a man who has saved thirty-six lives. Among the distinguished men whose names the Mayor has recited, you should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die. Compared with his acts, military glory sinks into nothing. The hero who kills men is the hero of barbarism; the hero of civilisation saves the lives of his fellows.

At the age of 85, Harry’s town of Sunderland was worried that after his death, such a remarkable, yet humble man might be forgotten in the distance and darkness of history. In response, the mayor and several of the town’s luminaries commissioned a biography to be written about his life. You can read it here, and much of this story came from it.

Not a bad goal. Live your life so that when you’re old, someone will insist on writing a book in your honor.

In their words,

The modest merits of this good citizen may, so far as the public are concerned, be summed up in the simple statement that he has saved upwards of 30 lives from drowning. When we consider what are the awards usually apportioned by mankind to the destroyers of their species, the presentation of a gold watch and chain, accompanied by a framed parchment from the Royal Humane Society, in the precincts of a disused School Room, must appear an inadequate acknowledgment of services so signal. But we are new at the business and shall improve as we go forward.

Somebody Should be Upset

Dog at grave

Anybody who’s spent time in medicine (and it doesn’t take long, because nowadays this is often covered in initial training) has heard two contradictory lessons:

  1. Good caregivers must demonstrate empathy and compassion for the suffering of their patients.
  2. Good caregiver must not become too close or attached to their patients.

The reasoning behind both truisms is simple enough. If you don’t care about your patients, you can’t practice good medicine, because that requires caring about what’s ailing them and wanting to do something to help. On the other hand, if you become entangled in the suffering of everybody who sits down on your stretcher, you will die a thousand times in the course of your career. That’s too much tragedy for anyone to bear.

So, you should care, but not too much. We’ve all known providers who don’t care. They’re bad. Bad at medicine, bad people, they don’t like their jobs and patients don’t like them. We’ve all known providers who cared too much, too. They’re good at their jobs, for about six months, then they flame out and quit. See how long you last when you have an extended family of hundreds, it grows each shift, and they’re all dying.

You can find your own strategy to walking this tightrope. Experienced, durable providers seem to become skilled at connecting with their patients, but compartmentalizing it appropriately, so that when things go badly, it doesn’t hit them too hard. You do your best, they survive or they don’t, and you move on to the next patient. It’s not your emergency.

This is probably the right approach. However, I’ve always found it a little bit distasteful. Click here to watch a clip from House that helps demonstrate why.

“When a good person dies, there should be an impact on the world. Somebody should notice. Somebody should be upset.”

Doesn’t that seem right?

A human being, with a lifetime of living behind them, has disappeared forever. There’s no life that isn’t complex enough and full enough and astonishing enough that we couldn’t put it up on a pedestal and watch it for days and discuss it and applaud it and munch popcorn while savoring all the decisions and revisions that we didn’t make, but which are awfully familiar. Even the mistakes aren’t usually so alien that we don’t recognize a little bit of ourselves in them.

When a person like that — and they’re all like that — drops off the face of the world, it should raise an alarm. People should put down their newspapers and look up. It should be a big goddamned deal. There are billions of human on the planet, and they’re all going to die eventually, many in the hands of medical providers, some of them in yours. But the numbers don’t change the fact that for the person who died, their life was their whole life. There should be grief.

Maybe it’s better when there’s family and friends and others to care. If a passing leaves a room full of loved ones in tears, maybe that makes it easier to walk away, knowing the job of mourning is well in hand. No silent snuffing of a candle here; the loss was recognized. That’s not very rational, but it’s how it feels to me. When somebody dies and nobody seems to know, or care, it seems like your duty to give a crap.

Isn’t it an insult to blow it off? When you were chatting with that patient and building your rapport and connecting as fellow people, would you have told them, “Listen, there’s something you should know. We’re getting along now, and we’re friends, and I want the best for you, and I’d fight for it too. We can laugh together or shake hands or hug. If you walk out of here, maybe we’ll even maintain a relationship. But if you die, I’m going to document it, wash my hands, and walk away like you’re just another number. Hope that’s okay.”

Isn’t that a little two-faced and deceptive — like acting friendly to someone, then badmouthing them as soon as they leave? How can you behave both ways and see both as compatible?

I don’t know, and maybe it’s not our job to be professional mourners. Maybe it’s not our job to mark each person’s passing. But in some sense, if we truly care about our patients, it seems like it is, and that’s quite a burden to add to our responsibilities.

What do you think?

Those who Save Lives: The Royal Humane Society

Royal Human Society

Mostly, people get into healthcare because they want to help people. And there’s no bigger and better way to help than saving lives.

Of course, that’s not really a cool thing to talk about, and we’re nothing if not cool, so most new folks clam up about lifesaving pretty quick. Then before long they’ve transitioned all the way to full-on Nicholas Cage burnout mode and managed to forget about that heroic stuff completely. To quote Dr. Saul Rosenberg: “I think the current generation of young people are terrific…. so much smarter, and so much broader, and so much more altruistic. At least until they come to medical school.”

But the fact is that there’s something very basic and very noble about the simple act of saving a life. To help shine light back on that deed rather than on the more ignoble parts of the job we do, I’d like to talk about some notable lifesavers throughout the years. Maybe we can learn a few things from them. Or maybe, at least, we’ll be reminded about the things we used to admire.

Today, let’s talk about…

 

The Royal Humane Society

In London in 1774, there were a whole lot of people drowning.

It wasn’t hard to understand. Most folks couldn’t swim, and many lived and worked on or near the water, especially the Thames river that flows through the city. Shipping and other water-based commerce was common, along with recreational activities like ice skating (sometimes on thin ice). To make a long story short, death by drowning was a frequent occurrence.

The science of resuscitation was in its infancy, and little was known about what could be done to bring back near-drowning victims. There were some interesting new ideas, but even if they were effective, there wasn’t much opportunity to use them — victims were usually presumed already dead and therefore beyond help.

(Any of this sound familiar? The problem of bystander intervention remains the toughest part of saving lives even today.)

William Hawes and Thomas Cogan were a couple of English physicians who believed that, with the current techniques and their best efforts, some of the drowned victims might be saved. (Hawes had, in fact, been paying out rewards to anyone who brought him recently-drowned bodies still “fresh” enough to be revived.) They thought that medicine could do better. So with some friends and colleagues, they sat down and founded the elegantly named Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, a sort of club with the goal of saving Britons from drowning.

The Society gave out cash rewards to anyone who attempted a rescue, more if they succeeded, and even awarded money to homeowners and publicans who allowed victims to be treated in their buildings. People being people, this quickly led to two-man scams where a “rescuer” and a “victim” would stage a drowning, then split the reward. So monetary prizes were soon discarded, except in rare cases, in lieu of certificates recognizing the lifesavers.

Gradually, the Society (after a few years switching to the the shorter name) began setting up stations and “receiving houses” near the water, where volunteers stored equipment and launched rescues. They were undoubtedly responsible for popularizing the concept of resuscitating the near-dead, and were among of the first to develop any type of rescue service for civilian medical emergencies. Kinda like the grand-daddy of EMS. In their literature, the Society asked:

Suppose but one in ten restored, what man would think the designs of the society unimportant, were himself, his relation, or his friend — that one?

The Society still exists, and has shifted from solely recognizing water rescues to acknowledging all manner of lifesaving heroism using a range of different medals and certificates. Awardees have included Alexander the First and author Bram Stoker.

Read through some of the most recent winners. They’re all good yarns. Humane Societies (not to be confused with the folks who protect animals) now exist in many countries of British descent, such as Australia and Canada, as well as other regions (including my own state of Massachusetts).

If you are honored by the Royal Humane Society, you’ll receive a medal stamped with their emblem: a fat cherub holding a sputtering torch, blowing at it with puffed cheeks, doing his best to fan a dying flame. Across the top:

lateat scintillula forsans

“A small spark may, perhaps, lie hidden.”

Royal Humane Society medal

Love in the Time of Melena

wine riot

Most regular folks don’t realize it, but an ambulance company is basically a dating service.

I can’t speak for the fire department, which is pretty dude-heavy in most places, plus you ride around with a crowd. But private EMS is another matter altogether. Mostly, it’s just you and your partner, and at many companies, that means many hours of posting — backed into a nook somewhere quiet, sitting together in the cab with diesel idling.

Really, it’s a date. Am I wrong?

It starts when you check your schedule and learn who you’ll be working with. The folks who work with a regular partner (like Scenarioville’s Sam Spectacular) miss out on this thrilling daily game of chance, but even they can pick up someone else’s shift, or roll the dice when their usual partner stays home with strep (or a hangover).

Who’s it gonna be? An angry old plowdriver who smells like castor oil? Some 18-year-old kid who narrates Yelp-style reviews of every female butt you drive past? Or maybe — just maybe — your one true love?

Well, go shake their hand and find out.

On the agenda for today’s date (which, by the way, might be lasting from 8 to 24 hours):

  1. Activities you can do together, emphasizing teamwork, problem-solving, and communication
  2. Banter and wisecracking (required)
  3. A mandatory dresscode with provided uniforms, so your awful fashion sense can remain a secret
  4. Eating one or more meals together
  5. Many hours of conversation as you’re forced to sit side by side — but no need for eye contact, since you’re both facing forward, and no awkward silences, since the radio’s crackling and you can always kill time playing with Facebook
  6. A perfect excuse to get their phone number (“I’m gonna get some coffee — not sure if there’s reception in there — call me if we get something, mmkay?”)

Maybe things won’t work out. That’s okay, because it’s not actually a date, so it just reverts to a shift at work — no harm done.

But maybe there’s a spark! And a good thing, too, because some folks in EMS are pretty maladjusted, and may not get a whole lot of social contact otherwise. Fortunately, we’ve got an employer-sponsored matchmaking service to help hook us up with the other weirdos.

Now, things won’t always be happily ever after. And it’s hard to imagine a more awkward experience than the first shift you work with someone after the ugly break-up. Folks have gone to supervisors and legitimately said, “If ya put him on my truck, I’m quitting.” Bosses who’d make you work with a broken femur have caved in such situations.

But if it goes smoothly, you’ll get to spend most of your day with your significant other. Of course, maybe that’s a little more time than you’d like. I know couples who stridently avoid working together on the grounds that “I already see his ugly mug in the morning and when I get home — if I have to listen to him tell me I’m lifting the stretcher wrong, there’s gonna be workplace-related violence.”

Don’t stay partnered up, and you’re running a different risk, however. Because if Jenny EMT isn’t working with you, she’s working with someone else. Maybe a guy.

16 hours every Monday and Wednesday. Dating somebody else. Have fun with that mental image.

No, folks, one thing’s for sure. Dating in the ambulance is a flat-out bad idea.

That’s us in the picture above, by the way. She microwaved SpaghettiOs for lunch, and sashayed into rooms towing our admit and asking, “Did somebody order a roommate?” I made her a glove balloon and let her steal my ice cream.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all. This job isn’t all frowns.

A Saving People Thing

This isn’t a criticism, Harry! But you do… sort of… I mean — don’t you think you’ve got a bit of a — a — saving people thing?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, JK Rowling

 

In a few weeks, I will be leaving the ambulance indefinitely.

I’m moving a couple states away to return to school, a Physician Assistant program that begins in June. And while I hope to try and work an occasional shift with a more local service, it remains to be seen whether that will be possible. So I’m now approaching a crossroads where, after approximately four years of wearing a patch on my shoulder (many different patches, to be sure), I might soon be giving it up forever.

It’s a strange sensation. It’s been pointed out that, unlike other professions — butcher and baker and candle-stick maker — EMS has a unique ability to dominate the lives of its men and women. How many doctors and nurses do you see with bumper stickers, tattoos, and T-shirts proudly advertising their trade? For many of us, you don’t work as an EMT or a paramedic, you are one; it’s part of our identity. (That’s why it can be so devastating when, through life or injury or the whimsy of employment, we suddenly find ourselves without a uniform to wear — many of us don’t know what to replace it with.) There are prominent physicians of many years who still include “NREMT-P” among their credentials. That’s like an attorney listing his high school oyster-shucking job on his CV.

There are probably many reasons for this. Buckman has observed that becoming an EMT is one of the fastest and easiest routes to “feeling important” — one quick class, and you can break traffic laws and tell everyone you’re a lifesaver. We like that, I’m sure. There’s a lot of ego in this business.

But I suspect that it also attracts people who embrace its fundamental nature. At the bottom, this job is about going to people in distress and helping them. And there is something in us — I think in everyone, although stronger in some — that wants to do that. It resonates with us as humans. (Of course, many other things resonate with humans, including sex and bacon and a great parking spot. But that’s all right. We’re complex creatures.)

The point is, this business allows us to play that role in a unique way. I believe that someday I may enjoy sitting in an office and treating patients who walk in the door, or waiting in an emergency department, or roaming a hospital floor. But that’s different; you are the all-knowing Man on the Mountain, and your patients come and form a line to beg for your wisdom. On the ambulance, people call for help, and we go to them. We take the trouble; we’re the humble servant. Yes, they have to ask, but once they do, we bring the noise, we say: “There, there. We’re here now. Everything’s going to be all right.” In the simplest, most fundamental template of this job, people have problems and they call us; we hear the call and we drive toward them; we walk into their home or business or any of the places that people go; we see a human being in distress; and we kneel beside them and ask, “How can I help?”

By coming to people in their time of need, we get closer to the heart of it all. By our willingness to kneel, we open ourselves for the dying eight-year-old to ask: “Mrs. Nurse, will you hold my hand? I’ve never died before and I’m scared.” And that’s special, and it’s not such a bad thing to elevate it, even though — as Thom Dick reminds us — no matter how much we love it, it won’t love us back.

No matter where I go from here, for me, EMS will always be about that feeling of kneeling beside someone. Or the experience of sitting on the ambulance bench, alone, just my own thoughts and a trusting and vulnerable patient.

That moment when I walk into the room, and all eyes turn to me.

The mental perk-up as the radio crackles, and the extra acuity that dials in as I recognize my call sign and my gears start turning.

Opening my mouth to give a report to a trauma bay filled with nameless people wearing scrubs.

Holding an old lady’s hand as we bounce down the road.

Touching a shoulder as I say good-bye.

Iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, titrated to my tiredness.

The smell, sound, and non-stop rumbling of a diesel engine.

Black shoe polish.

Sitting beside a partner and feeling like it’s the two of us against the world.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this job. But there’s something that’s right about it, too, and it’s something important. And that’s why we keep coming back.

I’ll be busy soon, and this site will have to take a back burner. Updates will come less frequently, and I can’t guarantee new scenarios or new posts or new Library material on any reliable schedule. But wherever I end up, I don’t plan to turn my back on it. Because even if you leave the ambulance, I’m not sure if you ever stop being an EMT.