HAINES — It got a little rough under the basket when the Haines Lady Glacier Bears played the Metlakatla Miss Chiefs Saturday night. A visiting player fell and didn’t get up. The refs stopped the game, and the players backed away while the coaches knelt beside the girl. They spoke quietly. She was crying. The gym got still.
I scanned the stands for volunteer EMTs. There were a handful at the game, and they were all paying attention, waiting for a nod from the coaches. When it came, they walked down quickly and with purpose. Dave Gross was on the phone, no doubt calling an ambulance. Vince Hansen knelt next to the girl. Alan Heinrich left his place at scorekeeper’s table and joined them on the court.
Soon we saw the red flash of the ambulance lights, and the rest of the crew came in, stomping and brushing off snow from the storm outside. Annie Boyce was the only woman among them. She has three daughters, and I knew she would be a comfort to the out-of-town player. It took some time to get the girl’s neck stabilized, lift her smoothly to the gurney and strap her in for the short ride to the clinic.
While they were doing this, one of my friends whispered, “This must be hard for you to watch.” She thought it would bring back bad memories of my accident, when the same ambulance crew responded after I was run over by a truck. But my memories of the EMTs are good. Their actions and encouragement are a big part of why I am able to climb into the stands and sit comfortably for the games. (Or as comfortably as anyone else on the hard wood bleachers.)
They were as careful and kind in handling me then as they are being with this girl now. My heart should have stopped with fear after hearing “spinal cord injury” and “Can you feel your feet?” in the same sentence, but something about the way they said it made me feel better.
Before church Sunday morning, a relieved Annie said the injured girl was OK, just bruised. She didn’t regret the time taken from the game or her evening at home to treat the player’s complaints seriously. Annie said that potential spinal cord injuries are among the hardest ambulance calls she goes on. So much is at stake if you mess up.
For me, with a major nerve frayed, a wrong move could have resulted in loss of the use of my legs.
Annie said the coaches and volunteers were right to assume the worst-case scenario. Then she said what a nice kid the player was and that she knew friends of Annie’s in Metlakatla. “I think that helped,” Annie said, “having that connection.”
Then Annie started the service. Our minister was away and had asked Annie to lead morning prayer.
When it came time for the sermon, Annie said she would be brief, and we smiled. This is the hardest for all of us. We are Episcopalians; we like priests to do the talking in church.
Annie is a mountaineer and chose to illuminate the gospel reading — the one about Jesus curing a crippled man by telling him to pick up his cot and walk away — by retelling another familiar story by John Muir about a little dog named Stickeen from Muir’s book “Travels in Alaska.”
The pair got into a bad spot on the wrong side of a crevasse on an unfamiliar glacier at dusk. The only way back to camp was to dig ice steps down the canyon wall to a narrow ice bridge above a terrible gap, then carve more steps up the other side. Muir climbed down and scooched across the 75-foot sliver of ice, scraping a 4-inch-wide flat strip for the dog to walk on. But, Muir wrote, Stickeen wouldn’t follow him and cried “as if his heart was broken.”
From the other side Muir encouraged his four-legged friend. “I told him that I must go, that he could come if he only tried.” The snow swirled, the wind blew, and the brave terrier, urged by Muir’s gentle voice, picked his way across to safety.
Annie said she thought the lesson of the day was that our job is to encourage friends and neighbors to do the things they think they cannot do — to notice when they are struggling but give them faith to cross that ice bridge or pick up that cot and walk away. And, I would have added (but Annie didn’t because EMTs don’t boast), to not be afraid when the ambulance comes, even if it’s for you.
Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines and is the author of “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.”