A most traumatic day: May 3, 2013

By Jammie


The day started out normally enough: We woke up; I had my five minutes of being crotchety and grumpy in the morning until I ate something; we arrived late to our service project.


Maybe it was the weather (it had been raining), maybe everybody was feeling blah, but it was definitely an off-day for our team. Things seemed sloppy and disorganized, the pasta mushy, the people in the hall more aggressive and pushy.


The worst was yet to come.


I stationed myself by the sink and resumed my habitual position of dishwasher/dryer. With my back to the kitchen and everything else, I concentrated on cleaning. The repetitive motions and warm waters lulled me into a meditative state (read: I completely zoned out). Toward the end of the shift, I heard a loud crash behind me but didn’t turn around. J, one of our team members, a gruff, taciturn yet kindly older gentleman has a bad leg and stumps around the kitchen heavily. He also has an efficient yet forceful cleaning style; falling kitchen pots and pans are a normal occurrence. A minute or two later, I was still heavily involved in watching the towel make half-moon swipes on the plates (wax on, wax off…) when I happened to look down.


And froze.


Right beside me, one of the volunteers was on the ground, violently spasming. Another volunteer was cradling his head in his lap. A team member was on her cellphone, speaking in rapid, urgent Spanish. His torso bucked wildly, his face looked strained and red. His feet were trapped under the center kitchen island. The sound of the crashing pots had come from his feet and legs jerking up and kicking them.


Still the ambulance had not come.

The kitchen can be seen through a doorway in the room where food is served in the Mother Theresa hall that is part of the Basilica de San Jose in Flores, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

We dragged his body clear of the table. A shoe had come off. He continued to spasm wildly. Saliva started bubbling onto his lips and loud, raspy noises came from the back of his throat.  They turned him on his side and his face turned a bluish-purple.  All the while, his body kept making short, jerky movements.


The kitchen of the comedor at the Basilica de San Jose de Flores can be seen in the background of this photo.

Still the ambulance had not come.


I learned later that it is called a grand mal seizure, but big and bad don’t even begin to describe it. While it is undoubtedly horrible to go through, it is also terrible to behold. “Experiencing a seizure can be a scary experience for the person experiencing them – as well as the people observing it,” is the understatement of the year (found in this article about epilepsy on about.com). There’s also dread. Agitated confusion. Inability to understand what you are seeing. I felt like I was floating away but tethered there by some cord that infused me with prickly anxiety and tension. Frantically I tried to recall basic CPR and emergency training, but came up blank. Inane thoughts zipped through my head, like, “Why didn’t I just go to medical school?”


Still the ambulance had not come.


His seizure seemed to last so long, at least five minutes (though it felt like time had stopped and we were moving through cold Jell-o). The woman who had called the ambulance held his top arm out and kept repeating, “Tranquilo” (calm down) to him. Finally, when his tremors had mostly subsided, they started asking him questions, like “What’s your name?” (He looked at them but didn’t respond.) They asked him if he knew where he was — he didn’t answer. However, when they called out his name, he would look at that person. He tried to get up, but was making jerky, uncontrolled movements of his leg. His efforts to get up looked violent and wrong, so we told him to lay back down and relax. (“Tranquilo! Tranquilo!”)

And still the ambulance had not come.


After 10 minutes, the ambulance had not come. Fifteen — it had not come. Finally, 25 minutes later, the ambulance arrived. The EMTs sauntered in, in no apparent hurry. They helped him up and he was able to walk to the ambulance.


I later learned that Bjorn had run out and up the block to help find the ambulance, as there seemed to be confusion about to how to get there (although how this is possible, I don’t know. It’s the Basilica — Flores is built around it. ) He found some medical personnel and begged them to come help this man. However, they said they didn’t respond to emergencies and disappeared into another building.


What I learned that day: NEVER have a medical emergency in Buenos Aires. Not only are the ambulances abominably (and probably fatally) slow, but the concern of the medical personnel here is negligible and the care lackadaisical. I could not believe how long it took the ambulance to get to the most famous building in Flores and it infuriated me how the EMTs actually looked bored.


But I realized later that I also witnessed some of best acts of service I have ever seen: the team member who stayed down on the floor and kept the seizing man’s head in his lap the entire time; the woman on the phone who knew what to do; the other team member who hovered above, hands outstretched over his body while praying. Those three stayed by his side throughout the entire ordeal. It was heroic. And beautiful.


I wish I had told them this before they left, but I didn’t know how to say it in Spanish. And to be honest, it took me a while to figure out my emotions and what I wanted to say. I’m still not sure these are the right words to say, but they are the closest I’ve got so far:


Good job. Thank you for saving his life. God bless you.


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