In college I worked as an EMT. Being an EMT is an insane, back-breaking job. My 24-hour shifts always seemed to involve extricating the runner-up of My 600-lb Life from a twisted car wreck, or rushing to an out-of-hospital birth only to find a meth addict hallucinating being pregnant. Thankfully I worked out in the country. In the city, they call EMTs “cab-ulance” drivers because welfare queens call 911, not Uber, when they want to go to the ER for free food and an Oxycontin prescription.
However, out in the country some EMTs don’t get paid. I was one of those volunteers. We were also short-staffed, so we worked two-man teams instead of the typical three. One EMT drove the ambulance while the other tended to the patient in the back. My partner had blown out his back, so he always drove while I did the heavy lifting.
One shift in January we missed breakfast because of a stroke alert call right at 7am, when our shift started. That meant a 45-minute drive to the stroke center in the city, followed by 30 minutes of judgmental questioning by the entitled academic ER doctor about why we didn’t give this or that drug, then the 45-minute drive home. By the time we made it back to the station it was near 10am and I was starving. My partner and I argued about what to do for breakfast. I wanted to cook eggs and bacon at the station, he wanted to go to the local diner for pancakes. I wondered if this was what marriage was like. While I was explaining to him that toxic vegetable oils were the reason his back gave out, another call came in.
This call was a potential trauma alert. All dispatch told us was a fall down stairs, older man, non-responsive. We sped over to the rickety shotgun houses in the older part of town. Outside in the snowy yard a young Hispanic woman in baby blue scrubs who must’ve been a home health aid was crying hysterically. All we could get out of her was, “He fell! Se cayó! He’s on blood thinners.” The yard hadn’t been shoveled so we had to carry everything in by hand instead of wheeling in the stretcher. My stomach was growling as I grabbed equipment and headed inside the house.
Just cracking open the door I could smell it. The wonderful, unmistakable aroma of freshly baked cookies, just like my mom would make every Sunday afternoon after church. It was that vanilla and cinnamon mixed with raw egg and sugar deliciousness that always had me stealing handfuls of cookie dough whenever my mom looked away. It was such a powerful wave of aromatic nostalgia I stopped in my tracks. I was so hungry for a moment I completely forgot being on shift with a patient. All I could think of was cookies.
I snapped out of my daydream when I heard moaning and saw a thin old man crumbled up at the bottom of the stairs in front of me. We laid him out flat as best we could in the narrow hall and started our assessment. He smelled like cookies too. My partner must’ve noticed because he asked, “Hey sir! What’s your name? Are you baking cookies?” The man mumbled and moaned. His vitals were stable but he looked beat up, with a dark bruise on one cheek, swelling on his scalp, and what looked like a broken right forearm. We secured him to the portable stretcher. We were going to have to lift and carry him ourselves into the back of the ambulance.
My partner looked at me and said, “OK here’s the deal. We get him in the back of the truck. I’ll stay with him while you run back in and pick up the rest of the equipment. When you do, I want you to go into the kitchen and find those cookies and grab some of ‘em.” I nodded. This was food we were not going to bicker about. We carefully trudged through the snow with the patient on the stretcher and slid him into the back of the ambulance. I ran back in the house and took a left into what looked like the kitchen. The home health aid followed me inside. Inside the kitchen the smell was overwhelmingly vanilla. On the counter there were 5 or 6 of those small vanilla extract bottles you buy at the grocery store. The oven wasn’t on and inside the racks were empty, no cookies. I dropped all pretense and asked the home health aid, “Were you baking cookies?” She shook her head and made a drinking motion tilting her hand to her mouth. I didn’t understand. She pointed to the trash can. I opened the lid and inside were dozens of vanilla extract bottles. “Le gusta beber.”
I had a crazy friend in high school who taught me that vanilla extract is 40% alcohol, made by soaking vanilla beans in vodka. I’d seen people in ER waiting rooms drink hand sanitizer out of the dispenser, but this took the award for creative alcoholism. My amazement faded as my stomach began growling again. I jogged outside with our equipment and saw my partner clutching his lower back and looking pissed off. “No cookies. He was drinking vanilla extract. Tell the trauma center he’s got alcohol on board.” Being drunk, falling from an unknown height down stairs, and on blood thinners - this patient was now a trauma alert. We were going to have to drive 45 minutes back to the city ER again. I stayed with the old man in the back while my partner up front blared the sirens and took off driving towards the highway. “F***ing vanilla extract! God damn I want some cookies!”