I advocated for my mom one last time after she died.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never gone in much for taking up “causes.” I usually find that the nuances of an issue are lost when it’s reduced to talking points and slogans. Or maybe it’s the attorney in me, who finds it too tempting to argue all sides, making it difficult to commit to one point of view.
But once, I was an activist for a situation that was personal as well as public, a problem impinging directly both on my duties as a daughter to my mom, and on the community at large. Six years later, I thought my role in the fight had ended, as surely as my mother’s life had ended. I was wrong.
I live in a city with a peculiar geography. It’s long and thin, 10 miles from north to south, with the vast majority of the residents and the commercial district in the southern end. My small neighborhood is at the very northern tip of the city, bordered on all sides by another town.
Twice, in 2006 and 2010, I had to call an ambulance for my elderly mother, who, both times, was staying with my family during recuperation from major illnesses. Both times, she experienced life-threatening cardiac episodes, requiring immediate transport to the closest hospital. And both times, as I watched her suffer, the ambulance slowly made its way nearly 10 miles from the south end of the city to my house—once, taking over 15 minutes, the second time arriving 21 minutes after I called 911.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Because in the town that borders ours, an ambulance was stationed approximately two blocks from my house, but was not permitted to respond due to the municipal rules governing emergency services.
Thank God, my mother survived both times, but barely. All of a sudden, I found myself thrust into the midst of a debate about public safety, but also about politics, money, and unions. I became the human face for a cause–improved ambulance service–organizing meetings with the mayor, the city manager, my representative on the city counsel and in the State Assembly, the director of ambulance services for my city and for the bordering town, and speaking out at community gatherings on the issue.
But it was so much more than that. For those four and half years, this was a way that I could personally fight for my mother. She was a very private person, and she didn’t want to be the center of attention or have her medical conditions and situations bandied about in public. So, although on a number of occasions I considered either going to the press or writing an article myself, I refrained.
Every email I wrote or phone call I made about allowing the neighboring town to respond to our emergencies was pitched, certainly, as something that would benefit my whole neighborhood. But my persistence was fueled by a daughter’s love, and an understanding that while I might be able to impact how fast the ambulance would come, my devotion could not make my mother well, or stave off the day when she would no longer need an ambulance at all.
The last time my mother fell ill in 2010, a week before her death, I did not call 911 for an ambulance because I knew my mother did not have the time to wait for them to arrive. Instead, my husband and I carried my mother out of our house and took her ourselves in our car to the hospital, even though we knew we were taking a chance without oxygen and other treatment she might need immediately. The alternative of waiting for an ambulance to come from the south end was just too great a risk.
My mother passed away during that last hospitalization in 2010.
I am not proud of it, but in the aftermath of her death, I let the cause go. I knew that in response to my efforts and the efforts of many others, a number of positive changes had been made over the ensuing years, including the initiation of a study comparing ambulance response times from the south end of the city to my neighborhood as compared with response times from the bordering town. It is a lame excuse, but I felt comfortable leaving the fight to others—others who had loved ones more likely to need the service.
So when I received a call, a couple of weeks ago, some six and half years after I lost my mother, asking me to tell her story at a hearing before a county-wide Emergency Services board, it threw me for an emotional loop. It felt like a chance to protect my mother one last time, an opportunity to honor her memory by helping others. As much as I didn’t want to go back to relive those frightening experiences, I couldn’t say no.
I wrote out my statement, knowing that if I tried to speak off the cuff I would not get through it. I spoke for maybe two minutes, not more. When it was all over, I returned to my seat, put my head on my husband’s shoulder, and cried. As I left the hall, one of the paramedics who had attended in support of the proposal approached me. “I didn’t know your mother,” he said, “but she would have been proud of you.”
Although I miss her terribly, I am relieved that my mother’s days of sickness and traveling in ambulances are over. I once read a passage from a book by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin that instructed that the appropriate response when you hear an ambulance siren is not to feel annoyed at whatever traffic consequence it may have for you, but instead to say a prayer that the ambulance will get where it is going in time to help. I always pray, but sometimes we also have to take concrete action. I don’t know whether the proposal will be successful, but playing my part in pushing for change gave me some closure I didn’t know I needed.