Saturday, March 27, 2010

Canyons of Life

We stopped the squad in front of the huge, old wood framed house. No light was visible through the windows or on the porch. At first glance, the overgrown yard and the darkened windows gave the house a vacant appearance, causing me to wonder if we had the wrong address.

A solitary figure stood, waiting for us in the shadows with a cigarette in his hand. He waved us down as we stopped, confirming to us that we were at the right place. We grabbed the resuscitator and the trauma bag then walked up the concrete walkway, pausing to open the rusty gate.

The front door was already open, we hadn't noticed in the dark. As we climbed the two steps onto the porch, a very faint light was visible from inside the house, doing little to reveal what was inside the doorway. My partner decided to grab a hand light from the squad,  he being dissatisfied with the amount of light available. I waited for him, reluctant to go in alone.

I couldn't see the man who was waiting for us very well. The darkness of the night masked his features. He waited with me and told me that his mother had been ill for several days. She hadn't wanted him to call, but she had gotten worse and finally stopped protesting. He had used a neighbor's phone and had called.

My partner returned with the hand light and we entered the house. The beam from our light revealed a narrow path that wound its way through a canyon amid a mountain of debris. In what would have been a living room, piles of old magazines, boxes overflowing with old clothes and undermined junk that was literally indescribable, were piled up nearly to the ceiling.

As we made our way to the rear of the room, the canyon wyed, one fork going to a darkened doorway, the other to the rear of the house and the source of the weak light. We took the path to the right, it led us into the kitchen. The kitchen was piled high with garbage, food boxes and rotting food. A single light bulb cast a pall of dim light in the room, the dim rays quickly absorbed into the fetid garbage.

Although the amount of material  was not as bad as the previous room, the nature of it's contents made the odor nearly unbearable. What may have been an exit door was blocked by a table stacked high with debris. Our only option was to turn to the left and enter yet another room.  

There, the canyon resumed, the room large enough to support the mountains of useless waste and the canyon path that bisected it. The room was also large enough to have the canyon wye off again, one leg heading to a door and the other to the rear of the room. It was at that wye that we found our patient. A small clearing had been created and a stuffed chair was at the edge of it.

Another dim light bulb supplemented by our hand lights revealed an old woman, well into her eighties, seated in the chair. Tiny in stature, she was clad in filthy slacks and a sweater that was the same shade of dingy gray as her face and hands. Another man was present, presumably another son. Both of her sons appeared to be a darker shade of gray, one created by years of living in filth, with no bathing or hygiene.. The stench was overpowering.

The "clearing" was overcrowded. The chair, the second son and my partner filled it. The other son and I were stuck on the path. My partner started his assessment.and quickly determined that our patient was barely conscious and had no way of telling us what was wrong. The second son told us that our patient had not been to a doctor in years and had no medical issues that he was aware of.. He affirmed what the first son had said, that his mother had been ill for a few days and had progressively gotten worse until we were called.

It was at about this time, when we realized there was a roach problem in the room and that stationary targets were easy marks for curious insects. The darkness, the putrid small and the thriving insect community were too much,  We made the decision to grab our patient and head to the porch. We took our gear and headed out. As we exited the house, the ambulance was pulling up to the curb.

We told the medic of our situation and he agreed that the best action was to wait outside until we carried our patient out. We were concerned that the pathways were too narrow for the gurney and that a collision would knock down some of the canyon walls onto us or our patient.

My partner and I went back inside while the ambulance crew set up the gurney at the front stoop. We brought a light in with us and handed it to one of the sons. The patient weighed less than a hundred pounds and was easily "fore and afted" out of the clearing, down the canyon and through the kitchen. Another canyon path and we were out into fresh air. We only stumbled a few times, despite the obstacles in our way. Our patient was soon in the ambulance, where light, fresh air and a reduction of insects allowed for a proper assessment and the beginning of treatment.

Our patient was very ill and appeared to be dehydrated and malnourished among other things. The medic established IV access and killed a few roaches while he was at it.

We had to thoroughly inspect and clean our equipment and kill a few roaches as well. We also removed our bunker pants and shook out several more before getting back in the squad. I truly felt contaminated.

Back then, hoarding was not recognized as a mental illness. There were no hoarding task forces that could be called. The community that we protected didn't even have a code compliance department nor an elder neglect bureau

The memories of this call came to the surface when watching an episode of "Hoarders" on TV a few weeks ago Apparently, hoarding has come a long way. From absolutely nothing being known about it, to having it's own TV show. Remarkable.

Thanks for reading,


  1. Dear Captain,
    Oh, I have cold shivers even trying to comment.

    In Blue Blood, Edward Conlon went into the Housing police in NYC as a rookie and learned very quickly that you could not touch a wall, inside or outside, or else you would be contaminated by bugs. Every time I see someone lean against one in a police video, I think of that now.

    My mom bought a house from a hoarder. It made you want to puke every time you went inside, but it was dog poop and dirty clothes of a lifetime, not bugs. Gloves, shovels . . . ick.

    Anyway, how good you are. I would have wanted that extra flashlight too.

    Ann T.

  2. I knew the moment you walked into the first room and described the canyons that ROACHES would be involved in this story.

    I can only remember 2 calls like this and I'd carefully stored those memories in the furthest reaches of my mind not to be thought of again. Until I read this. UGH I hate ROACHES. I'm almost, hell, I AM phobic when it comes to them.

    One of the calls I ran they were streaming off the patient in the back of the truck. How one person could have that many on them was mind boggeling. Needless to say I made my partner stay with the patient in the back and I drove the unit.
    Makes me sick thinking of it again.
    I cant imagine living like that.

    And I'm not going to watch that show either for fear of seeing something like this.

    Now I got the heebiejeebies right before bed. Thanks for the post Capt. yuck.

  3. I am just glad there weren't any SNAKES or trains!

  4. Like you said, it's come a long way. While we've known about it, it's just beginning to come to light in the public. Several months ago, our city manager came out to our station for a ride along to "see what we're all about". While the shift was predictably slow (always happens when somebody important comes to ride, then we're slammed when they leave), we did run one of these calls in a nice neighborhood. The look on her face was priceless. Needless to say, she didn't partake in the chili when we got back.

  5. I'd take a snake over a roach ANYDAY! To each his own I guess. Ya wuss. lol

  6. Kept me reading this entire post- great writing.