My vacation came to an abrupt end a couple of nights ago, when, around 12:30 I was awoken by someone buzzing my apartment’s door incessantly. I figured it was just a drunk teenager, or someone trying to alert me that my car had been broken into for the Nth time. But it was something worse.
As I was starting back to bed, I heard a voice in the hallway crying out “Help! Help!” I ran out to see what it was, and found house guests of my downstairs neighbor in a panic; my neighbor was passed out in his bathtub, unconscious, and was starting to turn blue.
I’ve often wondered how I would remember what the emergency number in the Czech Republic is, and it isn’t 911. It’s 155 for the ambulance, and 112 for an English-speaker at the centralized 911 equivalent.
When you get a situation like this, you often wonder what could have happened to make the person unconscious, and what you have to do to get them up again. Did he OD? Was he drunk? Did he have a heart attack?
He was gasping for air, sort of how Squiggy, on the old TV show “Laverne and Shirley” would laugh. But his lips were starting to turn blue. And his eyes were rolled back into his head. The operator informed me that we would have to get him out of the bathtub and on to a flat surface. So we did.
He kept gasping, and I tried to figure out if I should start doing CPR, which I’ve only seen on TV. Luckily for us all, the ambulance arrived within five minutes of the call, but for me the time was infinitely stretched.
The paramedics arrived and noticed something that had escaped me entirely. “It’s carbon monoxide,” one said. “You can totally smell it.” I couldn’t, but followed their instructions to immediately open all windows and shut off the gas main.
When I asked if I was shutting it off correctly, three of the four young paramedics looked at me puzzled. “I don’t know,” one said. “Ty vole, I don’t know either,” said another.
This is how we all go, not in soft focus, surrounded by the ones we love, in comfortable surroundings, I thought. We go naked and cold, surrounded by people who are thinking less about you than about the ham sandwiches waiting for them back at the headquarters.
Finally, the head paramedic knew how to shut off the gas main, and knew how to revive the guy, hooking him up first to an IV feed, then to an oxygen tank. The other three paramedics discussed how to get him down the stairs and into the ambulance.
“He’s had a pretty heavy carbon monoxide poisoning,” the head guy finally told us, as he and his colleagues headed off to the hospital. “He should be OK if the doctors can get it out of his system in time.”
We hoped for the best, and I offered my neighbor’s house guests the only booze I had – a tiny bottle of slivovice – to calm their nerves.
In an effort to get help, the house guests ran out to the front door and rang everybody in our building. But nobody came to help. I thought that was odd, and sad, and made me wonder if we’re still waiting for the Czech equivalent of Kitty Genovese.
The next morning, one of my baba neighbors, who at last count had only one tooth, came upstairs to complain about the water stains on her ceiling. When we explained that maybe this isn’t the best time to be asking about such things, because the neighbor was still in the hospital, she replied, “well, I still want to know who’s going to clean this up. And he’s still too noisy after 10 pm.”
The cause of the carbon monoxide poisoning was a malfunctioning water heater. Unlike a natural gas leak, carbon monoxide has no odor. Of course, the landlords, in a classic cover-your-ass move, came in to replace it the next day. And when they did, they found the exhaust pipe completely clogged with debris and soot – no wonder the exhaust went straight into the small bathroom.
My neighbor got out of the hospital earlier today, and came up tonight to thank us for the help. “Just keep breathing,” I told him.