24 June 1906 
Brooklyn Standard Union

   The writer served for nearly four months as ambulance surgeon in one of 
our large hospitals in Greater New York, and during that time enjoyed many 
interesting experiences. Occasionally in the daily press the ambulance surgeon's 
life is described as a hard one, weighed down by scenes of woe and violence, 
joyless, hopeless; until the reader has a mental picture of a haggard, lined, 
prematurely aged face, peering out beneath a tarnished cap, and two trembling 
hands mechanically performing their task until the day when their owner may join 
the house staff again. Well, it is hard when the surgeon crawls into bed at 
midnight and "Old John" presently creeps softly in and shaking him, whispers 
"Doctor, the Fifty-seventh precinct, in a hurry," and his roommate turns over 
with a derisive grin, and rolls himself luxuriously in the blankets, for he has 
"been there." Hard the life is, and strenuous, yet I never spent happier days 
than when I rode behind "Babe," the big bay horse.

   There is a charm and uncertainty about the life that must appeal to any 
man with a spark of imagination in his cosmos -- one knows not whether at the 
end of the run is an Italian laborer with a gashed thumb, who will weep 
hysterically as a couple of sutures are placed, or a man mangled by machinery, 
with a limb torn off, or a gaping wound in the skull.


   Ambulance calls reach us from two sources, the police and the Bureau of 
Charities. In the hospital office hangs the "police wire," connecting us with 
the ambulance bureau at Police Headquarters. The officer on post at the scene of 
the accident notifies headquarters that an ambulance is needed, and 
headquarters  notifies the hospital, stating whether it is an ordinary call or a 
"hurry" the latter in case of a severe accident, for ambulance horses are not 
galloped needlessly to the relief of a sprained ankle or a child who has had a pin 
inadvertently inserted into its economy. The man on post also notifies the desk 
sergeant at his precinct house, who sends a special officer to the case, 
while the ambulance is on its way, and who receives the police copy of the slip 
which the surgeon must make out in duplicate and sign, carries one end of the 
stretcher, awes the populace and makes himself generally useful. The police 
invariably treat the surgeon with courtesy, but woe to the newly fledged doctor, 
who, puffed with pride and the glory of a new gold-lettered cap, struts into 
the precinct house and assumes the role of "chesty." SWENSON and MORIARTY have 
been on "the force" full twenty years and have seen untold generations of 
ambulance surgeons. And there are tricks in all trades!

   The other class of calls are what are known as "transfers." That is, the 
Bureau of Charities learns that a poor person is ill and needs hospital care; 
the proper hospital is called up and instructed to call for the patient, and 
this is done between the "rush hours" if possible when the danger of severe 
accidents is at a minimum.

   The ambulance stable is built like a fire house, with the ambulance facing 
the front, the harnesses suspended exactly as in the Fire Department, and the 
horses restrained in their stalls only by a chain across the front. As a call 
is received, the driver is notified  by phone and the surgeon, who is in his 
own, or the staff room, hears the "triple ring" that means a call. By the time 
he has run down the corridor and out to the stable the hitch is made, and he 
swings his bag into the "bus" and jumps in as the horse starts into the 
street. Two minutes is the time for a hitch on an ordinary call, but we have been 
half-way down the hospital block in fifty seconds on a "hurry," perhaps with one 
sleeve of the overcoat dangling and a piece of pie - hospital pie, too - 
strangling us, but "all there."


   Perhaps the most vivid recollection is that of the night when the gallery 
of a colored church fell, carrying a hundred people with it, and crushing the 
floors beneath its weight, while a Masonic funeral was in progress and the 
body of the edifice was crowded. Our hospital received the first call: "Hustle 
all the doctors you can spare to F-------street, the church has fallen in." The 
scene was a dramatic one. Across one end of the street were lined up the 
patrols from six precincts, leaving only room for the ambulance to pass. The street 
was jammed with a mob of terror-stricken negroes, shouting, praying, calling 
to absent friends or relatives; surging hither and yon, unmindful of the clubs 
and exhortations of the police, who tried in vain to establish order. Fire 
engines stood amidst the crowd, their smoke hanging above the heads of the 
people like a pall, and the light from their fires strong in the crazed faces 
nearest them. We leaped from the bus and made for the church where firemen and 
police were beginning the work of rescue. Of the first eight cases we reached, six 
were dead, crushed by fallen timbers. As the wounded were extricated they 
were taken to temporary hospitals established in nearby shops, and treated by the 
ambulance surgeons from seven hospitals, who now began to arrive. The clang 
of the ambulance gongs, sharp, incisive, imperative, could be heard above the 
roar of the crowd, the shouts of the police, and the whir of the engines as 
they opened a path through the street. Soon the most dangerously hurt were 
removed to the hospitals, the minor cases, treated on the premises (T.O.P. on the 
surgeon's slip), and as my last case was brought to the bus, the white suits of 
my companions came treading their way through the crowd, dirty, stained with 
blood and dust, but proud, for we had been first on the field, and had beaten 
our bitter rivals by some minutes. We paused to see the dead brought out in the 
patrol wagons, in which they were removed to the Morgue for identification. 
Police formed three sides of a square in front of the store, and the fifteen 
bodies were brought out on stretchers covered with coats. As each appeared the 
tumult broke out afresh, and the lines of police swayed to and fro as the 
people strove to see the face of the dead. All night the hospitals were besieged by 
negroes searching for their relatives or friends.

   It is an unwritten law among hospital surgeons that if one of their number 
brings in a corpse on the ambulance he must "put up" a good supper to the 
staff (classically a champagne supper, but the champagne is commonly labeled 
"Pabst") I have taken accident cases to the hospital which I knew were hopeless, 
fighting every yard of the way to keep the patient alive until we could get him 
to the operating room, mostly from a sense of duty, that every resource, 
however useless, might be exhausted, but partly, too, in fear that it might fall 
to my lot to give that supper. I recall one case, that of a workman who fell 
from the "L" structure, so fracturing his skull that it seemed impossible that 
he could live ten minutes, but we placed him in the bus and started back on the 
gallop. I braced myself against one side of the ambulance, keeping up 
artificial respiration with one knee on his chest, holding his tongue forward with 
forceps, and with the other hand alternating holding stimulants to his nose and 
freeing the air passages from blood clots. He died, as he was being taken into 
the operating room.

   But the day that I just missed giving that supper! The first call was to 
an Italian boy who had swallowed a button which lodged in his trachea. A 
physician who was called had wasted valuable time in trying to extract it with 
forceps, and the boy was weak and slowly choking to death on my arrival. I hurried 
him to the hospital, but he died as the first incision to open the trachea was 
made. The second case was a woman who had been ill of typhoid for three weeks 
without medical attendance, and who died fifteen minutes after her admission 
to the ward, and the third was a man suffering from a chronic heart lesion, 
who died as we put him on the receiving ward stretcher. These three "close 
calls" came in two hours.


   It was a "hurry" call over the slippery streets, dodging trolley cars, 
cutting corners, the rubber tires slewing us half across the street, past lighted 
windows where families were happily discussing to-morrow, with glimpses now 
and then of Christmas trees, to a little frame house in a poor street. There 
lay the father of the family, dead from a hemorrhage of the lungs; about him his 
frantic wife and two children. Nothing for me to do, but speak as gently as I 
could, and retire. On my way out I paused in the hall, and there was a girl 
of 11 trying to comfort two little tots of four or five years, telling them not 
to be frightened, that "papa" would be better soon," while the tears streamed 
down her own cheeks. I tell you that if those who weep at the pathos of the 
stage could make one day's rounds with an ambulance surgeon they would find 
plenty of cause for tears.

   But sometimes we strike a lighter vein; witness BRADY, picked up drunk 
with a broken leg. As the bus turned into the hospital gateway he raised himself 
on one elbow and asked, "An' how long d'ye think I'll have to be in here, 
doctor?" "I'm sure I don't know, BRADY. Why?" "Sure, I must get out and ittind to 
me religious doodies." said BRADY. Then there was Mrs. C----, the crazed 
Hebrew woman, who insisted that the surgeon was her husband and made violent love 
to him all the way to the observation ward. And two year old Margarita, who 
rambled in front of a trolley car, and at the end of a two-mile gallop was found 
calmly sucking an orange, unhurt, but occasionally uttering a lusty yell as an 
appropriate offering to the lacerated feelings of her immediate relatives, 
who were disposed about the room in various stages of collapse.

   I have tried to sketch a few characteristic events just as they occurred 
in my service. The public hears the gong, pauses for a moment in its vocation 
and sees the ambulance dash past or trot soberly on its way back to the 
hospital, but it cannot see the love of the surgeon for his work, nor know the sense 
of satisfaction that a well-treated case brings him; nor can it see the good 
fellowship around the staff mess table, nor the white-clothed forms that lounge 
beneath the lamp in the staff room of an evening when the pipe smoke rises to 
the ceiling and the "runs of the day are gone over again and discussed. A 
hard life, say you? Aye, but a good one.

Transcribed for the Brooklyn Information Pages by Mary Musco