I have great respect for the people who work in emergency services. For a while, it looked as though this story would become obsolete. I’m afraid the situation may be even worse.
Mr. Bigelow would have preferred ignoring the pain in his chest and his difficulty breathing, not to mention the weird numb feeling along the side of his left arm. He always hated calling attention to himself. But now that he found it impossible to make himself comfortable—even throwing off his tweed sport coat, loosening his collar, and pacing around his living room—he turned on his phone and punched in a three-digit number.
After two rings a voice said, “Welcome to the new, automated 911 emergency telephone system, designed to better serve our community and its citizens. Please listen carefully to the following menu of options.”
Mr. Bigelow listened. “If you are calling from a touch-tone phone,” the voice said, “press 1. If you are calling from an old-fashioned, non-touch-tone phone, please hang up immediately and walk or run to the nearest hospital or fire station.”
Mr. Bigelow pressed 1. He was still in distress but a little relieved that he was about to get help.
“Please indicate the nature of your call,” the voice said. “If this is a police emergency, press 1. If you are in or near a burning building, press 2. If this is a trivial matter that can wait until normal business hours, such as a barking dog or a neighbor’s junk-filled front lawn, press 3. If this is a medical emergency, press 4.”
Mr. Bigelow pressed 4 eagerly.
“If you are a friend or a neighbor of the person having the medical emergency, press 1. If you are the spouse of the person having the medical emergency—and please remember that, in this state, a spouse can only be a human individual of the opposite sex—press 2. If you are the person experiencing the medical emergency, press 3.
Feeling considerably worse now, Mr. Bigelow pressed 3.
“If this is a minor complaint or possibly something psychosomatic or what is commonly referred to as ‘mind-over-matter,’ press 1. If this is the result of a self-inflicted wound, press 2. If this is a spiritual complaint, press 3.”
Mr. Bigelow, breathing with great difficulty, listened impatiently as the voice went on. “If this is the result of criminal activity, press 4 to return to the original menu and then press 1 for ‘police emergency.’ If this is a life-threatening illness or symptom, press 5.”
Finally! Holding his chest where the pain was the worst, he found the 5 with the index finger of his other hand and pressed it.
“If you are conscious, press 1.”
He pressed 1, wondering if this menu had a 2.
“Please indicate the symptoms you are experiencing.”
We’re getting there, Mr. Bigelow said to himself, flinching from the tight pain in his chest.
“If you have had sunstroke or heatstroke, which is most likely to occur in hot weather, press 1.” It was January, though, and he lived in upstate New York. “If it’s the winter and you broke something skiing or snowboarding, press 2. Do you have intense stomach pains due to food poisoning or over-indulging at an all-you-can-eat buffet? If so, press 3. Is there a sharp pain in the lower right side of your abdomen? If so, press 4. Do you require medical attention for an erection that has lasted 4 hours or longer? This is commonly known as ‘priapism.’ Nurse Thornton is waiting for your call and will be happy to assist you. Press 5. Are you the victim of drowning—no, in that case you wouldn’t be phoning us . . . .”
Mr. Bigelow sank heavily into a chair, trying to breathe.
“If you are experiencing shortness of breath, pain in the chest, and numbness in an extremity, press 6.”
He pressed 6. Some horrible urgency seemed to be lifting, now that he was on the verge of getting attention from qualified—and, hopefully, live—emergency personnel.
“If you have medical insurance, press 1.”
Alas, when his COBRA-funded insurance expired a month ago, he’d been unable to work out a way to get coverage.
“If you are covered by a federal, state, or local medical plan, press 2.”
Mr. Bigelow whimpered, “No.”
“If you have no insurance coverage of any kind, press 3.”
With what felt like his last bit of strength, he obeyed the voice and pressed 3.
“Chew one adult-strength aspirin tablet immediately,” the voice said. “Then repeat after me: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me . . . .’ ”
Mr. Bigelow was unconscious on the floor and was unable to follow these instructions.