By Robert J. Lanz, LCSW
“The hope of all men,in the last analysis, is simply peace of mind.” – The Dalai Lama
Looking back, it would have been better for me if Harry hadn’t shown up so close to the start of my career. In those early, adventurous stages, you don’t want to experience things that create doubt about your future or inhibit your desire to continue along your chosen career path. Before Harry, I still looked forward to each day’s events as they unfolded. After Harry, it became difficult for me to maintain that fresh optimism. Give each day a chance, I used to tell myself, it’s likely to get better. That advice wasn’t hard to follow, because sometimes a day that started with grim death might end with saving a life. But it wasn’t the case on that particular day, a day on which a biker soaked his long hair and beard with gasoline and lit himself on fire. It can’t get worse than this, or so I thought at the time. After Harry the Torch, it had to get better. All I had to do was get past the smell. That and looking into those dying eyes.
Harry worked as a gardener, and that, in combination with some serious miscalculations—a truck crash, a brief skirmish with the police and a string of bizarre decisions—is what brought him to the death zone in our presence. For reasons we never found out, he was angry with his girlfriend and apparently wasn’t the kind of a guy who would sit with Oprah or Dr. Phil and try and talk it out. In retrospect, he was probably the kind of a guy who took great offense at the smallest slight only to become enraged. That is most likely what happened that day with Harry, and he got so angry he decided to kill someone. No one was ever sure if his plan was to kill himself, his girlfriend or both when he rammed her house with his aging Chevy truck full of gardener’s tools, leaving the vehicle parked in her kitchen. Maybe he was aiming at her, maybe he was aiming himself at the house. Probably, like most things of this nature, there will never be any clarity. There probably wasn’t much clarity for Harry either. Other than steering the truck, he didn’t appear to have put a lot of thought into the planning of the event.
Harry was still in the not-too-much-thought groove when the police arrived and found the house impaled by his truck and Harry yelling at the top of his lungs, running around the freshly clipped grass. When he saw the cops, he did what a lot of angry, irrational guys do. He grabbed the first destructive object handy, which happened to be a one-gallon can full of gasoline, and started threatening them with it. When he pulled out a Zippo lighter, they had to take his actions seriously.
As usually happens, a leader emerged during the crisis, and the calmest cop took a few steps forward in an attempt to dissuade Harry from doing anything harmful. Unfortunately, Harry was one of those guys who don’t respond to empathy while in the middle of a tantrum, and the cop’s gesture only worsened a rapidly deteriorating situation. Harry raised the gas can over his head and began to pour, quickly saturating his matted hair and beard. He now represented a serious threat, as it would take only a single spark from that Zippo to light Harry up like a tiki torch.
Everyone backed off. Harry was now in control, to some degree, of a cadre of armed police officers, and no one was sure what to do. Sensing this, he used the opportunity to exercise his newly-acquired power. With twisted thoughts running through his twisted mind, Harry started chasing cops around the yard.
Those who go into law enforcement are generally tough guys. They don’t back up and they don’t display fear. But a potentially incendiary human wasn’t something any of these cops had ever experienced, and the situation certainly wasn’t covered in the training manuals or protocols. There had been no special classes on how to handle a burning man with a bomb in his hand, and the normally aggressive blue-suits were running like sissies at a graveyard. Finally one of them, maybe the guy with the least tolerance for absurd activities, turned and stood his ground. The surprise change of events momentarily stunned Harry, who thought the situation was under his control. That’s how goofy Harry was. Soaked in gasoline, facing jail, and more likely, immolation, excruciating pain and disfigurement, he thought he had the situation under control.
The cop who had turned things around by facing Harry directly took advantage of Harry’s momentary confusion. He went for the tackle, surely thinking he would knock Harry to the ground and hold him there while disabling the lighter. He was almost right. He did knock Harry down and pin him to the ground, but Harry’s Zippo hand retained sufficient mobility to roll that little wheel against the flint, and it was enough to fire up both Harry and the cop. Harry, of course, his face and hair engulfed in flame, realized this immediately. It took the cop a little longer to understand the gravity of the situation. With facial hair ablaze and his arms pinned to his sides, Harry knew that he was in big trouble and started to scream. The cop, feeling the heat and hearing the screams, figured out what was going on and cut Harry loose. Harry took off like a wounded animal, hell bent on destroying the enemy, and the enemy was anyone wearing a blue uniform.
With the gas can still in his hand and the upper half of his body burning, Harry pursued the cops around the yard until a few of them stopped running around and approached their sergeant for advice.
“Save yourselves. What else can you do, shoot him?” was the only advice the sergeant could come up with in the crisis.
That’s when a neighbor ran out of his house with a blanket and caught Harry by surprise. The neighbor wrapped and rolled Harry until the flames and sparks were extinguished and he was only smoldering. The cops called the paramedics, handcuffed Harry to the gurney and brought him screaming to the hospital.
Most people ask me how I can stand the sight of all the blood we’re faced with in the ER. This question is usually triggered by their own experiences recoiling at the sight of their own blood, or the blood of a loved one following some minor trauma. The answer is, you get used to the sight of blood, but no one gives much thought to the assaults on the other senses that take place in the ER. The noise level is extreme and constant. I’ll be the first to admit that the combination of cops, paramedics, nurses and docs on a busy night contribute significantly to the cacophony. You get used to the noise. But nothing can prepare you for the smells involved in medical trauma, especially the smell of burnt flesh. I was about to experience that sensory assault first hand.
Harry was wrapped in gauze and soaked in sterile water to soothe his burns and cool him down, but judging from his screaming, it didn’t seem to be working. I left the room when the team peeled off the gauze to examine the extent of Harry’s burns. The sight was pretty overwhelming, and the normally curious crowd thinned when confronted with what was left of Harry’s skin.
“Give him as much morphine as he can take”, one of the docs yelled out to no one in particular. “Hey Bob, you better come over here and talk to this guy.”
While they were re-wrapping and soaking Harry, they loaded the morphine into a syringe and then stuck it into his IV. After a few moments, he stopped screaming, gave a small moan and relaxed. He appeared to be in a place he had been before, and welcomed the warm wave that surged through his body as the morphine found all the little nooks and crannies in his circulatory system. I was talking to the doc, trying to get a sense of what the future held for Harry.
“He’s got second and third degree burns over about sixty percent of his body. His nose hair is all burned out which means he inhaled a lot of bad fumes. He’ll probably get pneumonia and develop infections over his entire body and his throat will swell shut. He’s going to die for sure. That’s why I want you to talk to him, to see if there’s anything he wants to say. You know, last words and all that. We’ll have to intubate him pretty soon. Better try and take off his jewelry before he swells up. He might want to give that to his mother or someone. Otherwise they’ll have to cut it off later at the burn center. If he makes it that far.”
I looked over at Harry. He really didn’t look like Harry the Torch any more. Now he looked more like Harry the Mummy, all wrapped up, lying there quietly, shaking a little, with just his eyes and mouth exposed. That’s all I had to talk to, just his eyes and his mouth.
“Harry. I’m Bob. I’m the social worker. Do you want to call anybody and let them know you’re here?”
“No. Thanks though Bob. Not now,” he answered as if he weren’t dying.
“Well, they might have to put a tube in your throat to help you breathe and then you won’t be able to talk.”
“No, that’s all right, I don’t have anyone. Just my girlfriend. I’m pretty sure she knows I’m here. Say, could you take my rings off, Bob? My fingers are starting to swell.”
“Sure Harry. Let me glove up. I don’t want to get any germs on your skin.”
I gloved up, walked to the side of the bed and took Harry’s hand into mine. I gave the ring a little tug, but it was on pretty tight.
“Go ahead and give it a good pull Bob, it don’t hurt,” Harry offered.
I looked up at the crowd that had thinned even more. The few who remained looked back. I was talking to a dead guy like he was alive and the dead guy was the only one in the room that didn’t know it. I gave the ring a good solid pull and felt it come loose. Except that it wasn’t the ring that came loose, it was the skin on Harry’s hand. It pulled free like a glove coming off. Whoops! Here was a test for the new guy. What would he do now? Everyone was watching. I didn’t know if they had an idea of what might happen next. All I know is that my knees were shaking and my brow was sweating. If this was a test, I was about to fail.
“That’s working Bob. I can feel it coming off.”
I steadied myself by grabbing the bed rail. I took a deep breath.
“I don’t think so Harry. It’s stuck. I’m going to let it stay. They can take it off down at the burn center.”
I laid his hand back down on the bed, casually sliding the skin back into its original position.
“You’re sure there’s nobody else to call, Harry? This may be your last chance.”
I looked down at his eyes. They were empty. Maybe it was the morphine, maybe it was resignation. What comes next after driving your truck into your girlfriend’s kitchen, lighting yourself on fire and chasing the cops with a gasoline bomb? Where do you go from there? We all knew the answer, and maybe Harry did too.
“No. That’s all right Bob. I’m just going to close my eyes and rest a while.”
Right. Sorry I couldn’t do more to help you, Harry. We’re all sorry we couldn’t do more to help you, Harry. But you had already done too much to yourself.
I realized then that the emptiness and sense of loss were feelings I was going to have to get used to. They were with me almost every night for more than thirty years. Sometimes, as you shake your head in disbelief at the senseless things people do to themselves and others, all you can do is say goodbye.