There are lots of paid professionals who are at the ready to care for victims of accident, injury, crime, fire, disaster, emergency needs of every stripe. The unsung heroes are the volunteer workers who trade their "free time" (what is "free time", really? that's a thought I will pick apart another day) evenings and weekends for training and working as unpaid members of ready team that will show up whenever a crisis alert is called.
I have some inside understanding of what is involved because many years ago I volunteered as a rape crisis counselor. I regularly answered hotline calls and attended sexual assault survivors during evidence exams at the hospital, almost invariably in the middle of the night. It is very difficult for an individual to report sexual assault and then to undergo the thorough medical examination that follows. Specially trained medical professionals conduct the examination as gently and compassionately as possible, but they nevertheless are on an evidence collection mission, the primary "scene of the crime" being the body of the individual reporting sexual assault. As in all stressful situations, it helps to have a caring support person standing by to answer questions or provide comfort and assistance as needed.
But this is not about my experience as a volunteer crisis worker.
This is about my experience this weekend as a firsthand witness and bystander at an emergency response scene on the Kern River.
Mr. Last has been a swift-water rescue volunteer with the Kern County Sheriff's Department as long as I have known him. I am accustomed to the time commitment required, the constant readiness for rapid response, the patient waiting for Mr. Last to return and report. I delight in the natural bonds that occur among volunteers, and among families of volunteers who share in the experience from the periphery.
A few family members this weekend were enroute to a gentle training "ride-along" when an emergency came over the radio and we found ourselves observers along Highway 178 above the Kern River as an actual rescue unfolded.
I watched as multiple agencies in the area arrived at the scene simultaneously. Coordination was swiftly established to develop and execute a plan to retrieve the young man who was clinging to a rock along a small waterfall in swift water. It was remarkable how quickly everyone took on a particular task: some controlled traffic, others scrambled down the canyon, some relayed communication, and others managed equipment and resources such as ropes and floats and even getting a boat down along the rocky rim into canyon and launched into the water.
Although the rescuers moved into place quickly, the rescue was not accomplished immediately. It was slow and careful. Several times during the course of the rescue I used water from a bottle to wet a bandana and cool myself. When my shins began to feel sunburnt I moved for a time into the shade cast by a fire engine.
Mr. Last and another rescuer ended up on a relatively flat boulder right next to the victim and several times I thought perhaps the rescuers were going to pull the young man up on the rock. It was clear the boat could not get close enough to the victim and also avoid the waterfall, but it looked like they might have been able to retrieve him and the rescuers from the rock with the boat.
It was harrowing to watch. My anxiety was high for the lives in peril: not only the young man, but also the brave volunteers. The rescuers had the advantage of equipment and training, but they had to go into the same peril that threatened the well-being of the young man they were rescuing.
At some point it occurred to me that I was experiencing something similar to the helplessness a father might experience attending the birth of his child. I've given birth exactly four times. And I have prayed anxiously for the well-being of everyone connected with the births of my three grandchildren. Curiously, I now found myself watching and praying for the safe deliverance of a young man from swift water, and with equal earnestness praying for the life of my beloved. I also prayed that they would all have an extra measure of strength and clarity.
I rejoiced and thanked God when the helicopter hoist at last drew the young man up to safety; it was a beautiful and dramatic rescue.
But I did not exhale entirely until Mr. Last and our friends were out of harm's way. It took a while but everything and everyone was eventually packed up and the River continued on its course. In fact, the River always continues on its course. Which is a good enough reason to hug one another close and to seek out and thank any volunteer we can find. Swift-water rescue or otherwise.