HOW I FOUND MY RHYTHM WHEN THE MUSIC STOPPED

At a time in everyone’s life, we come to find ourselves in a situation where the music stops, and we must go on.  The unfortunate truth about life is that the unexpected will happen. Some of us learn from it, some of us change because of it and some of us find our life’s calling because of it. The latter was the case for me.  After our dad picked us up from middle school, we spent that afternoon like we had every afternoon that month. We went to the oncology unit at the hospital, where my brother was admitted.

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THE MAN IN A BLUE SARONG

I remember him. I remember the man in the dark blue sarong the same way I remember the lines on back of my own hand. He was hunched over next to a column on a dirty platform at a railway station in Calcutta, India in the middle of the harsh summer sun. His hands were withered, his fingers and toes looked like tiny nubs, and he was completely malnourished and alone. He had opaque blue eyes, as if fog had taken place of his irises and pupils.

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PATIENT “OWNERSHIP”

I studied insects in college; my favorite insects were the bees (I found them diligent and so helpful to humankind).  One of my favorite classes was about medical diseases caused by insects. My professors noticed my interest in the medical side of things and connected me with a professor who did clinical research. Our work focused on a clinical trial for children with intractable epilepsy and exposed me early on to patient care and patients.

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I learned many things during fire training. At the end of laborious discussions about convection currents and conifer combustibility, there is a simple principle to be found: Fire can move. The application from this principle is as follows: When fire decides to move, humans should get out of the way. Theoretically, I understood the application. However, as I looked up and saw a wall of fire closing in, every rational thought dropped out of my head. The knowledge my ancestors had endowed to me in genetic material— the same ancestors that outran their clawed predators— urged me to get a move on. I dropped my tool and began to sprint. The forty-pound pack bounced on my back and my open blisters throbbed in time. As I ran, my brain switched back on. I knew I should not be trying to outrun a grassland fire. I stopped and looked back. The flames had grown to my shoulder level. It seemed foolish to consider crossing through it, into the safety of the “black”— the already charred grass. I spotted my boss some distance off, flailing his arms and cursing at me. The heat felt so near. I turned and began running again. The fire was clearly gaining on me. I once again paused and considered the wisdom of my sprint. I was not brave enough to cross through the flames. For a third time, I turned and ran. Almost instantly, I saw the flight was futile. I stopped, swiveled around, and heard my boss’s string of expletives, punctuated by orders to get into the “black.” I stepped toward the flames and something deep inside me shuddered. Stepping into a fire wall felt distinctly incompatible with my desire to continue living. I closed my eyes and passed through. On the other side, I opened them and continued moving toward the cooler ground, aware that my boots were too warm, my face feverish, my hair singed. My boss finished expressing to me how he felt about my firefighting strategy and told me to take lunch.


On my piteous lunch break, I was just pulling my Meal-Ready-to-Eat out when the burn boss approached. He pulled a roll of duct tape out of his pack. I stood there as he ripped strips of tape and slapped them on the front of my hardhat. He finished; I removed it to see how I had been branded.


“What the hell were you thinking? Out there running zig-zags in the field! We’ll call you “Z” from now on.”


I looked at the duct tape “Z” plastered on the front of my hard hat and managed a half smile. All right, boss.


That was not my last fire, but thankfully was the last that earned me a nickname. I improved, but still I watched my crew mates and knew that I was not wired to fight fires until my toes molded into my fire boots. I learned a great deal about a great many things that season, but I lacked a passion for the work I did. On mornings especially lacking in motivation, I played a game. After I awoke, I would lay in my bed and perform a mental anatomical survey, methodically considering the state of each muscle in my body, starting with my neck and finishing with my toes. The game was lost when I discovered a body part that was not yet sore from the physical nature of our work. Upon losing the game, I was then required to climb out of bed and get dressed for our morning hike. I nearly won on several occasions.


Two days after the end of the fire season, I found myself onstage, slipping into a white coat held for me by a physician. Earlier that morning, I had gazed at it hanging in my closet. My new uniform was unnervingly white and devoid of smokiness. I looked down at my neat curls, my dress, my heels. In truth, I had not been this clean for quite some time. Though I had guessed on the size, I found that my white coat fit just right.


Classes began and I plunged into my studies. I learned the names of each of the muscles that used to fuel my morning game. I found that the practice of accumulating this knowledge strummed my heart strings— my chordae tendineae, if you will. Each afternoon, I camped in the library and worked through the day’s material. I found that I needed to set an alarm for any obligations later in the day. When I began to learn I would lose track of hours.


The knowledge that I will get to spend the rest of my life practicing medicine makes me giddy with anticipation. I know now that I am not an outstanding firefighter. I have come to terms with this fact. However, I do, in good faith, believe that I will be a fine doctor.


In some ways, the work of firefighting is comparable to that of doctoring. My faith leads me to believe that a fruit snack led to the fall that caused a need for both of these professions in the world. Nature is glorious, but its full glory is tainted by human and natural acts that hurt it. Forests catch on fire. Infestations ravage the trees and create hazards. Men must be trained to right these wrongs, and the work is hard. Similarly, the human body is not what it was originally made to be. Bodies catch disease. Cancers ravage its organs, causing pain and suffering. I am training to fight these wrongs. I am eager to be a part of this battle, even as I applaud the brave men in the woods who continue to fight separate battles.


There is much beauty in the world— so much to be probed and enjoyed. However, there is brokenness in every sector too. I have been given passions and gifts to work at the redemption of a single pocket of the brokenness. This work is doctoring. I am so pleased to be training for this work, because I find it enormously satisfying. In the years ahead, I look forward to working as a doctor and to taking hikes on my days off.  

I ran from my first fire. As a seasonal worker with the Forest Service, there were very few days between my fire boot fitting and the first time I trampled embers in them. I was trained to be part of a wildland fire hand crew. Hand crews serve a crude, but essential purpose. Forest fires often burn on difficult terrain. Machines cannot operate on the steep inclines or navigate the dense vegetation. Where machines are ineffective, hand crews hike in. With chainsaws and sharpened garden tools they attempt to take down trees, turnover soil, and establish a circumferential barrier around the blaze.


My training was complete. I had demonstrated I could safely fell trees, lay hose line, account for weather conditions, work with aircraft, estimate the burn rates of every native Rocky Mountain tree, and complied with all of OSHA’s standards—which went so far as to dictate the material of my underwear.


Our first fire consumed seven hundred acres. Upon arrival, we gathered in the charred space to await our marching orders. A breeze was driving the heat away from us, but already rivulets of sweat were forming under my hard hat, running down my fire-proof shirt, down my OSHA-approved underwear, and gathering in little pools in my fire boots. I looked out at the work ahead. Flames licked the horizon as far as I could see.


We took hourly weather readings. A crew member would measure wind, humidity, smoke dispersion, cloud cover, and other data that could help us anticipate the behavior of our fire.  

BY SARAH BUGG

The men who have been around for many seasons— whose fire boots are so worn-in that the leather perfectly molds each toe— know that sometimes it matters nothing how much meteorological, topographic, or horoscopic data you have on your fire. Fire is wily. Sometimes it just burns however it pleases. We were thankful this day that the wind was slight and consistently urged our fire one direction.


All morning we worked just ahead of the blaze, cutting at its flanks, reducing the fuel available up ahead. Little by little, it shrank.


Midafternoon, I worked on a finger of the fire that threatened to separate from the main body. With my head tucked and my tool furiously hacking at the grass, I worked to expose the nonorganic soil beneath, for which the flames have no taste. I heard an indistinct shouting from a ridge nearby. The “burn boss,” the overseer of the entire operation, was waving his arms and calling out to us. I felt the wave of heat wash over me just before the wall of flames entered my peripheral vision. The wind had shifted suddenly and directed the flame front on a new course, one that created a semicircle around me. It was rapidly closing in.   

SARAH BUGG

Sarah Bugg is completing her second year of medical school at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. She is a Lexington native and attended Centre College where she studied English. In her essay she writes about her experiences working with the Forest Service in Colorado after college.