Never treat a burn with butter! (Life of a first responder before the provincial ambulance service).

The father met me at the door, his face was white with fear. He was at the same time glad to have help and disappointed I was a police officer and not driving an ambulance. He quickly lead me into the kitchen (he didn’t need to, I could have found it because of the screams)! When I got inside the kitchen I found chaos.

The mother held her in her arms. The little girl was screaming. She was about 4 years old. She had burned about 60% of her body. A kettle of boiling water had tipped over and poured on her. Her clothes had been saturated with the scalding water. The parents and grandparents were frantic. The grandmother had sprung into action. She had stripped the wet clothes from her then she grabbed the butter from the table and smeared it all over the burns. Now the little girl was in shock and the burns were, in effect, frying under the butter. All of this had begun about 15 minutes before. The burns had been ‘frying’ under the butter for about 12 minutes.

How did I get here?

It was a wet Sunday afternoon in September 1969. It had been pouring all day. This was the first rain for many weeks. Roads were slick with the rain on the oily surface. I was working alone in the Centre area driving a marked patrol car, a Rambler Ambassador (probably the worst police vehicle ever designed). The big motor siren on the roof was so wet it was shorting out. At the best of times the car’s electrical system could barely keep up with the drain of the siren and the big revolving red light up on the roof. The sputtering engine, shorting siren and slowly turning light would have been funny if it was not so frustrating. We did not have any spare vehicles and attempts to fix the short at a service station had been a failure.

The morning had involved several motor vehicle accidents but nothing serious.

About 2:00 pm Saanich Fire responded to a building fire in the west area. This call took Engine 1 and the ambulance crew (Firefighters who were highly trained paramedics – the only ones in BC at the time) from number one hall as well as the engine from number two hall at Elk Lake. The other engine company, #3 from Shelbourne Street, was moving to number one hall to cover. The West car responded to the building fire.

About 2:10 pm the East car was dispatched to a motor vehicle accident in the south east.

At about 2:15 the ambulance call came in. A small child had been badly burned with scalding water and the family was hysterical. The location was a home in the Gordon Head area, the north east. But there was no ambulance available. Engine three was about three quarters of the way to number one hall. They were turned around and sent back to the east to cover the call and so was I, although I was not told that the engine was responding and not an ambulance.

I had a long way to go. So did Engine 3. In those days there were few roads running west to east across the municipality. McKenzie Avenue had not yet been built. Driving conditions were terrible because of the heavy rain and slick roads. The revolving light barely turned on the roof and the siren continued to cut in and out. About half way there, on Cedar Hill Cross Road, an oncoming driver pulled out and made a left turn right in front of me. I managed to miss him after swerving onto the shoulder and nearly sliding into the ditch. About seven minutes later I made it to the house well ahead of Engine 3.

So I found myself with a badly burned 4 year old who had been smeared with butter, in shock, needing immediate medical treatment. Four hysterical adults stood or sat there looking at me to help. I thought the ambulance was only a few minutes behind me. I had to convince the parents and grandparents that the child needed some immediate attention. I got some towels, quickly soaked them in cold water and removed as much of the butter as possible. Then I wrapped her in a clean, dry bath towel. Where was that ambulance? We did not have portable radios in those days, and cell phones did not exist either. I was about to telephone our dispatcher.

At that moment help arrived: three firefighters in Engine 3. I was so glad to see those guys — help was here at last, but then it hit me. No ambulance! It turned out that the ambulance – the only ambulance the fire department had – was tied up at the building fire. There was to be no ambulance.

We had four choices: A fire engine, the police car, the family car or try to find a private ambulance. We went with the obvious choice. The mother and I in the police car with the little girl bundled on her mother’s lap. The father to follow in the family car with the grandparents.

Thus began another run in the downpour. The siren completely died after a mile or so. The red light continued to turn slowly and the motor sputtered. I remember that my horn did work, and it helped. But we did not stall. We did not slide and we had a safe run. All the way down Shelbourne Street to Bay Street, then Bay to Richmond and Richmond to the Royal Jubilee Hospital. I carried her in to Emergency with the mother right behind me. The nurse led me directly to a treatment area. There were some words not to be repeated about the butter as the team came together.

The Emergency room staff got to work, removed the rest of the butter and gave her an injection to control the pain.  And they dealt with the family as they arrived. The crisis was past. The long recovery would begin. I often wonder how that little girl got on. She would be in her mid-forties now. How much plastic surgery? How are the scars? I felt so badly for the grandmother who thought she was doing the right thing with the butter. She had always been told to slap butter on burns. I had had to be very firm with her. There was no time to have a discussion. No time to explain that you should never put butter on a new burn. No time to explain that cooling the burn is the most critical first aid and that time is critical in reducing the damage.

When I think about this call and many others like it, I realize how much has improved in the last decades. What an amazing ambulance service we now have in British Columbia. We are blessed with Paramedics who are well trained, passionate about their work and who provide a high standard of care across the province. British Columbians deserve no less.

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