Zipper Rescues and the Importance of Communication

By John Gilstrap

Fair warning:  This week’s post has very little to do with the craft of writing.  In fact, it’s sort of a one-off non sequitur.  I wrote it because I told these stories to some friends the other night, and they said, “You really should write those.”  Well, this was the only venue that came to mind, and really, it does have a strong message about the importance of effective communication.  So, here we go . . .

When I was 13 years old, I had to inform my mother that I had contracted gonorrhea.  But more on that later.

One lesson I learned through the fire and rescue service is the importance of detailed, explicit communication when dealing the the victims of mishaps.  As a medical provider with an important job to do, I occasionally lost track of how easily patients could be distracted more by perception than reality.

By way of background, EMT school trained us not just in overall emergency medical care, but also for some very specific rescue techniques.  For example, there is such a thing as a “zipper rescue”, which is prompted by a “zipper injury.”  This is a condition that in my experience applies exclusively to males who are in a hurry.  Consumption of alcohol is frequently a factor.  You’ve got the picture, right?  Whether you want to or not?  (I see you squirming over there!)

As you can imagine, patients who are suffering from this particular malady are often distraught, and always pretty bloody.  Our protocol for zipper rescues was pretty simple: You use a pair of scissor to cut the zipper out of the trousers to take the tension off of things, and then transport the patient to the ER, where doctors would take care of the more detailed work.  Honestly, you’d be shocked to know how many times I had to employ this technique in the field.  It helped to have a college in close proximity to the firehouse.

This brings me to my communication failure.  In this case, the patient was younger than usual–say, 12 or 13–and as far as I could tell, he was stone cold sober.  He’d just been rushing things a bit too much.  I assured him (and his mom) that this was something I was trained to take care of, and that soon he’d be feeling better.

Then he saw the scissors.

He, uh, jumped to the wrong conclusion.  So did Mom, actually, which I found a little startling.  Yeah, I kind of dropped the ball on that one, and no amount of backpedaling and explanation could stem the panic.  I put the scissors back in the aid box and we transported him as-is, trousers and all.  When the medical director asked me why I had violated the protocol, I explained.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a doctor laugh that hard.

Which brings me to my adolescent venereal disease.  And again, it comes down to garbled communication.

If you’ve ever been a young teen boy–or if you’ve had them in your life–you know that certain . . . obsessions kick in as the hormones hit.  Showers become longer and alone time becomes more important.  Are you with me?  Now remember, we’re talking about the early 1970s in a house where certain things were never discussed.  Never.  Those corners of life were giant voyages of discovery.

So, there I was in Mr. Binion’s English class when all the girls were herded out of the room and the school nurse came in with her film strip projector and a lecture on the perils of venereal disease–or, simply, VD.  Why this presentation was made in English class rather than, say, PE or Shop class, is a secret known only to the administration.

I’m confident that we probably learned important stuff that day, but the one detail that nailed me to my chair was this: One of the primary symptoms of gonorrhea is . . . wait for it . . . a milky white discharge from you-know-where.

Well, shit.  For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how or where I got infected, but I was INFECTED!  At the rate I was going, blindness and dementia couldn’t be more than a week or two away.  Days, maybe.  I needed a doctor, and I needed one, like, yesterday!

When I walked home from the bus that afternoon, Mom knew that something was wrong.  I tried denying it for a while, but ultimately, the tears came, and with them, the devastating news of my disease.

And I saw the look.  My mom’s eyes would flash when she was amused–almost literally–and that’s what I saw.  She tried to keep her poker face, presumably to save me from humiliation, but I knew then that I had somehow miscalculated.  Things weren’t as bad as they seemed.  That night, my dad and I had the most awkward conversation of my life.

Happy Holidays, everyone!  I’ll see you in the New Year.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

16 thoughts on “Zipper Rescues and the Importance of Communication

  1. John, effective communication is as important for writers as EMTs so your post IS relevant…and also hysterically funny. Thanks for a great laugh!

  2. Thanks for the morning grin, John. And Debbie’s right — communication IS critical for writers. Our group has a acronym: RWIM — Read What I Mean.
    And you brought back memories of elementary school when all the 6th grad girls were gathered in the auditorium to watch a different kind of video presentation.

  3. Shaking my head at this wonderful story.
    (Hey, wait, no, not… c’mon, wait a minute… what I mean is, etc., etc.)
    Enjoy the holidays, John.

  4. I have a similar story, John. As a young teenager growing up in the 1960s, I found myself walking down the sidewalk one day, daydreaming about God knows what while lazily holding a stickball bat out in front of me and letting it bounce along the sidewalk. Tap, tap, tap, the stickball bat was bouncing along the ground, when all of a sudden the tip of it got stuck in a sidewalk crack, halting its forward motion… but not mine. Well, I’ve never pole-vaulted before or since, but on that fateful day I was lifted up off the ground and into the air, perched four feet off the ground on the end of that stickball bat by my you know whats until momentum ran its course and I came back down to earth with the stickball bat behind me. Not sure if you get the picture, but I think I stuck the landing. After about three days of being in substantial pain I asked my mother what such pain meant… you know, for a friend. From there it went about the same as your experience. Happy Holidays!

  5. John –
    Great stories well told!
    As an ER doc for 25 years I share your professional experience with the zipper phenomenon and many other ”indelicate” predicaments guys suffer.
    Regarding your “disease” and perception – I actually did laugh out loud. I’m not sure kids today are afforded that kind of innocence. I can’t help but wonder about the laughs your parents must have shared privately after resolving your worry.
    Thanks and wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season!

  6. I have no words.

    Except to say you brought back memories of those awkward conversations from my childhood, i.e. my older brother by 13 months asking me what in tarnation THAT was…pointing to an item left in the communal bathroom. I’ll leave it to your imagination. And, when I was 13, my younger brother by 10 years entering our living room, peopled by some friends of my parents, wearing one of those highly mysterious (to the boys, anyway) chest protectors girls and women wear under their clothing. He sashayed into the room like he was walking a runway. My entire life evaporated before my eyes.

    I won’t go into the awkwardness of rearing a boy and two girls. I, too, was a child in an era when “those things” were only discussed by way of raised eyebrows and pursed lips; I had absolutely no idea how to talk to my kids about “those things” except in the barest of non-committal sentence fragments. They do much better with their own kids, thank the good Lord.

    Thanks for bringing a grin to my face and a sigh of relief that those days are forever gone…

  7. Airplane school drilled into us the importance of clear communication and to avoid certain words. When I agree with you I say “Correct” not “Right”, “Cheer up” sounds entirely to close to “Gear up” and that can be a bad thing at the wrong time.

    And in the IT world there is a clear and distinct difference between oh, the letter after P and zero, the number. That is why your password doesn’t work.

  8. As the father of high schoolers those lessons are taught in coed classrooms today. Thankfully my daughters’ school teaches well beyond the state mandated “wishful thinking” version of Sex Ed. It is what you need to do when there are over a dozen mothers in the high school.

    Now the bone head principal has for two years now tried to teach a women only dress modestly lesson. He is used to a different kind of student. His first 30 minute lesson required four hours over two days, letters home and a visit from the superintendent. At the end of the day he had new vocabulary words to learn. Slut shaming, rape culture, misogyny, and my favorite, Title IX complaint.

  9. Well, John, a few years back I was the one who taught those abstinence classes–that’s what we called them. It was a three-day program and usually taught to 7th and 8th graders. It was always amusing to observe the young men the first two day when the discussion focused more on dating relationships and the choices young people made.

    But Day 3…that was the day many young men in the classroom really squirmed. One or two kids actually passed out once. But they left the class with a healthy respect for the STDs of the day, which unfortunately are the same as they were in your day, but with a few added ones that are potentially life-threatening.

    Thanks for a good laugh.

    • There’s an old story from my university about a documentary that included on-camera child birth which was shown at the Student Union. Lots of guys went because they heard about the naked lady parts. Supposedly, the number of guys looking for sex took a drastic dive for a few weeks afterwards.

      • I was 23 years old when I delivered my first baby. It looked very little like the training videos, which, by the way, make no mention of how friggin’ slippery those critters are when they make their first appearance in the world. The O.B. kit only had one glove and one umbilical clip. I used a shoelace for the second clip. It was very late/very early and snowing outside.

        When the baby started to crown in a big way, my driver leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Watch your breathing, John. You’re hyperventilating.”

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