The cable-news countdown clock on the TV at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps was saying the big debate was 88 minutes away when a report of a man shot came over the scanner.
“Let’s go!” Chief Colin Raeburn said.
Just 20 miles and a whole other reality away from where the Long Island stage was set for the candidates, American greatness in the person of Raeburn and two other BSVAC members hurried to the ambulance outside. Raeburn took the wheel, EMT Jon Shalov hopped into the seat beside him and Deputy Chief Shameika Wright climbed in the back.
When the BSVAC started 28 years ago, it had been an ambulance corps that could not afford an ambulance and its charter members had dashed on foot through Brooklyn carrying their gear. It now has four ambulances, though it can only afford to pay insurance for the one that now sped toward the scene, siren wailing, lights flashing.
In minutes, the BSCAV arrived at a housing project courtyard that was filled with uniformed cops who had responded to the shooting. Wright, who is 29, just a year older than the BSVAC, grabbed her tech bag filled with whatever she might need that was not already in her fanny pack.
“Show time,” she said.
The accordion legs of the stretcher expanded as Wright and Shalov took it from the back. They wheeled it through the cops and saw that the man shot was in fact a teenage girl. She was on the ground, her head propped up by a friend.
The girl was conscious but frightened nearly to the point of incoherence as Wright helped ease her onto the stretcher and hoisted her into the back of the ambulance. A uniformed cop joined them. Wright was beside the girl, speaking gently.
“Where you shot, sweetie?” Wright asked.
The girl mumbled something about her legs and her stomach. Wright and Shalov checked her vital signs and began inspecting her for gunshot wounds as Raeburn sped toward Woodhull Medical Center, lights and siren going again.
“I’m going to have to cut your pants,” Wright told the girl.
Wright and Shalov checked her legs, the left and then the right.
“What’s your name?” Wright asked.
“Princess,” the girl said.
“How old are you?”
“When were you born?”
The girl said she was having problems breathing, but it seemed it might be more from fear than injury.
“We’re going to put you on oxygen, sweetie,” Wright said.
The girl appeared to breathe easier with the aid of an oxygen mask attached to a portable tank. Wright and Shalov had yet to find a bullet wound when the ambulance arrived at the hospital. The girl rolled partly onto her left side.
“My stomach hurts,” she said. “My stomach hurts.”
But she had no apparent wound to her abdomen as the BSVAC crew wheeled her from the back of the ambulance through Woodhull’s emergency entrance. They turned left toward the signs saying “Pediatrics.”
The waiting room for the pediatric emergency room was divided into two areas, both packed, a TV mounted on the wall of each, neither tuned to the pre-debate coverage. The BSVAC crew wheeled the girl on through the double doors into the triage area and then turned left into a treatment room.
“What’s your name?” a nurse asked the girl. “Do you know what year it is?”
The check for wounds continued and they saw a small hole in her buttock, trickling blood.
“Call trauma!” a voice called out.
The trauma team responded and called for a sonogram machine to see where the bullet might have gone.
“Any parents? Any guardian?” a nurse asked. “She have a phone?”
“She has a phone in her bag,” somebody said.
Three detectives from the 79th Precinct squad arrived. The BSVAC completed the paperwork and changed the sheet on the stretcher.
At 8:26 p.m., the BSVAC headed back out through the pediatric emergency waiting area. One of the TVs was tuned to a cartoon, the other to Dancing With the Stars. The friend who had cradled the wounded girl’s head stood by the double doors, on her cell phone.
“Princess got shot,” she was saying.
The crew arrived back at their base on Green Avenue just as the big debate was about to begin. The 76-year-old founder of the BSVAC, Commander James “Rocky” Robinson, was at his desk. Also present was his daughter, Deputy Commander Shanida Robinson. The cable news countdown clock on the TV said the debate was just minutes away.
“They’re doing their thing and we’re doing our thing,” the elder Robinson said.
On another wall was a photo of Robinson from decades past, when he was in the Army. He said he had been in an honor guard and had at one point served as a sentinel at the eternal flame that marks President John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington. He recalled a moment when the former first lady and her children visited.
Robinson was out of the army and back in Brooklyn on the day his 7-year-old niece was struck by a car. He dashed to the scene.
“I got on my knees and I’m hollering, ‘Somebody, please get an ambulance!’” he remembered.
When an ambulance did arrive, the attendants put the child in the back without administering emergency first aid.
“I’m pleading crying: ‘Baby please don’t die,’” Robinson recalled. “And she died.”
Robinson remembered that “something came over me” and led him to join the city’s Emergency Medical Service, where he eventually retired as a captain. While working there, he also founded the BSVAC ambulance corps, along with a fellow medic named Joe Perez in 1988.
Robinson and Perez were quite a sight in those early days. Robinson remembered, “Me and Joe came running through the streets of Bed-Stuy with no ambulance, oxygen on our backs, trauma kit in our hands, scanner to our ears. Everybody was laughing excerpt one; the person we got to.”
The BSVAC was deemed a point of light by the first President Bush and received accolades from a succession of mayors and governors. Various benefactors donated a total of four ambulances and the BSVAC was first on the scene when two New York City police officers were shot in December of 2014.
BSVAC was also the first there when a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo was hit in the head by a stray round during a pre-dawn West Indian Day celebration in 2015. Wright and Shanida Robinson were just instants away because they had spent the night in their ambulance by the event, anticipating trouble to come. They had called to 43-year-old Carey Gabney as they fought to keep him alive.
“Keep breathing! Keep breathing! We got you. We’re going to get you to the hospital, man. Just keep breathing!”
Wright and Robinson’s daughter kept Gabney alive, and he hung on for a week before he finally succumbed to his wound.
“I saw his wedding ring,” Shanida Robinson would remember. “That’s the thing that stood out for me.”
But Cuomo never offered even his thanks. And the accolades that did come over the years were seldom accompanied by money. The elder Robinson now keeps the BSVAC going with what he can muster.
“With a reverse mortgage on my home and my pension,” he said
His reward on Monday night was to hear happy news when his crew returned from aiding the shot 16-year-old named Princess.
“She’s stable,” Wright reported.
Robison nodded and looked toward the television, where the two candidates were about to step up to their podiums out on Long Island. He offered a pre-debate opinion of Trump as the moment arrived for the big debate.
“America is better than that,” he said.
Robinson watched the first minutes with the eye of somebody practiced in detecting stress. He noted that Trump’s hand was shaking when the candidate picked up a water glass.
“Nervous,” Robinson said.
Robinson offered an opinion on how Hillary Clinton was doing.
“She’s got him on the ropes,” he said.
A report of a car accident with injuries came over the scanner and the BCVAC crew was on the way, Raeburn again at the wheel. He had the radio set to the debate, but the words that some 80 million Americans were following were droned out by the siren if you were riding in the back.
Another ambulance had arrived at the scene first and the BSVAC was preparing to head back to the base, no siren going now, the debate audible on the news radio, but only for the moment before the scanner carried the report of an assault with injuries.
The debate was again drowned out by the siren as the ambulance raced to where a 20-year-old man in a grey sweatshirt was on his knees in the street, slumped forward with a significant head wound.
The ritual recommenced and the young man was soon on the stretcher and in the back of the ambulance, seemingly semi-conscious. Wright spoke gently as she wrapped a bandage around the bleeding wound.
“I got you, sweetie,” she said.
Shalov raised a penlight to check the pupil response.
“Can you open your eye, sweetie?” Wright asked.
Outside, a witness was telling police that the young man had been attacked on the street. The young man’s older bother arrived, out of breath, nearly frantic.
“That’s like my child,” he told a cop.
The brother climbed into the ambulance and ran a reassuring hand over the young man’s chest.
“What were you doing out here?” the brother asked.
The young man was soon at Kings County Hospital. The BSVAC finished the paperwork and was just heading back when there was a report on the scanner of a 1-year-old child with asthma.
The siren rose over the last of the debate. The BSVAC arrived to find a worried mother in front of her building with a 16-month-old girl in a stroller. Wright crouched down and was checking the child when a cop came up.
“Is the baby okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” Wright was glad to report.
Mother, baby, and stroller went in the ambulance. Wright and Shalov prepared a child-sized oxygen mask, but the child resisted it all the way to Interfaith hospital.
In the pediatrics area, a wall-mounted TV was tuned to The Late Show and a debate comedy bit by Stephen Colbert with Rob Lowe playing an undecided voter. Nobody so much as glanced at the screen.
The child had discovered that the oxygen mask coupling could come apart and go back together. She seemed content with her new toy, even giving herself some oxygen on her own while the medics and her mother kept a watchful eye.
A report of a male shot came over the scanner, but the BSVAC specializes in arriving in those first precious moments before anybody else gets there. That time would have passed before they would have been able to depart Interfaith and arrive at the scene.
Shalov finished the paperwork. Wright looked over at the child, who is just starting her life and would not even remember this trip to the hospital on the night of a great debate that could affect the lives of all the children in America, perhaps the world.
“Bye, precious,” Wright said. “Bye, beautiful.”