Memories of a Firefighter’s Wife
By Verna Barber
Some events are unforgettable and some change not only your life but also the lives of family and friends. Such was the case when my husband, Herman, lost his right leg while on duty with the San Francisco Fire Department, on Saturday, June 18, 1966.

That morning, the phone rang with no hint of urgency. I picked up the receiver on the third ring and sang, “Hello.”

The woman’s voice sounded serious as she asked, “Am I speaking to Verna Barber, wife of Herman Barber?

“Yes. Yes you are.”

She identified herself as a nurse in the emergency room at San Francisco General Hospital.

Oh, dear God! Tell me quickly. What happened to my husband? Is he dead? How badly is he hurt?

The ER nurse told me that my husband had been in an accident and wanted me to come to the hospital. “I’ll leave immediately,” I heard myself respond.

I hung up the phone, stripped off my shorts, threw on the only summer dress that was not in the washing machine, and flew down the stairs to my car. Speeding was out of the question if I wanted to get to the hospital in one piece. I felt numb although my driving seemed calm and responsible as I approached the Golden Gate Bridge from the north.

Where is San Francisco General Hospital? I know the way. It’s on Potrero Boulevard. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve driven past that hospital millions of times. I can’t remember where it is!

I tried to control my panic as I followed the directions the toll taker gave me. Am I going the right way? Oh no! He sent me on a route through the city! I should have taken the freeway. I’d be there by now! Oh God, let me be in time!

Two policemen were waiting for me at the hospital. “Mrs. Barber?” Seeing my nod, one of them continued, “Your husband’s in Emergency Room 3. He’s waiting for you so go on in. We’ll tell you about the accident later.”

Herm lay on a gurney in the center of the room, and his look told me it was serious. “How bad is it?” I blurted out as I kissed him. I wouldn’t let the tears fall.

“I’m afraid I’m going to lose my leg.” He was surprisingly calm and alert.

“That doesn’t matter as long as you’re going to be okay.” I only wanted him to live. Please! Please let him live!

The chief orthopedic surgeon had waited for me to arrive before taking my husband into surgery. He escorted me to another room where he explained exactly what he expected to do. He had vascular and neuro surgeons standing by in case it was possible to save Herman’s right leg.

I felt detached from the present. Why is he talking to me so much? Why isn’t he taking care of my husband?

The doctor explained the operation in detail. Then he told me the surgery would take four to five hours and recommended that I leave the hospital for that time.

After again reassuring my husband that I loved him and would be waiting for him, I walked out of the ER and found the policemen waiting to talk to me. They told me two little boys wanted to see fire engines, so they set a small grass fire and pulled the nearest alarm. Herm was a truckman who stood, strapped to the ancient hook and ladder in front of the left rear fender. A motorist, accompanied by a small child, failed to pull over and stop when she heard the siren and horn. Her car was traveling in the same direction as the fire truck and made a left turn alongside it. The equipment responded slowly to its drivers and, avoiding a collision with the automobile, crashed into a traffic light post on an island in the middle of the street. The only casualties were my husband’s leg and the stoplight post.

A man on the truck had been a paramedic in Korea. He freed Herman from the safety strap, helped him to the ground, and used his own belt as a tourniquet. Although the accident took place a few blocks from a San Francisco emergency hospital, their vehicle was out on another call. It took the ambulance from the downtown hospital fortyfive minutes to arrive at the scene.

The doctor later explained that Herman must have seen the post coming toward him and put out his leg to protect himself The violence of the contact caused my husband’s leg to bend backward at the knee ... and sheared off the traffic light post. His action probably saved his life at the expense of his leg.

I thanked the policemen for waiting and telling me how the accident happened. My husband’s close friend, a fellow firefighter, arrived then and insisted on taking me to lunch during the four and one-half hour surgery. He stayed with me until Herman was brought out of the recovery room, and I was reassured by his healthy color. His first words to me were, “I guess there goes the skiing.” He knew his leg was gone although he could feel it. He was experiencing the beginning of the “phantom pain,” because his brain had memories of the missing nerve endings. Over the years, he felt the “phantom” less and less, although the discussion of it can still make it appear.

“Not necessarily,” was my answer to his comment. I had seen an amputee skier on one occasion. We had learned to ski three years previously and Herman loved it. When I left him in the Intensive Care Unit, I went to the nearest phone and called the Far West Ski Association. They told me there was a school for amputees at the Donner Summit ski area where we had our first lessons.

My husband accepted the loss of his leg, and that evening, he asked me to visit the firehouse where he was stationed and talk to the tillerman who had steered the rear wheels of the hook and ladder truck. He was concerned that the man needlessly blamed himself for the misfortune.

Firemen take responsibility for the well-being of their coworkers as well as for the general public. They depend on each other. The tillerman did believe that he caused the loss of my husband’s leg. Herman wanted his buddy to know that he didn’t blame him for the accident. That evening the young man and I talked until he tearfully agreed to believe he was innocent of any wrongdoing.

Before I left the hospital, the nurse had told me that my husband would be in the Intensive Care Unit for two to three weeks. My parents lived about ten minutes from San Francisco General Hospital so I went to their house after talking to Herm’s friend at the fire station and stayed overnight. When I saw Mom and Dad, I broke down and sobbed.

Early the next morning, I hurried back to the hospital. In the ICU, an empty, freshly made bed greeted me. Herman wasn’t there. I raced through the Unit, trying to find a nurse. When I finally saw one, I called out, “Where’s my husband? Why isn’t he here?”

Herm had been moved upstairs to the City employees’ men’s ward. He had done so well in the hours following his surgery that his doctor had him moved. Relief left me light-headed! I flew out of the elevator on the seventh floor, found my husband, threw my arms around him and kissed him.

Our son was out of contact until he arrived home on Sunday afternoon when I told him about his father’s accident and the loss of his leg. David was fourteen and the news hit him hard. He wanted to see his father right away, so we drove over to the City without waiting for dinner. He wanted to see for himself that his dad was not dying.

The amputation was actually a disarticulation of the joint and Herman’s orthopedist had made the educated decision not to cut off any of the thighbone. His stump was put in traction to hold the stretched skin and flesh down over the end of it. Two days later he received a transfusion. He had lost more blood than the doctors at first realized. He had an IV in his other arm to facilitate the injection of preventative antibiotics. His leg was throbbing. His elbow and shoulder hurt where they were bruised. Herm reacted badly to sleeping pills and sedatives and had asked the nurse to stop giving him anymore.

Gangrene set in, because of the obstructed blood flow in his leg. The tissue on the end of his stump died and decomposed. Massive doses of antibiotics fought the battle against the Black Death. Many days later, Herm was very worried. He wouldn’t believe the nurse on duty or the doctor that the gangrene had been halted and his stump was healing. He couldn’t see it for himself so he asked me to look at it for him. I was horrified, but I forced myself to look at it with the nurse.

I really don’t want to do this!

The lower part of his leg was gone. The entire end of his stump was an open wound with a thick layer of congealed body fluids covering it, and a thin layer of black gangrene over that. The horror no longer touched his flesh. I reassured him that he was healing.

I have to get out of here. I think I’m going to throw up. I’m NOT going to cry!

Our son and his friend met me at the end of the cable car line near Fisherman’s Wharf. David reminded me, “Mom, you said you’d take us to the Wax Museum.”

A promise is a promise, so off we went. A short way into the museum, patrons must choose to go through the Chamber of Horrors or around it. The boys didn’t want to miss anything. The first display we saw in the Chamber was that of a murderer who dismembered his victims. The wax figure was standing there holding a severed leg that was dripping fake blood. I started to laugh. It was either that or cry hysterically.

The City nurses could not go on strike for higher wages, so they decided to call in sick as an alternative. They sent patients home with instructions for their care and transferred others to area hospitals. A nurse taught me how to treat the yet unhealed injury on my husband’s stump. The open wound had to be treated with hot compresses twice a day. After the compresses, the raw crater was packed with iodoform (gauze impregnated with iodine and petroleum jelly). Then a new bandage covered the end of his stump.

I never thought I could be a nurse!

August 29th was my husband’s birthday and the day he came home from the hospital. When he was later fitted with his prosthesis, he asked the physical therapist how long it would be before he could walk without his crutches. The man grinned, “Knowing you, probably a couple of weeks.”

When Herman came home, he walked up and down our combined living room and dining area for four hours. Then he called me to see what he had achieved. No crutches. He was walking without support. In December of that same year, Herm relearned how to slalom using one ski and outriggers, which are metal crutches that fit around the arm below the elbow and have very short skis on the bottoms. He could not use two skis. He didn’t have a knee joint and his prosthesis would collapse if he bent the replacement knee. He claimed he skied better than he had on two legs. Herman proved to himself that he could be self-sufficient.

He was walking. He was skiing. He was alive!

Firefighters know their lives may be in danger each time they answer an alarm. Their loved ones learn to live with that knowledge. Worry and fear could have affected our lives for twenty years, but we lived proudly, rejoicing in my husband’s chosen profession. There was time enough to worry when something happened.

The catastrophe of September 11, 2001, brought back memories of the pain experienced by my husband and all those he touched. In retrospect, our trauma was minor in comparison to the agonies suffered by the World Trade Center victims and their families. My husband’s injuries were accidental. In New York City, the deaths of 300 firefighters were the results of premeditated terrorist activities. What those self-destructive activists do not understand about the American people is that firefighters, policemen, and all emergency workers will always do their jobs. All of us will join the battle against fear and devastation as we go on with our lives.

Sidebar #1:

If you hear a siren or emergency horn while you are driving, pull over to the side of the road and stop. If that is not possible, then stop and remain where you are.

Sidebar #2:

Drive with a window opened a little if you are listening to the radio or have your air conditioning unit turned on. Those accessories may drown out sirens and/or horns.

Sidebar #3:

Do not allow any child to play with matches or any other form of fire.


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