The Park Patrol

Planning for trouble: skinned knees, crashing cyclists, weapons of mass destruction

The all-volunteer Central Park Medical Unit holds its meetings at the Steven Wise Free Synagogue on West 68th Street, past security guards checking bags, in a classroom that normally contains preschoolers and books with titles as “A Young Person’s History of Israel”, but which one night a month is filled with a stretcher, a spinal-injury board, several stethoscopes, and a rugged crowd with a taste for hiking boots.

Code Orange hung over New York like a cold funk when the medical unit met in February, so Rafael Castellanos, the senior officer, brought the gathering to order, or something like it, on a light note: The park’s 150th anniversary arrives this spring, and with it comes the opportunity to get paid working standby at the celebrations. Money — along with gear, food, proper procedure and any of the thousands of physical calamities that can strike the unfortunate among the park’s 20-odd million annual visitors is a favorite subject of the perennially impoverished and permanently loquacious ambulance corps. To broach it, or anything else, is to invite comment from the ranks.

Someone mentions that they’ve set up a PayPal account on eBay so collectibles can be auctioned off as a benefit to the unit.

“And the Subway store on 72nd Street said that if you show up on Saturdays or Sundays in uniform, you’ll get a 10 to 15 percent discount on sandwiches.”

“Don’t we skate free at Wollman Rink?”

“Skating and equipment is free, and food is 30 percent off, because of all the work we do there.” Ice rinks keep ambulances busy.

Talk of freebies made Castellanos uncomfortable.

“Remember, there’s a fine line between good will and extortion,” he said. “Don’t try getting into SummerStage or Shakespeare in the Park by saying you’re a paramedic. If anyone wants to go, maybe we can do a group trip.”

Castellanos is sensitive about maintaining the unit’s reputation because he’s been present since its creation in 1975, when, at the age of 15, he and a bunch of other kids began riding around the park on bicycles with first aid kits and radios. The unit now has two ambulances, a tackle room in the Calvert Vaux stable-turned-Central Park Precinct, and about 125 members. The members constitute a Manhattan melange of ethnicities, religions and (besides the heavy representation of premed students) of professions — teachers and professors, musicians and men’s magazine writers, businessmen and the odd war correspondent. Each volunteer will have already passed the state requirements for EMT certification, but they also give up what free time no one has in New York to train for the unit’s own standards: to reach the victim of an accident anywhere in the Park within three minutes of a call, and to deliver the patient free of charge to the hospital of his or her choice (when appropriate). And though they are volunteers, the unit aims to provide the same professional care that they themselves would want if they or a family member cracked a skull rollerblading, had a heart attack jogging or lost their fingers to an ice skate.

“I hear we had a partial submersion this weekend,” continued Castellanos, who, at 42, owns an insurance business in Midtown and looks like a scrappy park urchin-turned-prosperous scoutmaster. “The ambulances are now equipped with life rings, so no one should ever go into the water. People swim out there, put their foot down, and the muck is like cement. You need someone in a scuba outfit to come under you.”

“Could we get a class on throwing the buoy?” asked Jeff Weintraub, a Special Ed teacher. “You throw it out there and hit someone on the head, and then you have a whole other problem.”

No one else seemed keen on a buoy class, but Andrew Skomorowsky, by day a paramedic trainer at Bellevue, wanted to make sure everyone was up to speed on the latest fire department directives about weapons of mass destruction.

“The long and short of it is: Get the hell out of Dodge,” he said. Only the FDNY is authorized to respond to a terrorist attack. “In case of a mass casualty event, we have no business being there, unless we trip over it.”

That said, far be it from the Central Park Medical Unit not to prepare for just such a situation.

“The fire department has issued a specific protocol about cyanide,” said Skomorowsky, indicating that the powers that be must know something we don’t about who has what WMD. “Anyone know how you die from cyanide?”

The answers come in bits and pieces:

“It blocks oxygen from the last pathway…”

“…ATP synthesis…”

“It smells like almonds.”

“I know it smells like almonds,” Skomorowsky said. “I’ve been exposed to cyanide, in a chemistry class at Hunter College. Basically, it prevents your body from using oxygen.”

Next: “Where’s the best place to park the ambulance, upwind or downwind of a disaster?” Skomorowsky asked.

“Connecticut sounds good.”

“I always get confused with upwind and downwind,” said Weintraub.

“Put it this way,” replied Skomorowsky. “If the wind is blowing across the disaster site and hitting you in the face, that’s bad.”

“Let’s say there’s a truck oozing green goo,” Skomorowsky continued. “If you stick out your thumb at arm’s length, your thumb should obscure the site. If you can see either side of the truck behind your thumb, you’re too close.”

The arrival of one of the unit’s supervising physicians, Daniel Brody of Columbia Presbyterian, interrupts the conversation and for a moment the classroom is on best behavior. Brody has just returned from visiting colleagues in Swaziland and Kenya, and tonight, he wants to describe what he saw there, to talk about the grim state of Africa’s losing battle with HIV/AIDS, about exploding infection rates, about international assistance too little too late and about his fear that chaos caused by the destruction of an entire generation of young adults will give aid and comfort to a new generation of terrorists. As the thought of the carnage wrought by that plague takes hold, even the unit’s more jocular members grow quiet. There is, after all, a disaster on the horizon greater than any truck filled with green ooze, a calamity that no amount of buoy training and line-tossing can prevent, an accident scene that can’t be reached in three minutes. But Dr. Brody knows his audience, and even he can’t resist. “I did see a hippo bite. And a lion bite,” he said with the enthusiasm of a trainspotting teen. “It turned septic.”