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There are many lessons we learn when working EMS, and many are not what most people on the outside would expect. My very first lesson on my very first day of EMT-B class, I learned the five basic food groups of public service being: caffeine, nicotine, fat, alcohol and sugar. A class of 27 individuals in an accelerate 40 hour-a-week month-long course sat dumbfounded. The instructor continued, “every operator must pick three of these five or you will never make it, but be advised some are more destructive than others.” Four people graduated from that class, myself among them.
I entered the workforce bright eyed and bushy-tailed with my ultimate goal in mind—to become a flight medic, to be the badass, unaware of everything I didn’t yet know. For example, if you say the words quiet or bored, you will not only wreak havoc on the shift, you will also end up having bathroom cleaning duty the rest of the week. You learn that being OCD is absolutely imperative to patient survival, and that the OCD will consume you, even not on the rig. You learn that someone not putting the forks away, or not folding their clothes will create the same anxiety and anger as the crew before you not restocking the IV start kits. You learn that you actually drive worse after being awake 32-hours than if you’d spent the night bar crawling. Most importantly, you learn exactly how strong you can be, and that being a public servant is a voluntary front-row seat to a world that surrounds us, yet remains unseen—as if an alternate dimension, a shadow.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job. Everything mentioned above were just hiccups: tiny, insignificant bumps that were just par for the course to do what I wanted to do… Until they weren’t. I was an EMT for four years, seasoned in the way of the world, collected a few "life saver awards" and was deemed one of the hardest working EMTs on staff, pulling 70-80 hour work weeks every week. I even pulled a "132 hours" one week Sunday-to-Sunday. I went to medic school, passed the written exam and was scheduled to take the physical skills test—well on my way to my goal of swapping a rig for a chopper. Then, it happened.
That’s not true, it had been happening slowly for a year or so without me evening realizing it.
One day, while off duty, I witnessed a car off to the side of the road. A teenager jumped in front of my car, covered in blood to make me stop, screaming for help. We all know that scream. I pulled in, hard wired senses already pumping information into my brain—car off road at unplanned angle, ignition off, driver slumped over wheel, older 40s to 50s, teenager with blood on face, passenger probably no seatbelt, nothing to hit, one vehicle, probable medical emergency for driver. MI? Seizure? Diabetic? Passengers face off dash on impact with curb, multiple patients, two maybe more, driver priority, passenger A&O and mobile—all before my car was in park. It wasn’t until I was out of my car, grabbing my jump bag that my brain scream red light, all stop, danger.
I had a subconscious knack for picking out no go situations—my Spidey sense, as we often joked about on shift. It was a joke with all my partners—like Anatoli Petrov from the Riddick movie, even in my first year of being an EMT, my partner, a medic of 22 years, would put the truck in park and request PD backing at the words “...My Spidey senses are tingling.” Yet, here I was on the side of the road, already in the middle of it when it happened. Frozen like a deer in headlights, I looked around trying to find what had sent my brain into a tail spin.
I saw the bullets holes, then the person behind the car, then the gun.
At day's end, inside the Police Station I learned there had been 8 people there that day: three dead, four wounded. The only one to walk away without a physical injury—me.
To date, that is the last emergency call I have ever been to. And to my own surprise, I don’t miss it. Yes, sure the event triggered the same feelings we all have 1000 times over when we have “those days.” That wasn’t what made me decide to walk away—something even the people closest to me can’t understand. In my mandatory time off following, three things happened. First, I found myself not wanting to go back, which was understandable and expected, I would deal with that and eventually it would go away like it had 100 times before. But then, I remembered another unexpected lesson I learned. My supervisor, a great man, talking to me one late night about all the old medics who had come and gone over the years, yet he had always stayed. When I asked what did it, why had so many people, hundreds, come and gone and couldn’t make it—what made him better. His answer, “I’m not better, there is no better. Let me tell you this, everyone has a cup and this job is a leaking faucet. Some days it leaks more than others. Those men and women who walked away: they weren’t weak, I’d say they were stronger than most. They knew when their cup was full, and they weren’t cowards, they faced it, accepted it, the real cowards are the ones who can’t, who won't look themselves in the mirror and continue to come in day-after-day—those are the cowards who put lives at risk and, son, don’t ever be that coward.”
The third thing that happened, well it’s pretty simple—I finally looked in the mirror. I forced myself to be honest. It’s harder than it sounds. Especially, to those in public service, who spend our lives building boxes in our minds—only to store and never to open. I forced myself to open those boxes. It seemed selfish for a long time, but the truth is I had dedicated my life to serving others and for years had refused to acknowledge the price of that honor—myself. This meant working 70, 80, 90 hour weeks, just to pay bills and scrape by. My future was eventually being married (maybe, probably divorced eventually—after all this is EMS) with kids and choices. Choices, like my son or daughter having a school play and missing it because of the extra shift I had to pull in order to pay for their costumes. Not seeing my family for a month. Pulling doubles or more to pay for the week vacation that may or may not get approved. Was a month of being MIA worth a week? Was being asleep for half the time I was home and forcing myself to not be grumpy the other half really the life I wanted? Even when I was working I found myself thinking of all the things I could be doing when the tones dropped, instead of the excitement I once had. Sure, I noticed it, but I blamed it on the long hours. I was tired and hungry—the call was bogus, my partner that day wasn’t the most pleasant to be around. Every excuse you can think of. I blamed it on whatever came to mind.
The truth, the selfish truth? I was tired of giving my life to others. I wanted it back and for too long I refused to look in the mirror and face that, because what kind of person does that make me? Here I was, a kid who used to throw his dad's cigars out of a moving car window, smoking almost a pack a day, living off of dunking doughnuts, monster, candy and fast food even when I wasn’t working, who spent his life as an athlete—and hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in three years, sleeping three-to-four hours a night because after four years of 24s that all I needed, and all my body would allow.
I finally realized, feeling horrible about myself for thinking this way was an excuse—an excuse to hide the truth. I was being a coward, but not in the way I felt about myself, or how others, including my family, thought. I was being a coward because the truth is, whether I want it to be true or not, I’ve had enough.
If there is one thing I would change it’s that it didn’t have to end. As unhappy as I’d become, I wouldn’t change a thing. I hated it and loved every second, all at the same time. It gave me strength and wisdom. It opened my eyes, and gave me long-lasting friendships with good, honest, loving people. I am proud of what I have done. I’m sad, yet finally happy—something no one but my brothers and sister that put the uniform on time and time again will ever understand. Maybe you won’t understand it—not yet.
My cup is full… And that’s okay.