I’m 27, and I have no idea how profoundly this class will affect me. The ways in which it morphs who I am into a better version of myself. The people I will be honored to care for, the things I will witness. The ways those things I witness will impact me for months and years to come. I have no inkling that my appreciation for life itself will grow, deepen and become a nearly measurable entity.
I simply know that I am taking a class, an EMT-Basic class. It meets two evenings a week, from 6-10pm in a town roughly half an hour away from the bank at which I then worked. A nice customer from the bank also is taking the class, and we carpool. His wife is funny and kind and I look forward to those visits at their house before we hit the road, off to class. One day we get to town a little earlier than usual, and we swing by a used car lot just to kill some time. Before you can say SAMPLE, I’m the owner of a lipstick red Camaro just a few days later. In my young mind I think it’s funny to pay extra for a license plate that reads CTCH ME.
We graduate, I continue banking. But something has changed. As the pager I’m given goes off, my heart rate accelerates in a sympathetic nervous system response, and now that I mention it, I’m not certain it’s ever quite gone back to normal. The more I see, the more I am frustrated by the limited ways in which I can help. I want to learn more, I want to help more. It’s not enough, the need is too great and so soon I leave the bank. I’m working now for an interfacility ambulance company. A few years pass and I’m working in a small town ER – and dispatching for an air medical service and the largest ground transport service in our area. I’m meeting paramedics, and the more of their air I breathe, I know – I simply must learn what they know.
I’m back in school, I’m now non-traditionally old. I find it amusing then but I will find it even more amusing later. I learn more procedures, more skills, more drugs, and I drink in the knowledge like water. I can do more, I’m in heaven.
The years go by and the calls accumulate. Back in the volunteer EMT days, I once asked an experienced first responder who was a nurse, “When do your hands stop shaking?” She smiled and said, “In time.” I volunteer no more, I work 24, 36, sometimes a rare 48 hour shift. I sometimes struggle with exhaustion of the empathetic kind, and that’s when I know that the overtime needs to rest. But those mornings when you hold the hand of a spouse after pronouncing time of death, or those midnight kitchens when the patient’s lungs are struggling to move air across the alveolar membrane in spite of the obstructive fluid impeding the process – that’s when I’m more alive than I can describe to anyone who’s never dropped everything when the tones go off.
Then I’m 40 and I’m in nursing school. Now, boys and girls, I am decidedly non-traditional. Now I’m an older student, because after all that’s what non-traditional is kindly saying, all along. The calls and the years and the patients never stop coming. That old country song by one of the highwaymen has a line in it that reads, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.” I’m used to this lifestyle and yet it’s wearing on me. I’m giving a talk one day to a group of paramedics and afterward, one comes up to me.
“You really love this job” he says, “don’t you?” Without hesitation I answer, “of course.” He asks me then, how can I be leaving it? I think about it then, and for the first time I verbalize what I guess I’d been rolling around in my mind the whole time in my nursing classes. Rolling it around like you roll a hard candy in between your teeth and your cheek. Sometimes you hold it there until it makes the skin of your cheek get all funny feeling from the concentration of the sugar.
“I’m not leaving” is what I say. “It’s who I am.” And I mean every word of it. As long as my body can respond from a dead sleep to wheels turning in under that two minute mark, as long as I can lift and pivot and hustle a cardiac monitor and backpack up three flights of stairs to an overdose at the end of a hallway, I know I can’t give away the radio. The pager is gone, now. Replaced by a nice Kenwood and a Boston strap. But the tones still activate the sympathetic response, and the drive to help, to revel in the autonomy of the street at 2am, the back roads lighting up with the red and white lights, the way the dispatch information activates the training and the street knowledge and my mind begins to run down algorithms and dosages on the way to the scene…no other profession can meet the speed at which this paramedic’s heart rate has come to love. There’s no other drug quite like the rush of a hand squeeze from an elderly patient whose breathing you’ve eased, or the never-fail feel good call of a diabetic wakeup when the family sighs with relief.
I walked out in the garage the other day. The weather has finally warmed, and I opened both garage doors to let the sun shine in and the fresh air swirl around the stale dust. The sunlight gleamed off that lipstick red Camaro parked crosswise in the rear of the garage, back behind the everyday cars. Her license plate is current, paid and valid. It still reads CTCH ME. I think of EMS like that. Lipstick red. Always another road, RPMs just begging to be elevated like a heartrate.
We are here for our patients, our communities, those we know and those we’ve never met. We’re on our way when help is needed. Always – in service. Because it’s who we are, it’s more than a profession. It’s a choice, a lifestyle, a calling, a gratification, an honor and a joy.
Happy EMS Week 2017.