Heartbreak of a Different Variety

I mentioned in my earlier post that I want to discuss what EMS is and does. This is the start of that long list. Well, rather than write this in a notebook and forget it exists, I want to write it here. Because people drive ambulances to the emergency. Real people, just like you.

Sometimes, I think culture tends to view EMS as just the ambulance. How many of your brains conjured an image of a person in EMS uniform? Right. For the longest time, my youngest sister was convinced I was a doctor because she had no idea what an EMT was. While the truck is a huge resource and tool, it’s not necessarily the one doing the work. Some patients don’t even make it to the back of the truck. No, EMS is a coalition of people, of volunteers and employees alike.

I worked a 24-hour shift this past weekend. Saturday night, the incoming crew I was scheduled to work with rolled into the station glossy-eyed and heavy-limbed. In emergency medicine, you tend to learn real quick what those kinds of signs stem from: a bad call. That can mean a lot of different things for each person, but generally, it’s code for blood, guts, death, and dying.

In school, we’re taught all about how to fix and help patients. It’s easy to fix a broken bone. It’s easy to go through the steps of bleeding control. It’s easy to transport patients to the hospital and never see them again. But signs of the emotional kind are much more strenuous. It’s difficult when it’s you, and it’s even worse when it’s someone you know. You cannot schedule bad calls to fit your work hours. If you get a fatality in the afternoon, you’re still getting little old lady patients in the evening. You’re still expected to maintain that professional facade, even if you’re still reeling from a call that occurred hours earlier.

So this Saturday, I happened to be working with Bridger, a paramedic I’d been on a lot of bad calls with. When he walked in, the first thing I noticed was his eyes. They were beyond exhaustion, unseeing the room around him. Replaying whatever it was he’d witnessed earlier. Because that’s how bad calls go: they stick to your mind like syrup.

It was only when Bridger left the room, that I asked the other EMT, Aspen, if he was alright. Bridger is a proud man, so I didn’t ask him in person. Something about his eyes told me I shouldn’t. Then I learned why my crew was glossy-eyed. Yes, I told myself, that is a valid reason to be… “out of it.” I still wished their pain could be absolved. I like helping, but I haven’t yet devised a way to selectively erase memories. So I sat there, an outsider, and my heart broke. I’ve lost patients, but even those cocktails of emotions could not compare to the gnawing in my gut, as I watched Bridger and Aspen pick themselves back together that night.

I don’t think laypersons realize what it means to be in Emergency Medical Services. They think of ambulances, flashing lights and wailing sirens, but rarely do they consider the people behind these machines. At least, I didn’t. Now that I’ve graduated from the “laypersons pool,” I see that EMS is more than just a job. Where other professions can remain separate from your “real” life, EMS cannot. It cannot.

The only way I can explain this is through metaphor. If water is life, then certain professions can be oil on that water. They don’t mix, right? Very clear separation. (Because I used to want to major in chemistry, it’s tempting to expand this metaphor on an atomic level, but I’ll spare you the science.) EMS is a solution of a variety of substances, like when you were younger and made concoctions out of water, ketchup, mustard, salt, sugar, and food coloring. You can’t easily separate those components.

Whether you made room for it or not, EMS becomes a part of you. It follows you around until your waking action in the morning is to check Active911 on your phone to see what calls your comrades had to deal with that night. It follows you around until your first fit of sadness in college is because you’re not working on the truck as much as you used to. The mundane world you lived in before suddenly becomes the real world, a world where people die and your hobbies are luxuries. I still pass a certain billboard where my first fatality occurred. I can’t pass it without remembering that call, like an unspoken toll. And I’ve only been in EMS for four or five months. I can’t imagine what scenes my older, more experienced colleagues still see in the backs of their heads, as they drive down streets they know and grew up on.

So. Next time you’re out and about and see a glossy-eyed, heavy-limbed individual, don’t get caught up in the “What’s his problem?” Those kinds of questions aren’t constructive– you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Maybe his favorite book series came to an end. Or maybe he watched someone die earlier that day.

There are other worlds outside of your own existence.

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