For What to Tell a Layperson

Laypersons are always curious. About the blood and guts and how many people died in car accidents that year. But if you were to walk into the station, you would notice how much it resembles a home, complete with a living room, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms with actual beds inside. If it’s morning time and Caleb is working, you’ll probably smell brewing coffee. If it’s evening time and Culver is working, you’ll probably smell Little Caesar’s pizza.

Because you aren’t trained in emergency medicine, Orland will probably tell you to “make yourself at home!” And because he is a tall man with an intimidating body and even more intimidating voice, you will listen. You will stop clotting the hallway that leads to the garage because if there is an emergency, you will be in everyone’s way to the ambulances. So you’ll take three or four steps and find yourself in the living room. There are five recliners to choose from, so you pick the one across from the TV. Look around a bit. Wonder why there’s a paper mache giraffe on top of the filing cabinet. Wonder why there are two Wiis stacked on top of one another on the television stand but no Wii games to go along with them. Wonder why the TV is playing the football game when no one is around to watch it. You will wonder a lot of the same things, like isn’t this an ambulance station and where are the war stories to prove it? Where are the ghosts, the skeletons in the closet, the evidence? Stuff like that. Stuff that doesn’t make for polite conversation. You will study the plain, off-white walls, and wish, if only the paint and drywall could talk. What would the walls say? The walls won’t talk, but the living room might just oblige your curiosity. If all the scenes from the decades this room has witnessed could overlap into one montage of words, this is what you would hear: answers to your absurd questions. Or maybe not.

You’ll probably hear things you don’t understand:

“You know, I’m glad basics were stripped the protocol for C-PAP. It’s really an ALS kind of thing, and you guys just don’t have the training to know what C-PAP is actually doing for your patient.”

“If Bob ever asks you for a favor, the answer should always be ‘no.’ Even if he is the boss.”

“I can’t even remember the last time I had to do a needle cric.”

“Yeah, I used to blow shit up. Now I save lives.”

“I delivered a placenta last weekend. I don’t think we get an award for that.”

“What does Na stand for on the periodic table? Narcan.”

“Here, put this down your pants. We’ll see if the students figure out your leg is broken.”

“Don, you’ve created a monster. She’s telling everyone what to do.”

“I can’t keep you young people straight anymore. You all look the same.”

“We don’t have a mascot, but Robin used to feed the raccoons in the backyard.”

“Don’t worry—I won’t eat you.”

“Is this card on the dinner table for someone who is dying or someone who has already died? I can never tell the difference.”

“The Laurel’s? I hate that place. I’d rather go to a cardiac arrest in Barry County.”

“Rachel’s such a white cloud, the dead come back to life. She’s really bummed about it. You two should switch clouds.”

“Nightshift only has one rule: if you have to go number two, use the men’s bathroom.”

You’ll hear a variety of laughter:

“So Lindsey and I are wiping this guy’s blood off our cot, and it’s running like water. I turn to her and ask, ‘Do you like your meat medium-rare or well-done?’ And she says, ‘Dude, don’t bring food into this.’”

“Alex and I couldn’t do anything, and the guy was obviously too burnt to be alive, so we just stood there while Fire watered down the engine flames. I look at Alex and he says, ‘I could really go for some barbecue right now.’ I’m not going to lie, my mouth was watering.”

“God, that girl was swallowing batteries and screws last week. How isn’t she dead yet?”

“I didn’t know Caleb’s brother was blind, so I asked if he would ever see again, and Caleb goes, ‘Probably not… He doesn’t have any eyes.’ And I’m thinking, Shit, man! Now I feel like a dick for asking.”

“The lights in 952 keep flickering. The other day, I convinced one of Deb’s students it was because of all the people who have died in the back. I think I really freaked him out, but no, of course I don’t feel bad. It was hilarious!”

“You heard about that little boy the Jimmy John’s delivery woman splattered across the pavement with her car? Well, no one can accuse her of not being freaky fast!

“I saw my first gunshot wound! The guy shot himself in the heart, and I really wanted to stick my finger in the entry hole.”

You’ll hear about everyone’s business because no one at the station can keep secrets:

“CJ brought all his Nerf guns to work yesterday. Males versus females. It was an epic battle. Then he fell out of a rolling chair and hurt his leg. So that’s how the war ended.”

“Danny drives too slow, and Maci drives too fast—these new people are going to be the end of our trucks.”

“Bob slammed on the brakes, and asked, ‘Do you need your coffee?’ It was almost twenty-one hundred, so of course I didn’t. So then he parked the ambulance at Tractor Supply, and when I asked why, he exclaimed (as Bobs do), ‘Because I need to buy Christmas!’ Why isn’t every boss like Bob?”

“He took one step into the station, saw who his crew was for the shift, said, ‘I’m not doing this shit today,’ and walked out. In class, did they teach you about EMT burnout?”

“I hear you’re going to be the next J.K. Rowling. When your book becomes a movie, can I be an extra with a really dramatic death scene?”

“They met in a patient’s bathroom. And on the ground between them, an extremely obese, extremely naked male bitching for help up off the floor. I guess every romance has its obstacles.”

You’ll hear a lot of Orland’s stories:

“I looked at the officer and then the patient and said, ‘If you don’t want my help, then why the fuck did you call me? You either come with me, or you go to jail. And if you don’t slow your breathing down, you will pass out. Then we’ll do things my way.’ That seemed to change his mind.”

“I had this guy who thought putting his wrists under a bandsaw and cutting his hands off was the best way to commit suicide. So I’m not the first unit on scene, but when I pull up, the two State Troopers already there were paler in the face than my hemorrhaging patient. I mean, there was blood everywhere… Needless to say, people don’t try to one-up me after I tell that story.”

“Last year, I was late to the Christmas party because I got called out to a guy in Orangeville who was having a massive heart attack. When I finally did arrive at the party, they gave me the EMT of the Year award. It’s ironic—someone’s always dying when I actually have plans after work. Did I tell you today’s my birthday and I’m going out to dinner after this?”

“We were on scene for maybe two minutes. That four-year-old screamed the entire way to the hospital. I guess I would too, if my leg were barely attached to my body. Lights and sirens were beyond helping—this kid needed to be on a surgery table as quickly as possible. When we got to Grand Rapids, I told Amber to drive on the sidewalks.”

“I had such a bad call the other day, I’m surprised you weren’t there with me. Yeah, a guy out in the Hopkins area was found by his brother, crushed under some machinery in his barn… And I know a lot of those people who knew my patient, but I don’t want to answer their questions. I’m going home, putting on some rock music, and baking cookies instead.”

“You’re not as untouchable as you think. I know your stress levels rocket sky-high whenever I walk into the room. You probably see my name on the schedule and think, Oh, shit! I know how you think.”

“EMS has a dark sense of humor. If we didn’t, this stuff would eat us alive.”

You’ll hear things you don’t want to understand:

“Sometimes, you just need to take a day off. If something bothers you, you know, don’t keep it to yourself.”

“I don’t know what his face looked like. But his brains were all over the place.”

“It’s cumulative, you know? It’s a scent or the color of some other patient’s hair that reminds you of a different one. So yeah, sometimes you’ll just be pissy or upset or withdrawn. We see things on a daily basis that no human is meant to see. But we need to talk about these things, too. When I was in the army, you know, I killed people and I watched people die. That’s PTSD. It’s cumulative. But I’m all for talking about it.”

“Everyone knows not to expose an EMT to a strong scent. Everyone knows that.”

“Sure, we get free therapy here. It’s called Bob.”

“Lindsey, this one is hitting me hard, and I don’t know why. If only I’d driven faster, if only I’d parked closer to where he fell in the ditch, if only I were a man with the strength to prove it. His granddaughter was right there, across the road. My partner gave her a stuffed hippo. But I really just wanted my partner to turn the kid around, so she wouldn’t have to see us shoving tubes down his throat, trying to save his life. She’s too young to understand what happened, but one day, she’ll know. She shouldn’t have seen that. My partner should have turned her around.”

“I pulled him from the water, you know. It took me months to stop seeing his face every time I blinked. I still have dreams about that little boy.”

“Don, Orland, and I got called to this terrible accident down in Martin. I mean, the woman didn’t even look like a human being, she’d been dragged and rolled around so much. So once the police had taken all the pictures they needed, and the medical examiner showed up with the body bag, Don offered to help move our patient in the bag. He had to roll her onto her back, but as soon as he did, all her guts fell out into his hands. You know Don. He’s been around long enough to have seen some shit. But after that, he didn’t come back to work for a week.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask: how do you get over it? The other day, all I did was step out of the shower, and I started crying like a baby.”

“The worst thing about it is coming back to school where no one lives in the ‘real world’ like we do. Essays aren’t problems. Exams aren’t problems. How to live with all their names tattooed to your mind is a fucking problem.”

But you’ll hear the victories, too:

“They aren’t all like that, though. For my first four cardiac arrests, we got pulses back.”

“We were driving lights and sirens to the hospital. It was dark outside, and my partner and I are taking turns doing compressions on this guy because we keep getting pulses and then losing them. Well, a deer ran into the side of our truck, and just as it did, the monitor showed a stable cardiac rhythm.”

“The kid broke his femur. But instead of screaming in pain, he was taking a picture for his Instagram!”

“I was so adrenalized—I don’t even know if that’s a word, but we brought that woman back to life in one shock!”

“About a year later, I was at the grocery store, and I passed this lady in the aisle. I didn’t see the burn scars, but her face seemed familiar. And then it struck me. I told myself, How often does this opportunity present itself? So I turned around, tapped her on the shoulder, and told her I was the woman who saved her life.”

“This time, I drove to the hospital without missing the exit.”


Laypersons are always curious. About the tragedies, the heartaches, the interesting. You can’t help it. But if you were to walk into the station, if you were to stay, maybe even lounge on one of those mud-brown recliners the paramedics and EMTs have some of their best, worst, and average days sitting in, you would notice how much the station resembles a home. The pile of clean sheets in the living room that has yet to be folded and put away. The dirty dishes in the sink, and all the paperwork on the dinner table people keep eating their meals around. If it’s sunrise and Kathi is working, the lights are probably all off because she sleeps in one of the recliners at night. If it’s sunset and Nienhuis is working, Star Wars is probably playing on the TV because he somehow always manages to find a rerun.

And if you stay long enough, you’ll know all about “Bob projects” and “Bob jokes.” You’ll know that Supervisor Scott eats Taco Bell almost every day but can never decide what to order off the menu. You’ll know that Lindsey wants to remodel a school bus into her future home. You’ll know that Orland plays Christmas music as soon as the radio offers it. You’ll know that Caleb questions everything. You’ll know that Don takes a nap around fourteen hundred, and you’ll know that fourteen hundred means two in the afternoon. You’ll know that Faith likes her reputation of being every-new-hire’s-nightmare, even though it couldn’t be further from the truth. You’ll know that the McDonald’s drive-thru is too narrow for ambulances, and you’ll know that the Wendy’s drive-thru works better. You’ll know which paramedics will let you talk with a British accent over the radio and which ones will have your head if you even dare stray from “the norms.” You’ll know that some people just don’t get along, and that some people get along so well, you will feel like a third wheel. You’ll know every police officer, firefighter, first-responder, and medical examiner’s face before you know their names. But most of all, you’ll know that these people aren’t calloused or jaded or cast in steel.

They are all broken somewhere.

But that doesn’t mean they are defeated.

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