I will never forget the very first call I went on as an EMT Basic student. Only a portion of the way through the semester, that first ride-along was to give me a taste of what I was working toward, and put me to the test to see if I had what it took. There I was, sitting in the back of the ambulance, my pockets stuffed with all the equipment and cheat sheets I thought I would need in order to save lives that day. A quiet voice crackled across the radio, and my life would never be the same. Adrenaline surged through my veins as we flew, sirens screaming, toward the victims of a car accident that had called for help. It was in that moment, trying to reign in my fear and excitement, that I knew this was where I wanted to be. That first call turned out to be a simple scenario that would come to be routine for me in the months and years ahead. but it was the steps in between that changed me and shaped me into the Paramedic I am today.
Becoming a Paramedic seemed a noble feat, a position that was cut and dry; you call for help, I come save your life, we all go home at night. Those tinted glasses of naivety blinded me from some harsh realities and some amazing truths those first few months, but time and experience cleared the lenses, revealing the gray that washes between the black and white. Within a week of testing out of EMT Basic class and receiving my license to practice, I got my first major trauma call. It was the Fourth of July and I was hanging out at the fire station with a bunch of fellow members that were barbecuing and enjoying the holiday. When the tones went out, I was hustled out to one of the responding vehicles and wished enthusiastic “good lucks!” My own pulse thumped louder than the sirens as I went through every mental checklist I could think of, certain I was going to have this one covered.
I took in a sharp breath as we pulled on scene and I took in the horrific sight strewn across the road. First glance told us all this was a bad one, but two things changed me that afternoon. The first was as I walked up behind the car that was being cut apart to free the mangled driver. On the shattered glass of the rear window was a faded Star of Life sticker, clinging to the broken shards. That was when reality whispered that it could happen to anyone, even those you know and love.
The second sight that sent my thoughts reeling was the driver of the other car, standing unscathed on the side of the road, frantically pulling empty beer bottles from his floorboard and smashing them on the side of the road, trying to cover up what he had done. Is this real life? Innocent people crushed by the weight of others’ deliberate poor decisions? Why is it the bad guy makes it out ok, and our young friend is left clinging to life? This was not the heroic glory I was expecting to feel.
As my career progressed, my eyes were opened to the other truths that had been so buried in the myths I believed as a child. My parents taught my siblings and I the value of 911. We learned the dire situations that would require you to dial that number, and held sacred the seriousness of that action. Bleary-eyed and hungry after marathon dashes from call to call though, I learned a surprising practice that was all too common in the real world. 911 was a convenience, not a privilege. People called for us for scraped knees, for cracked calluses, and for feeling anxious. They met us in their driveways with suitcases packed, standing next to the family car that seemed in perfect working order, even in the ER waiting room where they felt the wait was taking too long. We raced through red lights, risking our lives and the others around us to arrive to find patients who had run out of medication and would like a ride to the emergency room; but don’t worry, your tax money will pay for it. This was shocking to me, but as much as we all hate it, there are enough loopholes in the system that this will continue to happen day after day. And we thought it was about saving lives…
In spite of the grueling demands on my body and mind, I continued to further my knowledge by moving on to pursue my EMT Intermediate license, and eventually my ultimate goal of becoming a Paramedic. Years of class and hundreds of hours of clinical time later, I reached the top. My patch sparkled with the golden threads that signified my new standing, and my mind was packed with the maximum ability to perform all the skills and give all the medications I possibly could. This is it I thought. Now I can really help people. That’s what we believe; we learn as children that when there’s an emergency, the firemen and policemen and paramedics come and fix everything for us. That is where the harshest reality brought me to my knees. I was educated and rehearsed to handle every situation. I could perform every life-saving skill in the book. What I had forgotten was that it’s not always up to me. The limp body of a two-year-old boy was hurriedly lifted onto my stretcher. As my ambulance went lurching and squealing off to the hospital, my hands took over as my mind calmed into the rhythmic muscle memory I had practiced so many times . I stabilized, supported, breathed, and provided everything I possibly could for this young life. My prayers surrounded each breath I pumped into his tiny lungs as he clung to life. I watched each miracle flutter of his heart struggling inside his sunken chest, and kept on begging for one more beat, one more beat. Later I stood at his bedside next to his parents, tears blurring the features of the cheesy grin that gleamed back at me from a photo of him taped to the headboard above his breathing tube. He held on for a week, and then he was gone. All the fancy treatments in the world couldn’t save him. I cried. I cried because he was innocent. I cried because the faces of his family were etched deep into my memory. I cried because I, the Paramedic, was supposed to have saved him, and at the pinnacle of my experience and knowledge, there was nothing I could have done.
My road to Paramedic was long and not as straight as I had imagined. It was disappointing on numerous occasions and heartbreaking on more days than I can count. I have learned that there are only few things that are black and white, and people aren’t who they pretend to be. I have learned that innately good people sometimes die, and people hellbent on being hellbent sometimes live. I have learned that no matter how capable I am, there are times when nothing I can do will help. Most importantly, I have learned that where I am willing to change, I will grow. Being weak will make me strong, being wrong will show me right, and being willing to change and learn will keep me from growing hard. There will be call after call that leaves me scowling, but in the midst of them, there will be times when I really do make a difference. And that, my dear friends, is what will keep me coming back for more.
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