Friday, June 6, 2014

EMT was ME

My time as an Emergency Medical Technician seems like a distant dream, but it has forever shaped me in some ways. I volunteered as an EMT for only about 2 years (including training) but a lot can happen in that small period of time, especially in a position where death is all part of the daily routine.

I encountered death several times as an EMT, which made me confront my own mortality in a more immediate way than I ever had before. I have luckily not had many deaths in my close family or circle of friends. When family members have died, it has been mostly in old age, which takes some of the sting out of the loss. Those deaths were painful, but expected, and about as "positive" an experience one can have with death (both my grandmothers were in their 90s when they died, so even though they missed the Willard Scott birthday shout-outs, they lived long, happy lives). The deaths I encountered in my time as an EMT are as close to understanding that immediate, unprepared feeling of loss as I have gotten or want to get.

Although these people were not family or friends, or even acquaintances, their death still has an impact. Emergency responders have a responsibility towards people. When a person doesn't make it, even though he or she may have had no chance despite any intervention, there is a feeling of failing that person.

There is the feeling of loss too, especially if there are other family members around. On one occasion, we went to an apartment where a man was on the floor, unresponsive for quite some time. I started on chest compressions while my partner gave artificial breaths, all while the man's wife was in the same room screaming, asking us over and over again if her husband was dead and if we were going to save him. I felt her suffering as if it was my own. Even though I didn't know them in life, in death I was now a part of their story.

Seeing a loved one's pain obviously makes the death more personal, but just being in someone's apartment or house gives you that sense of loss. You are there to help, but you are still encroaching upon their territory and into their lives. I have entered their world, and I now have a connection with them. Its strange, and powerful, and very sad sometimes. You feel the energy in the house as if it is a living entity (if you believed my college Creative Writing professor, homes are living entities). The sense of loss pervades the house. And if there are any family pets, forget about it.

Just being there with the dead or dying is an intense feeling. When a man died at a nursing home, I was one of the last people to be with him in his dying moments. That is a powerful feeling. And strange. And sad. Those are really the three most prevalent emotions as a first responder. What if that's how I end up? Alone in a nursing home, my legs turning green and crusty because of a lack of circulation, dying in the presence of two strangers. That is a question you try not to ask yourself. That type of question is also why most EMTs (most people in the medical field really) often have a sick sense of humor. Seeing death and misery everyday causes your brain to protect itself at all costs, and dark humor is a way of shielding the brain from drowning in depression.

Another thing that helps are the endless emergency calls. That may seem counter-intuitive, but it is the neverending nature of medical emergencies that keeps you from being overwhelmed by the tragedy of some calls. You can't contemplate and reflect on each problem (even death) for too long because you are on to the next call (there are some shifts that have long stretches of downtime, and we usually try to fill those with movies or sleep). There is no way to be completely objective and distant from the situations you are in, but the responsibility of the position makes you focus on the current situation, and that alone, which helps you get through any emotions from the previous call.

There's also just some funny moments that you'd never see in another line of work. Even in shitty situations, there are always moments that lighten the mood or add a sense of surrealism that forces you to smile or shake your head and keeps you from being overcome by misery. One night, we got a call about an accident on the Berlin Turnpike. A sedan with a drunk driver attempted to leave the parking lot of the Carrier Motel and was T-boned by a minivan traveling northbound on the Turnpike. The car was spun around and somehow sent back towards the parking lot and into the side of the motel. When we arrived, some cops were talking with the two passengers of the minivan and others were looking for the driver of the sedan; they had not found anyone in the car when they arrived.

So my partner and I began assessing the two passengers of the minivan. As we asked questions and took their vitals, we heard shouts from the police: "We got somebody over here!" The cops shouted for us to come over so we ran to the car still wedged against the building. Apparently, the driver (who wasn't wearing his seat belt obviously) was thrown into the space between the passenger seat and the glove compartment. The space was extra tight; the front end of the vehicle was smashed inwards, and the guy was almost squished underneath the seat. The police who first responded to the scene somehow missed him on their first search. The guy was motionless and obviously fucked up, but he responded with grunts to our questions.

Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the 20 firemen that arrived, they needed the jaws of life to get him out. If you ever want to make a crew of firemen happy, let them destroy a car to remove somebody inside. They tore that car apart like a Christmas present, where the present was a barely living human.

While they did their thing, we gave the guy oxygen and tried to clean any wounds. After about 15 minutes, the firemen were able to remove the roof and doors and seats (I told you they tore it apart). We put a brace on his neck and got him out on a stretcher. If you're wondering why we took so long to get him out instead of just pulling him out (and after seeing enough videos of people pulling friends out of wrecked cars, I know a few of you are wondering) it's because pulling and twisting him would cause more damage than however much time passed while slowly and properly removing him. People in the medical field hate getting sued for trying to save somebody's life.

So we finally get the dumbass out of the car. The parking lot is kind of tight and there are numerous service vehicles in the lot: fire trucks, the fire department's SUVs, the paramedic's SUV, two ambulances, and random cars parked at the motel. In their excitement, the fire department had blocked everyone in with a giant fire truck. One of the younger firemen went to move it and 10 seconds later, a loud "crunch" caused everyone to stop what they were doing and look over towards the truck.

The rear door of the Fire Chief's SUV had been open and sticking outwards. It was positioned near the exit of the parking lot, and the firetruck apparently did not see this as it was backing up. The truck went directly into the door, tearing it halfway off and lifting the SUV two feet in the air.

After a few seconds of stunned silence, everyone erupted into laughter. Well, everyone but the fireman driving the truck. And the guy on the stretcher. He probably would have laughed if he didn't have broken ribs though.

That moment changed the whole tone of the night. Everyone was (rightfully) very serious up until that point. That little incident reminded us all that even tragedy is just a part of life and not to get too caught up in it or it will lead to mistakes. Luckily, this was not a very serious mistake. Even the Fire Chief had to laugh.

It's kind of odd thinking back on my time as an EMT. I never did anything like it before or since, and it had a profound effect on me. Even though I don't think about it directly very often, it has changed the way I think, probably permanently. I have seen so much sickness and I learned about so many different illnesses and conditions that every time I feel something wrong with my body, I think it's a horrible disease and I will be dead by morning. It's a common condition among people in the medical field called "knowing too damn much". You can't help but think the pain in your side is actually gonna be a ruptured gallbladder like that guy you took to the hospital the other day. It usually ends up being gas, but your mind always goes to the worst case scenario.

Regardless, I'm glad I did it. It was a great experience and I learned a lot. It will always be a part of me, a part in which I'm very proud.

Oh, and a little advice: always wear your seat belt and never ride motorcycles, unless you want to become one of the really cool, gruesome stories EMTs tell. 

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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