It’s 3:30 a.m. and I’m half-awake on the ugliest couch in the world. I’m somewhere in Orange County in a little shack of an EMS outpost across from a chicken farm and a trailer park. I’m wearing black tactical pants with trauma shears and protocol cards tucked into oversized pockets, and a grey polo shirt with “Durham Tech EMT Education” embossed on the chest. There’s a large handheld radio next to me, which I try to ignore. It has a pulsating red light, and spits out little gouts of static softly.
I have a hate-love relationship with the thing. Hate, because at any second, that red light could turn green and the static leap into a scratchy “Medic Four, 34-year-old male, heroin overdose.” But love because god, the thrill of running through protocols as the ambulance whips down the highway at dawn, casting wailing echoes and red strobe down the interstate, is like nothing else.
But tonight, half-awake on that rancid couch, everything seems too big. My pants, the radio, the ambulance out front like a beached whale, anticipating. I am seventeen. Seventeen, and I’m carrying shears that I’ve used to cut the clothes off people too critical to care about modesty. I’m next to the OB/GYN kit for use in precipitous deliveries and the defibrillator that can restart a malfunctioning heart. Seventeen, and I know where to find the body bags.
Then the call comes, and it’s none of these things. A woman sits on the stretcher cradling her broken elbow, and I am at her side, talking about her kids, her church, anything to get her mind off her pain as I immobilize the joint. She smiles and says that I remind her of her son as I gently tie off cravats, and we talk about his missionary trip to Russia until the ambulance pulls into the ER.
When I graduated EMT school, a nurse I know gave me a book called A Thousand Naked Strangers. The author, Kevin Hazzard, describes being a paramedic in Atlanta like cleaning a festering sore—his city is overflowing with drugs, homelessness, and crime. Hazzard’s stories typically begin or end with a dead body. Put simply, “they didn’t make it,” his patients are spread all over the road, a bloodsoaked bouquet of avulsions and penetrating traumas, stories of unredeeming tragedy. It’s not the first responder world I recognize.
My EMT stories aren’t about dead people. Instead, my stories are of Officer Thomson and me, outside a building after our team talked a woman down from the roof’s edge, shifting our dialogue from how lucky we are to live, to vocational school versus college, to Officer Thomson’s other life as a poet. They’re about the part of me that feels a sense of pride when the manager at Belgian Café gives Stevens and me the discount for being first responders. About all my patients who look at me, then look at me again, and say “you look a little young,” and I say “yes, ma’am, I am, but I’m going to take great care of you. Now can you tell me when you fell?”
In the war classic “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien writes, “You’ll see some terrible stuff, I guess. That’s how it goes. But try to look for the good things, too. They’ll be there if you look.” The fascinating part of being an EMT is not that we have to deal with the terrible stuff to find moments of goodness, but that EMTs take people on the worst days of their lives and create a little goodness out of tragedy. These are the moments that make me love the radio, that make my giant black tactical pants feel less like a costume and more like a uniform.