I don’t think so many people know this any more, but I used to be an EMT. Years ago, I volunteered for an all-911 service while I was working full-time at another job. I formed some bizarre and possibly valuable habits during that time. It’s the reason why my initial reaction to any kind of emergency is always to just be calm, take charge, and start lining up the list of, “Okay, first we do X, then Y, then you do Z…”
I think that’s something that annoys people, sometimes, when we’re talking an emergency of emotional trauma rather than physical injury. But I can’t help it. I rewired myself in self defense, and it gives me the illusion of control in a terrifying world. Then later, when everything is taken care of and everyone is calm, I hide in the bathroom and cry. Sometimes I’ll throw up too, if it’s been particularly stressful. Because it builds up, that stress, and you pay it now, or you pay it later with interest.
I used to say that I wished I could go back to it. That some day I’d do EMT school over, get my certification back, and start volunteering again. I don’t think I was lying on purpose, but it wasn’t true. I can’t go back to it.
Then I used to say it was because of the pay. Which is also true. EMTs don’t get paid much. Paramedics get paid more, but still not as much as I’d want for that kind of stress. But money is ultimately an excuse, and a horrible one. I’d like to think I’m not the kind of person that would let money get in the way if helping people.
Then I said that I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s life like that. I think that’s a truth. It’s terrifying, to think that you could make a mistake and it could hurt someone else or even kill them. It’s paralyzing. The reality of that hit me in the back of the head the day someone died in the back of my ambulance, even though it ultimately wasn’t my fault. It could have been.
But I think the real reason I stepped away for a temporary leave from which I never returned was because I couldn’t take feeling that helpless. You do get saves, in that business. You get days where you feel like you personally punched death in the nuts and snatched someone out of his hands. It feels so amazing, I used to wonder if maybe that was the kind of high people got off of drugs, and maybe that’s why they keep doing them. And there are even the ordinary days, where someone’s hurting and you get to tell them that it’ll be all right, you’re going to make them feel better, and you’re not lying. Those were pretty amazing too.
But it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes you work on someone for an eternity, a fucking eternity, only it’s just like ten minutes, twenty minutes while you wait for the chopper, and you can hear her dad crying outside the ambulance the whole time and then the flight nurse just says no, there’s no way. You feel so goddamn helpless. You tell people that they will die if they don’t go to the hospital, and they still say no because money means more than life now. You know that kid didn’t fall down the steps, you know it, and there’s nothing you can do but report it and hope maybe if they get lost in an overloaded system it’ll still be better than the monsters they have at home. There is this dread you get in the pit of your stomach, every time you get a call and it’s a kid. You can’t fix the world. You can’t even fix bodies, not really. Just sort of string them together with tape until you can get them to the hospital.
Over the years, all the saves, all the times that felt so good have just become a kind of happy blur in the back of my head. But I still remember the other times like they happened yesterday. It’s some horrible quirk of the human brain, I guess, that makes the bad so much easier to remember than the good. Even the little things, like what it feels like to have blood slowly drying on my arm, where it got smeared on over the top of my glove and I can’t wipe it off because I need to drive and the guy in the back of the ambulance won’t fucking stop screaming. Feeling helpless is a particular kind of hell.
The irony of this being that the reason I became an emt in the first place was besides friend of mine got very sick and I didn’t know how to handle it and didn’t want to feel so helpless again. Maybe the lesson is that you will never really feel in control of the situation. The world is always bigger and stronger than you, and you just have to do the best you can and fake the rest until you can find a bathroom to hide in.
I don’t know how people who do that as a career handle it. They’re stronger than me, that’s for sure. I’m glad you’re out there. I’m glad you exist. I stand in awe. Stay safe.
I don’t really know why I ended up thinking about this while I was biking in this morning. Maybe because I had the Kid on my mind again. He still comes up now and then, even after so many years. At this point, I guess he’ll be with me for the rest of my life. But maybe if I talk about this stuff enough, it will eventually lose its power over me, so I’ll post it, raw and ugly and incoherent as it is. I didn’t know I was signing on for that, when I went to EMT school. I still would have done it. I’m glad I did.
But I’m also glad I don’t do it any more, even if I feel like a total coward.