Career Choices: Why I’m Not an EMT Any More 10

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.

10 thoughts on “Career Choices: Why I’m Not an EMT Any More

  1. Reply Janiece Jul 19,2013 14:44

    You may feel like a coward, but you’re really not one.

    There are some people, people who work in hospice, and EMT’s, and social workers, who can maintain some emotional distance between their professional lives and their personal emotional health. I’m not one of them, and so I admire and respect those who can, and am grateful for their presence in my community.

    Some people are built that way, and some aren’t. Not being able to divorce your personal emotional health from your professional endeavors isn’t really a bug. It may not be a feature, but it’s not a bug.

  2. Reply Daniel Dvorkin Jul 19,2013 15:40

    “It may not be a feature, but it’s not a bug.” Yes, this, exactly.

  3. Reply Emily Jul 19,2013 18:35

    it’s cos you’re too sensitive and empathic. most doctors, many nurses and first responder types are kinda cold ppl, honestly. there’s a very logical, analytic manner to them, with the strong ability to compartmentalize. and, also, i don’t think most of them are what you’d call “highly sensitive”.

    you, you have a mushier heart than a marshmallow that’s been on fire. you’re like roger, wearing your very large heart on your sleeve. nothing wrong with that. world needs more ppl like you guys.

  4. Reply tiassa Jul 19,2013 23:38

    That’s one the reasons I had to stop working in 911 dispatch. I would hear things over the phone, and even though I could tell people to go help them, I couldn’t DO anything but listen. I just couldn’t handle it anymore.

  5. Reply damellman damellman Apr 27,2014 01:31

    This is bullshit. Where I’m from paramedic don’t get paid enough to live on their own at the cost of living. That’s why all the firefighter paramedic wannabes who can’t get a career for whatever reason goes into nursing. Well I say screw that cuz I’m not gonna waste my time trying to take out loans with bad credit ( that’s not my fault) paying a high interest rate for the rest of my life. …. I’m gonna try to do something entry level or warehouse related cuz it pays bout the same if not more and I don’t have to worry about spending money and taking tests maintaining the stupid certifications. Don’t get me wrong I love be a Paramedic. but I can’t survive alone where I am with this job . Money effects everything. Your driving record your health , yur social status, your credit and your job applicability and ect. Ect…. ( license suspended cuz I couldn’t pay the insurance between job’s I …haha) …OVERALL if I had any advice for anyone. . Unless they know someone who will offer a high paying medic job .. Don’t waste your time ….plz… I’m a Paramedic and I’m homeless right now. Hahaha. …… figure that one out!

  6. Reply J Fishermn Apr 24,2015 22:39

    where do i favorite this article

  7. Reply Kent H. Jun 26,2015 23:36

    A very well written article sir. I worked for Detroit EMS for 4 1/2 yrs. Your article completely discribes how most of us feel. Everytime i look on my facebook and see the shit my old colleagues are doing down there, i just don’t miss it. I try to educate people that want to do this, but i get the “look at this mutha ×#!^#/ look” The job will eat you alive if you do not properly decompress. Thats the toughest part.

    I work at a hospital as a Tele Medic on a Cardiovascular Unit. The pay is not great. But the schedule and hours are 10× better!!

    The reason I left was my marriage was failing. And my anger from working in a high paced urban area, with all that trauma got to me in more than one way.

    So tell your story and tell it proud. EMS has its good days and its bad days.

    The hardest thing is, i can’t reach these 21 to 22 yr old kids anymore. Its a tough life in EMS Period! And the rewards are there, but as you said far and few in between.

    The life lessons you learn in those streets, homes, ecfs, afcs, and ER will stick with you forever. I still have occasional flashback, but not as often. My family is everything to me. Thats what I would have lost if I stayed. No badge or city job is worth that shit.

    Just my 2$ on it all.

  8. Reply Raine Sep 20,2015 04:44

    I worked SO hard getting through EMT and paramedic school. Paid a lot of money and worked my BUTT off – then I got in the field and hated it.

    It was awful to have gone through so much hard work to do something, then find out you really don’t like the job at all! But I’m moving on because I’d rather work a little more to be in a job I like than end up a bitter old paramedic that hates what they do.

    The reasons I hate it are simple – it’s DANGEROUS, dirty, hot, sweaty, hard, back-breaking, stressful work, and you spend 90% of your time killing yourself to get to people who don’t need an ambulance at all. You risk your life driving like a bat out of hell in a dang BOMB to get to a call and find someone sitting there smoking a cigarette and watching their shows, that says they called 911 because they’d been sick for 2 weeks and just weren’t getting better.

    Naw… it ain’t for me. I’m glad and thankful that there are people who DO love this work! My hat’s off to ’em! But I’m going to see what else I can do with a paramedic degree because there is no way I’m going to stay in something I don’t like when people’s lives depend on me being my best. I’d end up hating myself and hating life in general.

    Shudder – paramedic/EMT work is stinky hard grunt work for very little money. Risky too. Last research shows it has one of the highest fatality rates of any job in the US.

    (waving goodbye)

    It was real folks. See ya on the flipside. LOL

  9. Reply Jon Sep 24,2015 10:11

    If you don’t mind hard work and get fulfillment helping others than it’s an awesome rewarding job with early/great retirement. If you are not a lazy bum and work on your off days you will make a lot of money.

  10. Reply Logan Oct 11,2018 20:52

    This was a very well written article! I also got my EMT license and then suffered through 3 years of hell in paramedic school. The job was awesome at first but then you slowly begin to realize how dangerous it is. The negative health effects of destroying my circadian rhythm was enough reason for me to leave the field (I read multiple books on this subject AFTER I became a paramedic). And as much as I tried to pretend that it didn’t bother me I absolutely hated it when people called 911 and they did not have an emergency which seemed like 90% of the calls that I went on. It really made me hate humans and I suffered from terrifying daydreams about something bad happening to my family. Sometimes it is better to stay ignorant to all of the messed-up ways that a human could die or a family could be ripped apart.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: