The wheelchair was so big, it looked like it ran on plutonium.
  • The wheelchair was so big, it looked like it ran on plutonium.
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It was toward the end of my shift. I remember because I gauge the time of day by what type of hungry I am. When I wake up, it is milk on my Special K with strawberries mixed in. Midday, it’s a greasy carne asada burrito.

At six o’clock, I know it’s dinnertime because I am thinking about spaghetti with a snowlike layer of Parmesan cheese on top. Instead of eating, however, I was on this particular evening lugging around 75 pounds of disease-infested gurney — heading to Paradise Valley Hospital for an urgent pickup out of the Emergency Room.

Urgent is an inflated Emergency Medical Service’s term for a pickup that is unscheduled. To EMS management, unscheduled pickup doesn’t have the same flair that urgent does, so urgent it becomes.

We made our way from the ambulance bay into a bustling emergency department. My partner strolled up to the nurse’s desk, where no one paid attention to him.

This may come off as rude, but it’s just the way it is. It’s no one’s fault — the unit is typically understaffed for the amount of people who come in thinking they need emergency treatment. Whether it’s a lonely guy claiming he has a problem with his John Henry (in hopes that an attractive nurse will look at it), or a frequent flyer, with the same cramps in the same leg week after week, doctors and nurses must wade through a river of malingerers to get to the real patients.

My partner knows that if you need help right away, it’s best to lean on the nurse’s desk and make yourself annoying. Nurses hate it when you lean on the desk. Wanting to get rid of you makes them more likely to help, though they’d love nothing better than to take your metal clipboard and beat you with it. If you’re not in a hurry, stand dead center in the hallway for a while. Eventually, someone will recognize your existence.

“We’re here for Mrs. Doe,” my partner announced. (Of course, that wasn’t the patient’s real name.)

Confused, the male nurse at the desk said, “Why’d they send you?” Then he pointed into the patient’s room, where a large woman sat in what I think of as the Hummer of the motorized wheelchair. The chair was so big, it looked like it ran on plutonium.

“Hello,” my partner said to the woman.

“Don’t touch me,” was the lady’s response. “I am in so much pain, and they didn’t do a damn thing for me here.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” my partner said, not even trying to sound empathetic.

“When are you going to take me home?”

The woman had come into the ER with phantom symptoms. Meaning, she was the only one who thought that anything was wrong with her.

From this 30-second exchange, I knew that the call was going to be horrid.

Starting from the bottom isn’t easy but it’s a time-honored way to get to the next level. It’s the same in all professions, but the cost of my noble career choice came at a high price: close to minimum-wage pay, grueling hours, and companies that put more value on the bottom line than the care of patients or employees.

I started my emergency medical technician career driving a wheelchair van and quickly earned the qualifications needed to work on an ambulance — real ALS (advanced life support) shifts alongside a paramedic. I was achieving the dream.

Working on an ALS rig was everything I could have imagined and more. I loved every second in that cramped front compartment: eating on the run, backboarding, rescue-breathing, and driving Code-3. When I rolled on-scene, a dual sensation of power and fear intoxicated me.

It was an especially cold winter night when we were posted up in a grocery-store parking lot in a small agricultural town. Cornelius is 30 miles from Portland, Oregon, and known for its treacherous roads.

An ominous layer of fog was settling in, and the night became eerily quiet. At about 10:30 p.m., we got a call from dispatch about an MVA (motor vehicle accident) about five minutes away.

My pulse jumped; blood pumped through my veins with an energy I’d never felt before. With a flip of a switch, darkness was exchanged for the brilliance of red-and-white flashing lights. My siren proudly shrieked though the chilled Oregon air, a reminder to the world that I am here.

Instructions from dispatch were flung at me; I tried to remember everything while navigating my hospital-room-on-wheels through tight turns on narrow roads. The radio beeped and crackled with the muffled voice of my friend Jenny in dispatch. “There are two vehicles involved,” she said. What comes next is information no EMT or medic ever wants to hear: “The number of victims is unknown, but there is one male infant.”

We arrived on-scene to scattered emergency vehicles, firefighters in turnouts with their reflective strips glowing. I didn’t see any other ambulances — I did see the two wrecked cars.

Fear began to sink in. For a second, my mind went blank, but I managed to keep moving. I grabbed the medic kit and headed for one of the crashed vehicles. I didn’t think…I couldn’t think. But I instinctively knew what to do, a sign of good training. I was so excited, I forgot to put on my reflective vest, which landed me a tongue-lashing from a large firefighter with a walrus mustache.

As I approached the driver’s-side door of the mangled Honda Civic, I saw an attractive female about 18 years old. “Hello,” I said. “My name is Christian, and I am an EMT here to help you. Are you having any pain in your head or neck?”

“It feels like my head is swimming right now,” she said.

Swimming? What the hell did that mean?

But I knew from EMT school that if the patient says anything about pain in the head or neck, especially after a car accident, the first thing to do is maintain her in a neutral and in-line position. Next, slap on a C-collar, Velcro her to a backboard, then transport her as soon as possible. This was my moment to shine — no time to screw up. I had to do everything right. I told another firefighter what the young woman had said and offered a recommendation: “I suggest we spinal immobilize the patient.”

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Sdemt Jan. 13, 2012 @ 3:37 p.m.

Excellent written article. May I remind you though, that in a life threatening emergency its quite unfair to assume that an EMTs only tool is the cell phone with which to call 911? I don't need to enumerate the interventions an EMR can make as it seems you are aware of those but it seems you have forgotten your BLS basics in that a well trained EMT is worth their weight in life saving measures regardless if their scope is elementary, as it seems, to you. Anyone can call 911. Anyone can flip burgers. And burger flippers get paid more than most EMTs. So show a little respect for us little people. In a crisis we are watching out for the paramedics or nurses back while helping for the best patient outcome. I feel sorry for any EMT who works with you and all they get to do is call 911, instead of doing what they were trained to do.


AliPal June 22, 2012 @ 2:52 p.m.

I really enjoyed reading this! I've often wondered what it was like to be an EMT and I am appalled to see how little they are paid! I had no idea, but if it were up to me, I'd double it and I hope someday companies like the one you wrote about will be more concerned with efficiency and patient and employee care than their bottom line. Thanks for sharing and I'd buy you a Venti if I could!!!


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