For many of us in EMS, our origin story began with watching the TV show Emergency. The decent paramedics Johnny and Roy, the wise Drs. Brackett and Early, and the beautiful unflappable nurse, Dixie McCall. Together they stood for all that was good in the world. They were role models for us in showing us a path to lead our lives as rescuers.
When we entered the workforce, or at later times, contemplated the other work we were doing, and wondered if there was something more meaningful, the example of Emergency was always there for us.
I came to EMS later than most. I was in my early thirties. I had been working in government/politics for a United States Senator, and with his defeat in 1988, I was at a crossroads. I liked the man I worked for – US Senator Lowell Weicker. He was a liberal Republican who was not afraid to buck his own party if he thought his actions would benefit the people of his state and country. He was a member of a group of moderate Republicans like Charles Mathias of Maryland, Jacob Javits of New York, and Ed Brooke of Massachusetts who crafted compromises both parties could live with. Sadly today, as William Butler Yeats warned in his poem “The Second Coming,” the middle did not hold.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,”
Politics today is no longer about making good policy, it is about making political points in a battle for personal power. Everyone is partisan. Weicker was defeated by Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat who ran attack ads that distorted Weicker’s record, while Weicker preferred positive ads believing the people understood he was their champion. We didn’t know it then, but the world was changing. There was no FOX cable news channel then. No MSNBC. No internet. No Facebook or Twitter, but the seeds of the future were already being sown.
I never really cared for the political life. I could have stayed in Washington and became an aide to another Senator or joined an interest group or lobbying firm. Instead, I (full of beer and passion) announced at a going away party for the Weicker staff that I was going to become an EMT, and then having said it aloud, I had to follow up on it. And so began my EMS odyssey. Even when Weicker ran for and was elected governor and I worked on his campaign and served as a speechwriter and executive assistant at the state health department for his four year term, I continued to work as an EMT at night, while thinking about going to paramedic school.
The other day I came across a collection of quotes I had put together at that time (1992). The quotes represented what I thought about life at the time. They contained song lyrics, passages from books, poetry and culture, along with illustrations. I saw one quote I had forgotten about, one that I remembered finding in a book by the great oral historian Studs Terkel.
“The fuckin’ world’s so fucked up, the country’s fucked up. But the fireman, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth to mouth when a guy’s dying. You can’t get around that shit. That’s real. To me that’s what I want to be.”
I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and its shit. You’re looking at numbers. But I can look back and say, “I helped put out a fire. I helped save someone.’ It shows something I did on this earth.”
-Tom Patrick, Brooklyn firefighter quoted in Studs Terkel’s Working.
I believe that quotation, as much as all the episodes of Emergency, set me on my ultimate life’s path as an emergency medical responder. When Weicker left office in January of 1995, the next day I was on the streets of Hartford with a paramedic patch on one shoulder and an American flag on the other.
Now at sixty-three, in a world that seems to be threatening to fall apart, from the hateful politics of the our times, to the roof of my house, to my battered 200,000 mile plus sedan, to my own health no longer that of a young man, here I stand, still putting on my uniform and going in to work to answer the call.
I did seventeen 911 responses in a ten hour shift last Friday, and when I came home I just sat in front of the TV with my wife and daughter and ate a late dinner before going to bed to sleep the sleep of the weary.
I wish all jobs were like ours, where the oath is to do no harm, to help others, to make the world a better place.