It’s been a bad year for EMS. Between the Illinois crew charged with first degree murder for their treatment of a man in alcohol withdrawal who died of restraint asphyxia to the new story of the Shameless paramedic filmed stealing £60 from woman, 94, moments after she collapsed and DIED, it has not been a good look at all.
The sad thing is I do not find these stories to be unbelievable. In The Dark Places I wrote how I had worked with people like the Illinois crew, who appeared tired, burnt out and if they had any compassion to begin with it, it was long gone by that fateful night when the female medic told the patient, she “didn’t have time for this shit.”
And when it comes to EMS stealing, while I have never directly observed it, the opportunities are ever present, so it is not unbelievable that a medic with weak character might act on the temptation. Years ago there was a story of a local EMT who stole a diamond engagement wedding ring off a corpse and gave it to his fiancé. How could someone do that? I thought about that for a long time, so much so that I wrote a novel, Diamond in the Rough, about it. In the book, I wanted to be able to both show how someone could do this, make him relatable (not a monster) and both have him suffer the consequences of his deed and still achieve some type of redemption by understanding the trust he had broken and become a better man.
How did he come to take a ring off a corpse? How did the Illinois crew come to display such callousness toward their patient? How did the British paramedic come to steal money from the dead women? For me, it comes down to culture and role models. When you first start in EMS, if you are impressionable, how your partners behave toward their patients, how they honor the privilege of helping those most in need can shape how you act and what you teach new people later on. Positive role models can have an effect far beyond the individual patients they treat just like negative role models can cause harm far beyond what they do themselves. I tried to show the effect of such role models in my book
When I wrote the novel, I chose to present his story as a manuscript given to me by his mother after his death. This is the introduction I wrote:
The woman wanted me to read her dead son’s manuscript. She found me as I played with my young daughter in a park near my home. (I had not returned her emails). The woman said her son had worked with me as an EMT on the streets of Hartford nearly a decade before and had held me in high regard. (Ah, flattery—it weakened my resolve to offer a firm but polite no). As I pushed my daughter on the swings, she begged me as a parent to consider her grief. Her son’s life had gone for naught and the hard lessons he learned would not be shared unless I could help her gain a publisher for his earnest tale. Yes, she was shedding tears as she spoke. My daughter came to a stop on the swing. Daddy, why did you stop pushing me? Daddy, why is she crying?
I did not recall the woman’s son’s name, but when she handed me a faded Polaroid of him in uniform, I recognized him. He had worked for us for several years. During that time, I perhaps worked with him only a time or two and had no memory of our shifts together. Like many others in our business, he had moved on and had not been heard from since. According to his mother, he was living in New Jersey and working as a repo man (he was out of EMS altogether then) when he came upon a wreck on a country road. A yellowed newspaper article she put in my hand said he had dragged a young woman out of a burning car. A high-voltage wire fell on him after he had secured her safety. There was no mention in the article of his previous EMS career or of any special ceremony other than that his family had a private service for him. Here in Hartford, I had heard nothing of his death. He had just been one of many faces to move through the EMS business. She handed me the manuscript and, in a new fit of sobbing, begged me to read it. My daughter asked again why the woman was crying. I had no choice but to assent. The relieved woman gave me a heartfelt hug, blessed me and told me I would not regret it.
I felt bound and a little curious to at least read the first page, and perhaps skim through the rest to see if he mentioned me (he didn’t). Still, I must tell you, I was captivated from the first sentence. There certainly was more to this young man than met the eye. I must caution, though, that at the same time I was drawn into his story, I was also repelled by the crimes and behavior he described. I have always held up our profession as an example of people at their finest, and here was one of our own admitting to serious misdeeds. While I was unaware of any of these events taking place, I found his account of EMS in Hartford in those days largely accurate, and the events, sadly, not beyond the realm of possibility.*
In the end I felt his story, rather than being hidden in a drawer, deserved public scrutiny. And while I in no way condone any of his crimes, it is better for us to hear his story and understand the demons that drove him. Perhaps we can then strive to be better people ourselves for having visited the darker places of his psyche. And maybe we can all find it in our hearts to show mercy to his frail soul. EMS is strong in our communities and will survive any doubt this book might raise about the general responder’s decency.
Other than a few changes to protect the confidentiality of real people and patients, a few spelling corrections, and deletion of numerous gratuitous sex scenes, here is the tear-stained manuscript his dear mother entrusted to me.
Peter Canning, Paramedic
* Fortunately today, the hiring process and mandatory background checks have gone a long way to promoting fewer opportunities for weaker individuals to gain employment in EMS.
You can order Diamond in the Rough here: