When I was a new paramedic, I wanted to be the greatest paramedic ever. I took pride in never missing work. When I was at work, if I got a late call, I didn’t care. I welcomed it in fact. Cardiac arrest five minutes before my out time, send me! I took as many overtime shifts as I could. I wanted the experience because only with experience could I truly reach the heights to which I aspired. When I wasn’t working I read medical textbooks and journals. We didn’t have instructional YouTube or podcasts then, if we had I would have watched them all.
I loved being a paramedic. For someone who’d worked a coat and tie job in an office, I couldn’t believe the freedom and adventure being a paramedic bestowed on me, and I was getting paid for it. Of course I didn’t have kids then, and I was single.
When we were younger many of us in EMS were six feet tall and bulletproof, as the country song at the time went. I fancied myself an EMS Joe Magarac. Magarac was a fabled steel worker and a Paul Bunyon type folk hero. He was the best worker in the mill. He could mold steel rails with his bare hands. He did the work of ten men. When the mill was threatened with closing down due to cheap foreign steel, he climbed in the cauldron and melted himself down into the finest steel with which they built a new plant and restored their glory as the greatest steel town. I thought that was pretty cool. In one of my novels (Mortal Men), I had a paramedic character who lost his life. He was cremated and his ashes spread on the streets where he worked so he could keep on looking out for his coworkers and the people of the city he’d loved.
After being a paramedic for about fifteen years a doctor asked me to address a conference talking about how I kept up my passion for the paramedic work. I thought about talking about all the things I loved about the job — the red lights and sirens, the thrilling calls, the chance to be a hero, the pretty nurses, the great food in the city, the fun partners, the down time between calls when I could shoot baskets, climb park jungle gyms to stay in shape, or just read good books when I wasn’t cracking jokes with my partners. I ended up turning the doctor down because it wasn’t all true. While I loved the job, I had my periods of burnout when I didn’t. I had times when it was a struggle to care, and I had calls that I had to keep at a distant place, locked away to prevent them from being a part of me. I learned to dissociate.
I’ve been at this for thirty years now, and many of those who rode with me as partners are buried in the ground. Dead of suicide, cancer, drugs and alcohol, and heart and lung disease. Some died with broken hearts after the work had turned against them. All of them dead too young.
I’ve been lucky so far. I married a nurse and had a family. I stopped trying to die nobly for a cause, as the old quote from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, goes, and started living humbly for one. I never became the greatest paramedic – not close. Hubris doesn’t last in this line of work. I try to do well by my patients, but I understand my limitations. Nowadays I want to get out of work on time. I want to live to a gentle old age and die during a peaceful sleep.
(Picture: Joe Magarac Mural at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)