How Becoming an EMT Saved My Life
Why and How I Became an EMT
My EMS career began with the idea itself, which came to me on the 6 hour drive to visit my parents. In 6 hours you can get a lot of thinking done. I was poor, destitute and had no direction. I played the last few years worth of decisions back over and over in my head, and needless to say, I was stressed out about being a college dropout with no solid career and only softskills to speak of on a resume.
I passed an ambulance, then passed another ambulance and a fire truck. A dark cloud loomed on the horizon. The city of Bastrop Texas was burning, and my drive was taking me down the road that the rescue crews were taking to get to the city. I had been seeing them for the last half hour.
The seed was planted, and on the drive home after visiting my parents, I decided to at least look into becoming an EMT. By that night, I was signed up for a 6 week, 8 hours per day monday through friday course. Before I could start, I would need a whole boatload of vaccinations.
In addition to the usual measles mumps and rubella, tuberculosis, flu and tetanus shots, i would need a hepatitis B vaccine. The hep-b vaccine comes in 2-3 doses, with the first two spaced 6 months apart. I was delayed a bit by needing this, but nonetheless, in 6 months I was there in class with unflagging interest in emergency medicine.
My class wasn't typical. Normally, courses take about a semester and you go like it's a standard college courseload. I was in the same class the fire and police departments used to get people certified, and it was 40 hours per week with a test at the end of 6 weeks. Very brutal. I'd say only 70% made it. The cocky ones didn't survive.
A girl I'd describe as highly intelligent was using it for clinical hours to renew her PA license. She was smart, but cocky. With such a short length of classes, failing a test meant expulsion from the program. Our test scores were posted each week on the wall with our secret numbers next to them so nobody'd know which was yours. We knew which was hers when a failing grade was in the list and she ran out crying. It was just that fast, poof.
We went in knowing nothing, and learned how to provide airway and circulation support to someone long enough to get them to a doctor. We learned how to perform CPR and splint broken limbs. We learned how to handle mass-casualty disasters and even got to deliver babies.
Clinical shifts were always late at night in one of the busy ERs in downtown Dallas. We got to see people at their worst, both medically and spiritually. Some were trying to scam pain pills to feed addictions, some were dying because they needed dialysis and had no way to get it other than turning up at the ER.
I saw a man with an arm swollen like an elephant leg who had broken it while high and not gotten treatment for days. He screamed so loudly when the doctor had to reset the bones with all of that swelling and I had to hold him down for it like an orderly. I saw a woman with tiny cuts on her body from head to toe, all self-inflicted.
I had a day where i tagged along for 24 hours with a fire department ambulance. It was Cinco de Mayo in the part of town with all of the good parties. We picked up domestic violence victims, drunks, homeless people, an engineer who had jet fuel shot into her eyes while working on an engine, but the one that got to me the most was the elderly prostitute. I couldn't get a blood pressure reading, and the medic I was with told me to pump the machine way higher. I found the BP finally at about 220/120, insanely high.
She was all skin and bones, and said she had driven 30 hours from the West coast to find clientele during all the partying. She looked like she was between 60 and 70 years old. She had pulled into this parking lot when she stopped being able to feel her hands and couldn't even lift herself from her own car. I helped her onto the stretcher and she went unconscious twice on the way to the hospital, becoming delusional and not knowing where she was. We dropped her off and that was all we could do, but I still remember how bad off she was when we left.
After the clinicals, we did a field day with the fire department at their training facility where we got to extricate people from vehicles, drive ambulances, practice leading teams in and out of burning buildings and pull bodies out of tight or otherwise difficult places. Amazingly fun, and by this point, everyone in our class had become friends.
At the end, I took the test and got my certification a month later by mail and was ready to look for work, thinking it would be like some part of class had been. I was very wrong.
Working with the Elderly
As far as work for an EMT fresh out of school, your options are usually limited to one of the many transport companies out there. I tried out a large one, hated it instantly and went to a smaller company. The jobs were plentiful and both times I was hired right away after a handshake and verifying my credentials.
I had to take a 3AM shift for my first job, and I pulled up in the middle of the night and saw the guy I sat next to the whole time in EMS classes smoking a cigarette. His eyes were as wide as saucers when he saw me. He ended up being my partner for my entire time working on the ambulance.
We took passengers to and from dialysis appointments mostly, for 13-15 hours per shift 3 days a week. I liked the schedule, though often the clients were in bad situations. Most were elderly, some in near-abuse situations. We always did the best we could for them, trying to help coordinate their care whenever possible to make the rest of their life smooth while we were away. Sometimes we really made a difference, and sometimes there was little else to do but drop them off and pick them back up after their dialysis.
Every now and then, though, we made their day by doing a little something extra like picking them up some groceries or holding their hand and telling them a story while they're going to especially bad pain. When you see the same people every day, they become like your own grand parents, so you tend to get more involved than you otherwise would.
At some point I realized that I had developed a sense of purpose, and considered taking EMS to the next level and becoming a paramedic. I could see myself doing this long term. I was no longer broke, not that I was making big bucks. In fact, I was really only making $11 an hour. EMS pays better than that now, according to some EMTs I keep up with, but they could also be bullshitting me.
I was no longer depressed very often. It's amazing how great you can feel when you're helping people. Getting a hug loaded with gratitude or having someone ask specifically for you to be in the back of the ambulance with them is incredible, and the connections you build with people are priceless. The flip side is, when one of your patients passes, it's like losing a grandparent and even EMTs with thick skin cry sometimes.
After 9 months, some of the places we were dropping patients off took notice of us being helpful and offered us jobs. My partner went to work in an ER as a tech and I went to a wound care facility as a tech.
Sometimes Pretty, Sometimes Ugly
To be honest, I jumped at the opportunity to move on, despite missing seeing my regular patients daily. Most for-profit EMS companies try to run as cheaply as possible, which leads to substandard conditions for the employees and dangerous situations for the patients. One time our stretcher broke while lifting a 300lb patient on it. We caught him, but it killed my back.
One time we had to pick up another crew who had a patient and was stranded on the side of the road. The engine was burning up in their ambulance and they had to unload the guy and roll a quarter mile down the road to be outside the blast radius if the thing blew up somehow. Apparently, it was leaking fuel everywhere and an explosion was probably actually possible. Scary.
I saw an ambulance company owner pay to have used, bald tires put onto an ambulance for use until one of them blew. It's a nasty racket sometimes, but our company typically tried to at least provide an air conditioned, functional ride. That made them a keeper, kinda sorta.
More valuable than money, more permanent than the best ink, what I got from working in EMS was the idea that no matter what you're doing, actually caring is what separates you from everyone else. If you let yourself be outstanding, others will notice. Maybe it won't get you any extra rewards, but it also might. I see plenty of people I worked with who never really cared still doing the same stuff and getting nowhere fast.
In the end, I left and became a wound care/ hyperbaric technician and got a huge raise and health benefits and they ultimately promoted me a couple times after that. I'll talk about that in another article some other time though.
Somehow, during that 9 months on the ambulance, I learned to let people in and have been ever since. Sometimes they burn you, and you have to stay open to others anyway because a lot of times they don't. Right now, writing this, I no longer work for the wound care company because eventually my work with them needed to come to a close, but now I'm in an even better position because I found someone who valued the amount that I've learned to care.
EMS gave me that.