I hit another landmark down my journey to becoming a fully competent practitioner.  It was inevitable, although I’m not sure I recognized that initially. It wasn’t a proud moment; in fact, it was close to just the opposite.

Empathy is my strongest skill set. I take pride in it. I’m pretty good at removing myself from a situation and trying to imagine what the patient is going through. I’d almost say that I’m cocky about it. Some paramedics can get blood from a stone. Some can fall down a flight of stairs and intubate 3 people by accident on the way down. I can connect with almost any patient. Well, so I thought.

Several months ago, I transported a young woman who was emotionally in a tough place. She was smart, pretty, polite. She had an interesting sense of style, and was embarrassed to be seen without her make up. On the surface, she looked like your typical adolescent kid…just beginning to try figuring out who she is. Still trying to find the place she fits in. But I guess she was like a lot of young adults, myself included. She was losing hope over figuring herself out, over finding where she truly belongs. I’m not sure she realized the permanence of what she was contemplating…That she was thinking of walking out of the movie only 15 minutes in, or closing a book after only 2 chapters. But when you’re only just starting out, it’s awfully hard to contemplate things bigger than yourself: who, where, and how you are now. It’s hard to contemplate things bigger than right now at any age.

We talked about things…school, boys, friends, arguments, likes, dislikes. Plans for the future, memories of the past. Mainly superficial stuff, but she occasionally opened up and allowed us to examine a little deeper. When the transport was over, we left her in capable hands, trusting that “The System” would get her the help she needed.

Not long ago, my partner and I showed up at the hospital for a transfer. The ED nurse gave us a report before we walked into the pt’s room. I flipped through the paperwork, when something grabbed my attention: the patient’s name. It was the same girl.

Maybe I was blinded by an arrogance I didn’t know had developed. Maybe my newness and ignorance kept me from even considering this possibility. Whichever it was, I felt a little blindsided.

I’d had repeat patient’s before. Every ambulance corps has their frequent flyers. So I’m not sure why this is so different. Maybe I actually expected this patient to get better. On some level, I liked to believe that I’d made a difference in this patient’s life. In my mind, I probably made out my impact to be much larger than it actually was. I really wanted her to get better, and I must have really expected her to get better too. When she didn’t, I was a little shocked. I felt a little like I had failed her. Obviously that’s not the case; this is no one’s fault, and certainly not mine. Although I worked to not show it, I was upset with her for reasons I couldn’t place.

I suppose I was frustrated that all of our efforts in the medical field hadn’t—and weren’t—helping her. And I had no idea how to fix that. And, to be truthful, dealing with this new understanding made it hard for me to reach out and connect with my patient on the same level I did before. I was wrongfully angry with her, and found myself trying hard to be there for her the way I did originally had. Why was this so hard for me? Why was it so easy to be compassionate the first time, and so trying the second? Maybe this empathy I’d given to patients wasn’t as genuine as I believed. That notion itself just rocks my world. It makes me feel worse than a bad EMT…it makes me feel like a terrible person.

Nobody has a 100% success rate. EMT’s with a talent for IV’s will eventually blow a line. Paramedics with a knack for intubation won’t get every tricky tube. I empathize and develop a relationship with patients, and I suppose it was only a matter of time until I didn’t, or couldn’t. I just hope that this landmark isn’t any more significant than that.


  1. Dinosaur Medic says:

    A principle is the expression of perfection, and as imperfect beings like us cannot practise perfection, we devise every moment limits of its compromise in practice.
    Mahatma Gandhi

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