EMS Week 2013: Knowing and Not Knowing

About three years ago, I carefully stepped down this short hallway, not all too certain what to expect. The hallway opened into a small, practically empty room. A dusty mammoth of a photocopier sat in the corner beside stacks of office paper. A few framed photographs adorned the otherwise blank white walls. The new summer sunlight streamed through a small window near the ceiling. An open door in front of me led into an even smaller room, lined with cluttered desks. To my right was an open door with a sign saying “PERSONNEL ONLY”.  I froze up, awkwardly standing in the middle of this room in a place I clearly didn’t belong.  What was I doing here anyway? Just as I turned to look at the now very alluring front door behind me, a voice asked, “Can I help you?”

I snapped my head back from over my shoulder, suddenly very aware of how out of place I seemed. I swallowed. A man with salt & pepper hair stood in the doorway, a quizzical but friendly expression on his face? Was he always there? How did I miss him before? He must think I’m crazy for just wandering into this station.

“Uh…hi. My name is Probie To Practitioner. I’m here to uh…see if maybe I could…work on an ambulance?” It was more of a question than a request. The words felt strange coming out of my mouth, and even stranger to my ear. You? On an ambulance? You’re afraid of your own shadow. You’re afraid of talking to this man here. And you’re trying to do what??

He grinned broadly at me. “Ohh, you’re the one who called earlier! Come on in! Let’s show you around, see how you feel, and go from there. Alright?”

“Hey, wanna show her around a little? Show her the ambulance or something?” This gentleman asked a short paramedic, with tired circles under his eyes and a welcoming half-smile on his face. The paramedic agreed, stepping into the doorway, and making a motion for me to follow him. He walked through the door that said “PERSONNEL ONLY”.

This was where I hesitated. I stopped, mid-step, and mentally told myself “No, you’re not ‘personnel’.” I spent a moment internally arguing this point. I just felt odd, barging into the personal space of a place filled with prestige, courage, and tradition. It wasn’t something I was a part of. I realized how stupid I would look, awkwardly posed outside the door, and how much more stupid I would sound trying to explain my reasoning to the paramedic. Quickly, I hurried through the door, catching up with him.

I followed out into the bay, smelling of cool concrete, metal, and rubber. The rest of that afternoon would be spent with an awed smile on my face, feeling like I was half in a dream, going through an ambulance check with this paramedic.

It was a peculiar moment of knowing and not knowing.

At the time, I didn’t know that this station would become my second home. I didn’t realize I’d walk these carpets thin. I didn’t know how many roaring laughs and gravely whispered conversations would reverberate off these walls. I didn’t know I’d be spending countless hours here. I didn’t know that the cool smells of the bay would become so relaxing and cleansing to me.

I didn’t realize that the paramedic who showed me an ambulance for the first time would go on to be my mentor, and one of my dearest friends. I didn’t realize that these same people I had held in my mind as heroes, would one day be held in my heart as family. Some would move. Some would leave. Some would die. Some would come and stay, others would come and go. I didn’t know how much they would do for me.

I didn’t realize the lengths to which I’d go when I was here. I didn’t realize what this job would ask, demand, and take from me. I didn’t realize how much of myself I’d give to this field, this lifestyle. I didn’t know how EMS would bend me, push me, and teach me. I didn’t know how much it would make me grow. I didn’t know how many lives I would touch, or to what extent.

Despite all that I didn’t know, I somehow knew one thing: I belonged here. It may not have been a conscious thought; even if it was, I’m sure it would have been drowned out with all the other thoughts of self-doubt and disbelief. But I felt it. I felt it in my heart, and in every fiber of my being.

EMS Week 2013. We have one mission. We are one team.

And I am beyond honored to be a part of yours.

I Took The Red Pill

I went through a box of old pictures today, and took that trip down memory lane to happier and simpler times. There was one of my second grade friends and I sitting on a brick wall in the park, sticking out Kool-Aid technicolor tongues. Another featuring my eight-year-old sister and I, horrifically sunburnt, carefully sculpting our sand castle–no, impenetrable sand fortess–on a July day at the beach. Fast forward several years, and there I am at 15 with a sports medal around my neck, a boyfriend’s arm around my waist; laughing at something I can’t remember. Towards the bottom of the box, there’s one of  me squinting into the camera, with a 6-year-old toothy grin pushing dimples onto my freckled cheeks.

I know I’m looking back at myself in these pictures, yet I feel like an entirely different person. And I can’t help but wonder…Would these girls in these pictures still feel like such strangers to me if I had made other choices? Would they feel more like memories, and less like different lives? Would they be proud to see the young woman they would go on to become? The young woman that became an EMT?

Maybe, if I hadn’t been an EMT, I never would have left the sports I’d loved. Instead of fighting my way through a community college nursing program, maybe I would be a college athlete now at some university. Perhaps, I’d be majoring in English, pursuing my life-long dream of becoming a writer.

On my breaks, maybe I’d come home and work at the grocery store, or a diner. I’d watch the clock as I worked, counting down the hours until I could go spend the evening with my friends. Instead of having friendships consisting mostly of adults, all of my companions would be stressed, idealistic kids my own age. Instead of trying to find the words to say when hearing about divorces, children, and financial issues; my friends and I would groan about our papers due next week. We’d excitedly share the news of that internship we worked so hard for. We’d look forward to graduating, gazing through dreamy veils at the perceived freedoms of adulthood.

Maybe, if I hadn’t been an EMT, I’d meet some great guy. Instead of constantly apologozing for and juggling my hectic schedule, maybe I’d actually have time to spend getting to know him. Maybe I’d have days to go out and evenings to stay in.  Maybe I’d have someone to say, “I love you” to before I hung up the phone. Instead of hearing, “I can’t do this anymore. We’re done,” maybe I’d hear “I love you” back.

Maybe, if I hadn’t been an EMT, I’d never read the obituary section of the newspaper. I’d pull over for the flashing lights of an ambulance, briefly wonder what happened, and then continue back on my way without giving it another thought. Instead of hearing the screams and cries of those involved echo inside my head when watching the evening news; the stories would only cause sighs of dismay and temporary grief, before drifting back to the dusty corners of my mind, soon to be forgotten.

But, maybe not. I will never know. Sometimes, I look into the pictures of my younger self and think, “God, the things you’re going to see. The things you’re going to hear. The things you’re going to do. If I told you, would you believe me?”

Three years ago, I made the decision to go into the emergency medical services. Unknowingly, I chose a life that would never be “normal” again. Sure, I could quit and change to a regular 9-to-5 job; but the experiences I’ve had will never leave me. Funny thing is, I don’t think I’d ever want them to.

I chose an experience, a brotherhood, a life like nothing else. It wasn’t expected or planned. But despite its occasional ugliness, I fell in love with this field. There’s no turning back now. I will never know what it’s like to have the “traditional college experience.” I’ll never know what it’s like to fumble my way into adulthood hand-in-hand with peers of my age. I will never know what it’s like to have a college sweetheart. I will never read the paper or watch the news the same way again. But, I will live my life knowing I made some small difference in my corner of the world. I will know, as tough as it can be, I did what I absolutely loved.  I will know a great many things about life, mankind, and the human spirit that most people will never understand.

It’s true…some days, I look back at my younger self and say, “What on earth did I get you into?” But I know, I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

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(Image credit)

How’d You Get Into EMS?

Like most of the best things in my life, I came into EMS completely unintentionally.

Prior to EMS, I had a particular fondness for swimming. At 17, I was preparing to start my 10th season of competitive swimming, and my fourth season of 10-&-under coaching, when I got a phone call from my head coach. Enrollment was down for the upcoming season, and it looked like I won’t be coaching the little kids after all.

Well. That greatly opened up my summer schedule.

To most people, that would hardly be a bad thing. But I had spent my adolescence as one of those annoying over-achievers that burnt the candle at both ends. In high school, I spent my afternoons, evenings, and weekends darting around to my 13 extra-curricular activities. If I had down time, I was in a panic, trying to remember what project, assignment, meeting, practice, rehearsal, game, meet, or activity I was supposed to be doing. I couldn’t relax during my “time off.” It actually made me more anxious.

So I began my job hunt. Unfortunately, it seemed that every attempt to find a local job ended in “Thanks, but no thanks.” Each small store already had their seasonal adolescent workers hired. Not giving up yet, I figured if I couldn’t get paid to do work, well, maybe I could volunteer. Seeing how I was starting college in the fall for my biology/pre-med degree, I decided I’d give the hospital a call and see how I could volunteer there.

“Sorry,” I was told. My heart started to sink. “We only take volunteers in the ER if they’re EMT students.”

EMT student, huh? That sounds kind of fun. I could learn more about healthcare, get some practice actually treating patients, and ride around in an ambulance. There’s no harm in at least seeing what it’s about, right? And if it’ll be a gateway to get me to work at the hospital–even better!

I set up a meeting with a fire department officer later that week. He had a paramedic take me to do a truck check on one of the ambulances. I sat on the bench seat, and listened intently to his explanation of the equipment, what EMT’s can do, and the EMS culture. I was awestruck.

By the end of that hour, I was so completely in love with EMS. I don’t know what did it, but sitting in that truck just felt right. I didn’t want to leave.

It didn’t matter how much I had to learn. It didn’t matter how long it would take. It didn’t matter that I had no idea how I was going to deal with things like guts, gore, and death. I would figure all of it out in time. For the first time in my life, I knew I could do something. I mean, just knew it. On the days I had my doubts, there was always this determined little whisper in the back of my mind that said that I could get through this.

That night, I researched EMS blogs, almost desperate to find someone’s story or opinion that would take this dreamy glow off of my newest and strongest aspiration. As it turns out, it only deepened my love for the field. The next day, I was enrolled in a local First Responder class, and began my EMS apprenticeship at the fire department.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sunny’s Story

Like plenty of other little girls, I had a soft spot for stuffed animals. Of course, I had a favorite stuffed animal. It was a yellow lab that I named Sunny. She came with me on all kinds of adventures, from playing at home, to kindergarten, to my first swim meets, to family vacations. Every night, I fell asleep with her tucked under my arm.

And, also like plenty of other little girls, I moved to another state during my childhood. About a week before moving day, my family and I headed up to Maine for a short vacation. Every summer, we would spend a few days in Maine, enjoying the change of scenery on the beach. Nothing about this trip was unusual. We packed up the suitcase with swimsuits, towels, toiletries, clothes, aloe gel, and never enough sunblock. And, of course, I held Sunny in my lap for the car ride up.

Just like all the other vacations, I returned happy, freckled, and sunburnt. But, now that vacation was over, we dove full force into the whole moving ritual…saying good bye to friends, having those last play dates, eating out at the local restaurants for the last time, and packing what seemed an impossible amount of stuff. Those last few days were all cardboard boxes and hugs good bye. Mom packed a few boxes into the minivan, and we waved good bye to New York through the car windows. Dad stayed behind to help load the rest of the boxes into the truck with the movers. We would meet up in our new home the next day.

When we arrived in our home that evening, I realized that Sunny wasn’t in my bag of clothes. I had slept without her for the past few days, seeing as everything was being packed up. I assumed she was in one of the boxes back in New York, and tried to settle into a fitful sleep in the unsettlingly quiet country.

As any of you who have ever moved know, the next few days continued to be constant activity too. Now we had to unpack the ungodly amount of cardboard boxes, buy furniture, start school, make friends, learn the lay of the town, and get used to all this quiet and driving 15 minutes to get anywhere. To add to the confusion and anxiety, a few days after we moved, we found ourselves watching 9/11 unfold with the rest of the country, hoping that our friends back home were safe.

In all of the chaos, my concerns about Sunny took a back seat. It wasn’t for another month or so, after all the boxes had been unpacked, that I started to grow concerned. I was starting to accept the fact that Sunny had been lost in the move. One day, however, I came home to find Sunny sitting on my bed. After picking her up and squeezing her, almost crying with happiness, I noticed a handwritten note, detailing her adventures over the passed month-and-a-half.

I had accidentally left Sunny behind in our hotel in Maine. Housekeeping had found her, and instead of throwing her out or putting her in lost-and-found, they looked up our home address, and took the time and trouble to mail her back. Once the package had arrived at our apartment in New York, we had already moved. The landlord opened the package and instantly recognized Sunny as my near-lifelong companion. He mailed the package to  (what he thought) was our new address. Unfortunately, it was addressed to a house number on our new street that didn’t exist. But, we moved to a small town, and plenty of people knew about the new out-of-staters that talked with that heavy New Yawk accent. Noting the return address, our mailman brought the package with him on his route, knocked on our door, and asked my mother if this box, by chance, was meant for us. She wasn’t expecting a package, but recognized our old address on the box, and accepted it gratefully. When she opened in up, Sunny sat inside. She was a little bit dirty, but no worse for wear.

Sunny and I have both gotten older. She’s been well-loved, and she certainly looks it. Her fur is flatter, and the color isn’t so vibrant. Mom’s performed a couple of “surgeries” on her, including sewing her leg back on. The stuffing has been squished and flattened in her abdomen from all the hugs over the years. I still have her in my bedroom.

I keep her not only for sentimental value, but because she’s a symbol of something great. Several people–all but one of them being complete strangers–unknowingly worked together to do something amazing for one little girl. At any point in that chain, Sunny could have been abandoned, given away, thrown away, cast aside, or forgotten about. Most little girls that leave their favorite stuffed animal behind in a hotel room never see their plush friend ever again. But all of those people took the time out of their day to try and get that stuffed animal back into the arms of the little kid that loved it so much. To them, it was just some toy that could be easily replaced, sold for $15 down at the store. But to me, it was Sunny; protector from nightmares and monsters in the dark, friend in new and scary situations, and life long playmate. Sunny was irreplaceable to me. Although it probably didn’t matter to them, it mattered to me. And somehow, all of those people understood that. It made a big difference in my life; one that I’ll never forget, and never be able to thank them for.

Be “Sunny’s helper.” Be the stranger that reaches out. The small things that you do and think nothing of, might make a world of difference to someone else.

This One Time, At Band Camp…

For the record, this didn’t happen at band camp. This was a band competition. No, I wasn’t in some cool high school garage band with some crafty, angsty name like “Public Nostalgia” or something, playing at the local “Battle of the Bands.” Nope. I was a legit band geek. Loud and proud, my friends. (I didn’t even play a “cool” instrument. I played trombone. Hell yeah.) And we were competing in a concert band competition in Florida.

My high school concert band was about 70 strong. We are lucky to have a strong arts program at our school. But even little Grover’s Corners isn’t immune to the state of the economy, so we don’t receive much in the way of funding our arts program. We fundraise for the things we really want, and make do with the rest.

This means we don’t have concert uniforms. Not that it matters, really. Every other year, our concert band leaves home and goes off to a big competition somewhere using the money that we’d worked so hard for. Aside from that, we only really play for our community. They love us and think we play wonderfully no matter what we look like.

But on this beautiful Florida day, we can’t help but notice how out of place we are. We are wearing what we always wear for our concerts: a white dressy shirt or blouse, and black dress slacks or a skirt on bottom. We all look similar, but it’s obvious that we each pulled our outfits from our own individual wardrobes. Some shirts are whiter than others. Some are button down, some are pull-over. Our pants are varying shades of black, in very different cuts and styles. We’re not matching. But we’re here, and we’re doing our best.

The band that performed before us files out of the auditorium. Every one of them wears a dark red, button down shirt. The boys sport black pants, while the girls wear high-waisted black skirts. The heels of a hundred pairs of identical, polished black dress shoes and high heels click against the polished floor. Most of them don’t so much as glance at us, but the ones who do look our way do so with superior stares; eyes looking us up and down. Some of us meet their stares with indifference, and others become suddenly engrossed in taking meticulous care of their instruments. Sure, we feel a little self-conscious. We do not look quite so polished and professional. But we earned our right to compete here.

A woman with a clipboard informs us that it’s our time to perform. We exchange nervous smiles, squeeze excited hands, and whisper jittery “Good luck”s to each other. We pull a little at our clothes, smoothing out some of the creases that the iron failed to correct this morning. Our band director, our beloved and fearless leader, smiles the warmest, most genuine smile in the world. He just glows with pride. He knows how hard we’ve worked to be here. Although we know he’s probably wracked with nerves on the inside, it’s his pride in us that he chooses to let shine through. It’s contagious. We can’t help but let our chests swell with pride too.

We file out onto the stage, shoulders back, heads up, backs straight. We smile, and some freshmen even let out a nervous giggle. When we arrive at our seats, we glance around at each other knowingly. We’ve done this hundreds of times in practice. We’re good at what we do, and we know it. And right now, there a few people in the audience who are waiting to know it too.

We play our little hearts out. Admittedly, we’re a little taken aback by the fantastic acoustics in the room (a luxury we don’t have in our giant rectangular classroom. It’s an acoustical nightmare). But we sort it out. We do our best. We complete our last song, beaming 70 smiles up at our director, and he reflects them all back to us. The judges thank us for our performance, and we thank them for their time. We leave the stage with the same proud steps.

We might not be much to look at, but we do our jobs well. Nearly all of us carry instruments with dents, scratches, and fading finishes. Our concert attire is far from uniform. But we have an immense pride in what we do. So we polish our dinged instruments. We iron our mismatched clothes. And we do our best every day, determined to show everyone our talents and abilities.

Moral of the story? It doesn’t matter if your ambulance is older than anyone on your crew. It doesn’t matter if your issued uniform is sun-bleached and wearing thin. It doesn’t matter that your equipment isn’t the flashiest or most impressive. When you step out in public—be it running to the grocery store for your on-shift dinner, coming to a patient’s aid, or walking into the hospital—do it with pride and confidence in your abilities.

One Less Set of Lights in the Sky

It’s one of those perfectly clear winter nights. You just have to marvel at the brightness of the stars. And up there, gliding over the smooth, even blackness of the night, are the glittering lights adorning a small plane’s wings.

In my pre-EMT life, I was That Girl that did way too many extracurricular activities. For about a year and a half, I participated in this wonderful aviation program. It sounds like something out of a dream; too good to be true. In exchange for community service hours, you received free aviation school. This included both ground school, and in-flight instructor time, all in an effort to turn kids on to aviation and allow us to earn our private pilot’s license. Because of this, I got to do some pretty incredible things. I flew a plane before I ever drove a car. How many people can say that?

The program was run by a great man named Paul. He was financially well off, from what I understood, and he funded the bulk of the program, allowing myself and several other students the opportunity to learn about a whole career path for free. All he asked for in exchange was that we maintained good grades, and that we gave back to our community. It was his dream to give the gift of aviation to as many people as possible.

He piloted my very first airplane ride. I’ll never forget the butterflies in my stomach as the plane hurtled down the runway, or the smoothness under the wings when we left the ground. His laugh and the excitement in his voice were hard to ignore as he pointed out local landmarks from the air. He was always smiling.

Paul loved flying, and helping people. In addition to starting this program at our high school, he also volunteered for Angel Flight. Always grinning, always laughing. He loved what he did, and worked to spread that joy and curiosity in everyone else.

I did not finish the program with my private pilot’s license. Somewhere along the way, I realized that as cool as aviation was, I had different dreams that were to lead me down a different path. I had to respectfully withdraw from the program. Although, I know a few of my fellow students did go on to earn their private pilot’s license. What’s more, I believe at least one of them is planning on becoming a commercial pilot, or an aviation instructor.

Paul and I occasionally ran into each other from time to time, walking downtown, or waiting in line at the grocery store. We would exchange stories, update each other on our lives, and wish each other well in our brief encounters. Last time I saw him, I was waiting in line at the bank. We started our conversation, but I had to cut it short when I saw a teller open up. I outstretched my hand and waved good bye, as we started to go our separate ways. “See you around,” I said. He told me to take care. It’s funny how quickly things can change.

A few days later, his Cessna would crash shortly after take off. The fire department had said, “there was no chance of saving the person on board.” Just like that, an endearing, compassionate, loving soul departed.

It seemed weird…I’d seen him only a few days earlier, and all was well. I suddenly found myself wishing I’d spent just a little longer talking with him that day at the bank. That maybe I should have let him know just how grateful I was for the opportunity he gave me. But of course, there’s no way I could’ve known then. In EMS, I feel like I see the living, the dying, and the dead. Like there’s a natural progression. It’s just shocking to have someone go from alive to not without being in that stage between. For some reason, I just never imagined such a thing happening to him. How could something he loved so much turn and take him from us? It’s shocking, maybe even cruel; and yet, it’s somewhat poetic.

I look up into that gorgeous, endless dark, and remember the days I spent coursing up there in the clouds. I’ll remember the man who selflessly shared that passion with so many. That clear, starry sky is going to have one less set of light-adorned wings gliding through it.

Rest in peace, friend.

Carla

Her name was Carla. And she was 12 years old.

My iPod is hooked up to my car stereo. Singing along to it gives me something to do during my commutes to school. Every now and then, it’ll play an old song I hadn’t heard in a while, and I’ll surprise myself by still knowing the lyrics. The other day, it chose a song that I couldn’t immediately place. But the first few notes pulled at something inside me. It was one of those songs that you link back to a memory. And just like that, I was back in eighth grade.

Two of my friends came into school one morning, and we met in the atrium before class, like we always did. But they were somber and held each other in a wordless, warm, heartfelt embrace. It was then that they told me Carla had cancer.

She had swam on the same team as me, although I never really got to know her well. I was shy at the time, and only swam during the summers up until then. She was a face I saw at meets, laughing with some of the other girls.

I didn’t know her well by any stretch of the imagination. Yet I was still sad, nervous, and scared. At the time, I attributed it to being empathetic to my best friend, Helen, as she was good friends with Carla. Helen called me regularly, the way middle school girls do. But amongst the predicted chatter of boys and school and clothes, we talked about Carla. We carefully avoided the subject of death. We were 13 at the time, and such a dark subject simply wasn’t a reality.

Some fellow swimmers and I started making 1,000 paper cranes. We were young, and the thought of something being so out of our control didn’t sit well with us. So we met after swim practices, and folded colorful paper with our prune-y, damp fingers. It filled that uncomfortable helplessness that sitting idly by and watching brings. We filled that gap with paper birds; our attempt at contributing. Though I’m not sure I saw it that way at the time.

One April day, a group of us swimmers were packed into the back of my mother’s Subaru, on our way to Dunkin Donuts after an off-season work out. The sun was shining, and the pavement was wet with the clean smell of fresh snowmelt. We chose a table, sipping on Coolattas and devouring muffins. We talked about swim team and folded more cranes. Despite my practice, I was still pretty terrible at it. My clumsy birds looked out of place beside the crisp ones my friends had been churning out.

“Carla’s not going to die,” One friend declared, setting down a green crane in the middle of the table. “I can just feel it. She’s going to get better.”

I arrived home to find a missed call on my caller ID. I returned my friend’s call. It was there, standing in my kitchen, with the new spring sunlight streaming through the glass sliding door, that I learned that Carla was gone.

I cried off and on for the next few days. Her celebration of life ceremony was held in the Town House, which was completely filled. Before the ceremony, I held Helen, having no idea what to do. Once the ceremony began, I took my place in the balcony, beside the very group of swimmers with whom I’d made cranes with at the Dunkin Donuts only days earlier. All of the little origami birds were collected in paper bags before us. A song played as the ceremony ended, and people processed down the center aisle. We tossed handfuls of cranes off the edge of the balcony, showering the people below with our flightless symbols of hope.

That summer, I’d spent a few nights crying over Carla, a girl I barely knew, even in passing. I often scolded myself for having such emotions over a girl I wasn’t privileged to call “friend.” I think I felt that I had no right to be sad, especially when all those who did know her were mourning.

All those memories were buried deep, far from view. I’d forgotten about them until that song brought them back. With a couple more years of experience in life, death, and much in between, I think I understand how I felt then.

She was the first bold example that not everyone makes it. That the statistic of those lost to cancer can include people you know, people in your community. The number of those lost is not just made up of complete strangers. It was the first time I learned that people actually do die. It’s not a punishment, or a fiction made for heartbreak in movies and books. It’s very real. What’s more real is that age does not ward death off. It was the first blow in my young life that kids can die too. It was the first time anything challenged my perception that everything and everyone I love is immortal. It was proof that some things are far out of our control. Not even prayer, good behavior, best intentions, or paper cranes can give us back the reigns.

I continued driving down that stretch of highway, music playing and unearthing memories. I found myself briefly wishing that I could go back and hug my 13 year old self, and reassure her that it was okay to be sad.