Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Repost: Like the medicine we use, life as a paramedic has an expiration date.

Warning* This blog contains disturbing details and is not for sensitive readers.

I’ve been a paramedic for thirteen years, eleven of which on a fairly busy department. When I set out to become a paramedic, I longed for the excitement and rush of racing against time and nature to bring someone from the brink of death. I dreamed of being the guy that people called when there was no one else who could help them. Guiding me, in a sense, was my older cousin, Greg, to whom I’ve always admired.

As I was beginning life as a paramedic, Greg was slowly realizing what I have only recently learned. He was losing that thrill—that special drive—being a paramedic brings to a person. Though I saw it happening to him, I couldn’t fathom it ever happening to me.

Life as a paramedic is tough. I’m not complaining because it can be the greatest job in the world but it is hard.

Part of our job is to forget each horrible call in time to focus on the next. For the most part, I’ve done that throughout my career. But I’m not a robot. Whereas most people have never watched a person die, I’ve done it, sometimes, more than once in a single day. While most people couldn’t imagine holding a baby who has been shaken so violently that they die in their arms, I have done that. 

It is those calls, the ones where a family is driving behind their son’s vehicle when he hits a tree and dies on impact, that add up over the years to set in a special place in my heart. Most paramedics, I imagine, carry similar weight within and continue carrying such burdens throughout their career.

But then, for some paramedics, a run changes everything. For me, it was a car accident on a beautiful fall day. For others, it might be something entirely different or it may never happen. Though I’d seen death of every imaginable type, I wasn’t prepared for that wreck. You might ask why it was different and I’ll try to explain here. That day, in the back seat of a destroyed minivan, I looked into the dying eyes of a little boy. In that split second I made a subconscious connection with him that few people have ever had with a person. At that moment, I couldn’t move; I wanted to call a time-out and hug him, tell him everything would be alright. But I knew better; I had work to do. Outside of the van, with his mother praying next us and police officers surrounding us holding up sheets so passer-bys couldn’t see this boy at his worst, my crew and I worked our best, all while secretly knowing our efforts might be in vain.

Despite the doctors’, nurses’, and our best efforts, several hours later in a hospital bed, that little boy died. The wreck had killed him.

You know what? In some ways that wreck killed me as well.

I didn’t consciously say I never wanted to be a paramedic again, it wasn’t like that, but the joy of my job was gone.

So that was my call, the call that ruined me as a paramedic. It took me awhile to understand that I’d passed my expiration date like my older cousin had so many years before but I eventually realized I wasn’t the same paramedic that I once was. Don’t get me wrong, my skills are fine, heck a lot of them I could do in my sleep, but my zeal—my love of the work—is gone.

It turns out my expiration date was September, 2007 and like any medication past its expiration date, I can still do the job but I’m not as strong as I once was.

Thanks for listening. I promise my next fire department blog will be lighter.


  1. And that, my friend, is why I can't stand hospitals. I can't even watch sad movies without crying.
    You're made of tougher stuff than me.

  2. But know that your every effort is appreciated, and we are grateful. Because, like the soldier, the policeman, the ER doctor and nurse, we desperately need SOMEBODY there. And there must have been times when you were the one who made all the difference.

  3. It's OK to move on, you've put in your time. I know that some people believe they have a duty or a responsibility to continue in a line of work like this, but it's not the case. There are plenty of other capable people to step in for you. Take a break, you deserve it and I think I speak for everyone when I say we appreciate your effort.

  4. Thanks everyone. It's not so easy to step back as this is my career. Fortunately, I have scored high enough on the promotional exam that I will be promoted in February which means I won't ride the medic truck anymore. It'll be fire engines only from here on out.

  5. I understand. I worked in a war zone for just one year, and it was more than enough as far as the emotional toll went. And I was by no means exposed to what you have gone through. Burnout is a part of any of kind of job where you stand between someone else and death.

  6. Doug, this post was amazing. I want to thank you for putting it up because I know it wasn't easy. I applaud you for how you keep going. It's this kind of experience that will deepen your writing, I'll bet. Making a connection like you did with that little boy can't be replaced or even imagined, I'm assuming.

  7. You have touched my heart with your words. - E