You’ve never experienced chaos until your first day as an EMT, when you hear the tones drop and the word “unresponsive” comes over the radio.
I remember running to the ambulance bay, jumping in the passenger’s seat, barely hauling the door shut before the ambulance was tearing out into the street. “Ever done CPR?” my partner asked, yanking on gloves with his teeth as the ambulance flew over icy bridges and sped around turns. And then we were lurching to a stop at a residence frantically pulsating with the reds and blues of emergency lights, and I was jumping out of the ambulance and running through the snow, trying to catch up as my partner hauled the cot toward the front door . . .
And then I was in a room with police officers and firefighters just standing around. A woman in the room was crying, an old man was stretched half on the floor and half on the couch, and the odometer of all the responders had dropped from a NASCAR race down to a rush-hour crawl.
“We’ve got an obvious,” my partner said.
“Obvious” means an unresponsive body has been that way for at least a few hours, as evidenced by the grayish pallor and icy coldness of the skin. No CPR needed at this point. When you come across an obvious, there’s nothing left to do except comfort the family members and gather patient information for the report.
“You all right?” one of my co-workers asked me when we got back to the station.
“Yeah,” I replied.
We talked a lot about death that evening. Apparently my first encounter with death on the job provided the perfect opportunity for my co-workers to share some of their most memorable death-on-the-job stories.
I went home that night with a tangle of disturbing images twisting my thoughts. But it didn’t bother me, I told myself. Death didn’t bother me. I kept a straight face as I casually told my parents about my first day on the job. They asked if I was okay. I’m fine, I said. Why does everyone keep asking?
No one saw the few tears I cried while I was in the shower. I was ashamed of them. An EMT doesn’t cry, I told myself. EMTs can handle it. EMTs can handle anything.
Well, I learned to handle anything. I learned to handle death. I learned to handle the blood, the vomit, the morbid obesity, the the teenagers attempting suicide, the multitude of horrible sounds people make when they can’t breathe.
I learned to distance myself. I became an unbiased spectator . . . observing the situation, deciding what to do, then doing it. I learned I couldn’t care about what I saw. I couldn’t care about the person in my ambulance. Couldn’t care if my or my partner’s treatments were effective; we simply did what we were trained to do.
I learned not to care, and I hated it.
Nearly two years after that first day, I walked into my boss’s office and turned in my uniforms. It was quite simple really. I was no good at this job, and I didn’t care enough to get better because I cared too much about the lives involved. I was sick of not caring. Sick of being as unresponsive as that dead man on my first day.