A Little Variety, Please
I want a shooting.
That sounds pretty bizarre, I know. It's not that I want anyone in particular to get shot. Or even that I want a shooting to occur. But if one Bostonian does decide to shoot another one, I'd like to respond to it.
EMTs and paramedics know what I mean by this. EMS personnel are occasionally quoted in the media as saying, "I don't want bad things to happen to people. I just want to be there when they do."
Serious emergencies are the focal point of this business. These are the things that attract people to EMS in the first place. We thrive on trauma and on critical medical conditions like myocardial infarction and cardiac arrest. Nobody becomes an EMT or paramedic to treat headaches or upset stomachs. We want to handle serious problems. Like shootings.
When you first become an EMT, every call is fascinating. Suddenly you're racing through the streets with sirens yelping and strobe lights blazing. Everyone watches as you speed past, wondering what kind of emergency you're going to. It makes no difference that your patient turns out to be an old lady who's had a toothache for the past six months. You're not a bystander anymore. You're the one who takes care of the problems.
But after a while, that's not enough. Racing through traffic becomes more stressful than exciting. You get sick of hearing the sirens. And when you get called to the same apartment for the third time in a single week, where the same old woman once again tells you she has indigestion, you begin to wish for something a little more challenging.
You begin to wish that just for once, someone would get shot.
A long time ago, before I became a paramedic for the City of Boston, I took a part-time job as a paramedic with a commercial ambulance company. Working with an equally-inexperienced partner, I would respond to 911 calls in the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, each Saturday night.
I couldn't wait for that first call. I wanted it to be a collision. Or a stabbing. Something messy, complicated, and challenging. I couldn't wait to start my first IV and perform my first intubation. I couldn't wait to save lives.
But the hours ticked by, and nobody called 911. There were no collisions, no stabbings, no emergencies of any any kind. Nothing happened.
The following Saturday, it happened again. Eight hours--no calls. It happened again the Saturday after that, and the Saturday after that. For twelve weeks in a row, we spent eight hours driving aimlessly around the city without so much as applying a Band-Aid.
Finally, on the thirteenth Saturday, we were dispatched to a car accident. The vehicles were barely damaged, but one of the drivers wanted to be evaluated in an emergency department for shoulder pain. We stuck an IV into her during the ride--not so much because she needed any fluid, but because we needed the practice.
I'd never do that today, of course. I've started so many IVs that I'll be happy never to start another one. Thirteen weeks in a row without a call sounds pretty good right about now. But that's the difference between a rookie paramedic and an experienced one. The rookie can't wait for calls to come in. The experienced paramedic hopes for a quiet shift.
I spent my first twenty years as a City of Boston paramedic entirely on the overnight shift. Then, roughly a year ago, I switched to the evening shift. I was tired of living on such a bizarre schedule. I thought I would benefit from being awake in the daytime and sleeping in the dark, the way normal people do.
At first, I enjoyed this new routine. For the first time, I encountered patients who weren't drunk. On the night shift, everyone you treat seems to be drunk, or high, or both.
But soon I detected a pattern. Every call fell into one of three categories. We responded to cardiac calls, difficulty breathing calls, and heroin overdoses. Over and over again. Nothing else.
I realize now that I made a mistake in changing shifts. Though I'd never really thought about it before, one of the things I like best about this job is the variety of the calls we handle. You never know what you'll see next. That's what makes a paramedic's job interesting. That's what keeps it challenging.
Nowhere is that variety greater than on the overnight shift. That's when the strangest things happen. People get drunk at night, with with that drunkenness comes some bizarre behavior and bizarre situations. The night shift is by far the most interesting shift of all.
On the evening shift, we deal with the same problems, call after call, shift after shift. Chest pain, chest pain, chest pain. Asthma, asthma, asthma. Every once in a while, a heroin overdose. That's about as weird as the job gets in the evening.
It's been nearly two years since I've responded to a shooting. On the night shift, we used to see a couple of shootings every week. I'm tired of treating cardiac problems. As the old saying goes, it's not that I want anyone to get shot...
But just once, I'd like to be there when they do.