other people's emergencies: random thoughts of an urban paramedic

For more than twenty years I've worked as a paramedic for the city of Boston, Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this diary are mine alone, and do not represent the views of Boston EMS. Names, dates, locations, and physical characteristics have been changed to ensure patient confidentiality.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Questions at the Walk for Hunger

Yesterday was supposed to be my day off. Instead, I worked a detail, staffing a medical tent at the finish line of the Walk for Hunger.

A detail, in EMS parlance, is an assignment at a fixed location, usually to provide medical support for a large event of some kind. Depending on the nature of the event, this may involve working in an ambulance, patrolling a race course, riding through a crowd on a bike, or manning a first aid tent.

Yesterday's event, the Walk for Hunger, is an annual fundraiser where some 30,000 people walk 20 miles through Boston, Brookline, Newton, Watertown, Cambridge, and back to Boston again. Along the way, walkers sometimes trip and fall, get hit by cars, have heart attacks, or get blisters. To be prepared, we have ambulances, bike units, and medical tents all along the route.

We started work at 8:00 am. We caught a ride to the Common in a Special Operations vehicle, met the first-aid volunteers affiliated with the event, set up our equipment, and waited for the walk to begin. A couple of hours later, as the first walkers began to stream across the finish line, people began to request Band-Aids. Since our job was to treat and transport patients serious enough to need hospitalization, we stayed out of the way and let the volunteers handle these requests. Someone occasionally came into our tent with an abrasion after taking a fall, but otherwise, the walkers needed only Band-Aids.

Meanwhile, I was only too happy to provide directions to anyone who needed them. Maybe it's because I worked on the night shift for so many years, but I really enjoy fielding such questions, because it's refreshing to deal with a sober public for a change. And besides, since I was getting paid to be there, and I didn't have any work to do, it only made sense to be as helpful as possible.

The most common question I fielded was, "Where can I catch the subway?" But not all of the questions involved directions. Some involved other kinds of problems--lost property, lost children, a stolen backpack. I have to admit that some of these questions left me shaking my head.

Here, then, are the three conversations I found most amusing at the 2009 Walk for Hunger:

Number 3:

Walker (at 2:00 pm): Where's registration?

Me: Registration? That's the registration tent over there, but there's nobody around. Why? What do you need?

Walker: I want to sign up for the walk.

Me: You're a little bit late. The walk started six hours ago. Most of the walkers have already finished.

Walker: Can I still do it?

Me: Well, sure. I guess so. I mean, nobody's going to say that you can't take a walk. But I think it's too late to sign up for it.

Walker: Okay. That's fine. I'm going to do it anyway.

Me: Have a good time.

Number 2:

Walker: I need some advice for my brother. Some first aid advice.

Me: Okay. What's wrong with him?

Walker: His legs are sore.

Me: Really? After walking twenty miles, his legs are sore? You don't say.

Walker: What should I tell him?

Me: Tell him to stretch really well, and then take a rest. Tell him that walking twenty miles is tiring.

Walker: Okay. I'll tell him. Thanks.

Number 1:

Walker: Excuse me, but has anyone turned in a walker?

Volunteer: A walker?

Walker: Yeah, you know, one of the square metal things that old people use to help them walk? My uncle thinks he left it at the Three Mile checkpoint. Do you know whether anyone has turned it in?

Volunteer: Your uncle left his walker at the Three Mile Checkpoint, and walked the remaining seventeen miles without it? Are you sure he really needs a walker?


Blogger Michael A. Burstein said...

I laughed at all three conversations.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Donna said...

Aw, come on, we've all asked our share of silly questions. Give the people a break.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Dani B. said...

This reminds of some of my interactions at the marathon.

runner: I feel terrible!

me: I just ran a marathon terrible or terrible terrible?

runner: I just ran a marathon terrible! I guess I'm not a priority then...

or the runner who comes over to me and declares "I'm disoriented!" which makes you wonder if they know they are disoriented are they actually disoriented?

10:24 AM  
Blogger TS said...


Of course we have. But I think you're taking this post too seriously. Nowhere did I complain about these people, or call them stupid. I merely said that I found the conversations amusing.

You really didn't find them at least a little bit humorous?

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear that Gov. Patrick's next plan is to eliminate EMS details and replace them with untrained, unskilled guys who will use flags to direct injured parties to the hospital.

1:21 PM  
Blogger TS said...


Very good! You must have been listening to Marjorie Egan on 96.9 FM. That's one of her biggest causes.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Beverly, RN said...

Thanks, TS. Another good blog to enlighten and lighten my day.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous JAM said...

Great stories! I liked the case of the missing walker!

Speaking of walkers, one of my coworkers has been out of work with a job related back injury. His first day post op, he was allowed to get out of bed. When they discharged him from the hospital, he was slouched over, making it necessary to use a walker for a couple of days. When we found out about this, we asked him if the walker came equipped with the standard accessories:
a basket
a horn
lime green tennis balls/wheels or skies.

He told us all to go have a nice day! Of course he knew it was all in fun.

10:32 PM  
Blogger TS said...

Glad you liked it, Beverly. And that was funny, JAM.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Renee said...

Welcome to my world of community event medicine! Obviously we are all out there waiting for the worst of the problems, but the minor injuries and illnesses are 99% of it. The questions can be interesting and even entertaining at times. The difference between community events (such as the walks) and marathons/triathlons and bike races is dramatic, but all are great to work!

8:25 AM  
Blogger Norma said...

Okay, story #3 made me spit out my grapefruit...that is awesome!

8:14 PM  
Blogger TS said...


They are great, aren't they? I love working details at events.

11:16 PM  
Blogger TS said...


A writer can receive no greater compliment than the spitting out of one's food.

Glad you liked it!

11:17 PM  
Blogger Renee said...

TS - What I think is amazing is the number of EMTs and Paramedics that HATE working events. Why? How often do you have a chance while working EMS to talk to people when they are having a good day? Yeah, we deal with the bad as well, but I love it! That's why I am in the business of event medicine.

Here's a story you will like: We were standing next to our bright yellow and blue ambulance (A Type III) at an event. We had a table out with basic supplies for first aid issues. Right behind the table is the side of our rig with "First On Scene Event Medical Services" emblazoned across it. A woman walks up and asks us where first aid is so she can get a bandaid. Uh... Hmmm... I don't know... :-)

10:08 AM  
Blogger TS said...


I love working events. I work them on overtime at every opportunity. Presidential visits, Boston Pops concerts, Red Sox victory parades, Puerto Rican and Caribbean street festivals, conventions, First Night celebrations, professional soccer games--you name it, I'll work it.

Meanwhile, I haven't accepted a single shift of street overtime in more than 10 years.

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