6 Horrifying Things I Learned as a Paramedic
The ambulance can be a dangerous place, even if you're not a patient. It's just not safe to barrel through traffic in a hollow metal box filled with needles and oxygen tanks. But the EMTs and paramedics who man (and woman) our ambulances gladly risk it all in the pursuit of their civic duty ... and some hilarious anecdotes about butt stuff. We sat down with a veteran paramedic from one of America's more dangerous cities. Here's what we learned:
The Weather and the Date Can Kill You
If it's the first or 15th of a month, we know we'll deal with more overdoses. Sometimes, it's surprising how well you can predict your day based on those dates alone. People have just gotten paid, and while many people may respond to that with a trip to their favorite restaurant, a substantial number throw everything they can at their old friends heroin, liquor, and whatever else that dude in the battered '86 Camry happens to have in his glove box.
"I'm down with road maps, WD-40, and a tire gauge. What's your poison?"
If it's hot outside, we can expect more street violence and way more dangerously drunk people at night. A lot of criminological evidence suggests that crime peaks during the summer. Emergency workers and the opening of Die Hard: With a Vengeance back up those conclusions, and what is this world coming to if you can't trust Die Hard?
I'm based in a large city on the West Coast, and often work the late shift in a bad part of town -- not that my city is overflowing with good parts of town. Last winter, we got a call for a shooting. We get an update en route: unknown age male, shot in the head. We assume he'll be dead when we arrive, but he wasn't. This kid -- he looked maybe 15 -- was still breathing, even after multiple shots to the head, chest and both arms. He had like eight bullet wounds in total. There was literally brain matter on the ground, but nope, he was still breathing.
At which point, lightning becomes a real threat to the EMTs in the event of a Highlander scenario.
We package him up, bring him to the hospital ... and he dies during surgery. Sorry, reality is a bummer. He was just walking home when two guys hopped out of a car and went Rambo on him. That next week, his brother was shot dead nearby. It was tragic but not at all surprising. You learn quickly that if there's one shooting, there will probably be another soon. Shootings travel in packs. It's another reason you pay attention to the local news: if there's been a shooting or stabbing in your neighborhood, odds are more are going to follow.
Current Events From Thousands of Miles Away Can Screw Up Your Day
If you want to be a paramedic, you best keep up on current events. My city has a diverse community and also a very politically active one. When Trayvon Martin was killed, there were riots and peace marches that shut down whole sections of Oakland. All those marchers tied up traffic and necessitated alternate routes in order to get where we needed to be on time. So yeah, the day's big news story, thousands of miles away, may screw up your afternoon.
You may see "Treasury to redesign quarter," but all my newspaper says is "Get ready for blood."
Speaking of traffic, we're as fucked as you if there's a gridlock. If the intersection is completely blocked with cars and has island medians, we just shut down and wait for the light to turn green. Only in the direst circumstances can we drive against the flow of traffic. It does satisfy the action movie lobe of your brain, but it's also damn near suicidal. People instantly forget how to drive when they see lights and hear sirens. They just slam on their brakes or pull into the lane we're supposed to occupy. There's a reason crashes are one of the leading causes of death for EMS workers.Oh, and we get flipped off a lot. No, we do not skip through red lights just for fun, even if you've seen us turn off our sirens and immediately pull into an In-N-Out Burger. Sometimes when we're en route to an emergency call, it'll get canceled, and our standard procedure is to turn off our lights and sirens and drive normal again. But when the people we blew past a few intersections ago catch up to us, they aren't very happy. It's as if they think we're rolling the "deadly, fast-moving box full of sharp things" dice purely to escape a red light.
"Buckle up, rookie; I'm not missing the breakfast menu!"
People Straight Up Steal Ambulances Like Grand Theft Auto
Where I work, ambulance robberies aren't particularly common. More often than not, the ambulance itself gets stolen, because our criminals have ambition, I guess.
There's no shortage of these stories on Google, either.
It is department policy to leave our ambulances on all day. Rather than risk draining the battery and begging for jumps in a Walmart parking lot while some poor old lady dies across town, we just leave it on. The doors to the ambulance are locked, of course, but there's a dummy switch hidden on the body that opens the door. The only problem: homeless people and drug addicts tend to see a lot of ambulances, and if they pay any attention at all, they quickly learn where that switch is.
Which you may note is pretty crucial information for a rolling, all-you-can-eat morphine buffet.
One crew went on call for a lady who had fallen out of her chair. She declined to go to the hospital, and when the crew walked out to get paperwork, they noticed the ambulance was missing. The paramedic got on his radio and asked dispatch, "Where's my location?"
Dispatch had him at a nearby intersection, which is apparently where a local hobo had decided to take that ambulance on a joyride. He'd gleefully sped off and then crashed into a bunch of parked cars before finally hitting a wall. The hobo didn't steal anything inside the ambulance (we do lock up the drugs, after all), and we never wound up figuring out who did it or why, other than the possibility that Franklin had a four-star-wanted level and needed to get to a checkpoint, fast.
CPR Is Like Something Out of Conan the Barbarian
You know you're doing good CPR when you break their ribs. The first thing you've got to get over is the fact that it's a dead body. You don't give CPR to living people. Not many people see, touch, or interact with corpses, and you're about to aggressively fondle one.
"But let's just stay friends afterwards; I don't want stuff to get weird between us."
When you do it right, you feel the ribs pop and hear the cracking. It is extremely tiring to basically crush another human being with your bare hands. It's an experience -- one of the few things you can do to a dead person to improve their outcome. But you have to do it fast for there to be any odds of success. So whenever we get on scene for a cardiac arrest and someone is performing CPR ahead of us, it's an incredible leg up on our work. That person's odds of surviving to see another birthday skyrocket.
What about that whole making out with a dead body thing? Doesn't happen anymore. Hands-only CPR is the standard now, largely because people hate the idea of mouth-to-mouth and worry they might catch something. There were a lot of fears that the stigma of it might lead people to avoid giving chest compressions. So because people are squeamish about kissing strangers, the rules for first aid are now completely different.
"Kissing? I'll just stick to stuffing both hands in their cleavage and cracking all their ribs, thank you."
If you think that's lame, here's something lamer: all that fear of catching an infection from giving CPR is based on something insanely rare. There are only 15 documented cases of people being infected while performing rescue breathing. We are not using every method in our employ to save lives just because kissin' corpses is gross.
If You Die Watching Porn, We Will Try to Have Your Back
You have to be pretty callous in this job, but you can't be heartless. There was this one poor bastard who died of a heart attack at his computer. The wife found him with his head back, not breathing -- you know, all the classic symptoms of deaditis. She called 911, and the police took her into the front room to talk while we did our work.
The first thing we did was take this guy down from his chair. He had headphones on, and when we moved him, they pulled on the computer, prompting the screen to flash out of sleep mode and release a torrent of porn noises. Clearly, homedude was getting ready to jack it when the Grim Reaper came a'calling. I won't pretend we didn't laugh about it later.
"Think you could put enough sand back in the hourglass for me to clear the history?"
But even the most jaded EMT isn't immune to compassion. We turned the sound off for the benefit of the dead guy's memory and his grieving wife. No spouse walking back to an empty living room for the first time should have to listen to the porn that killed her husband. That sounds like the premise to a Korean horror flick.
Unfortunately, if that guy had been using a porno mag, we wouldn't have been able to do anything, especially if it was a coroner's case. We can't touch anything or else we get in a lot of trouble for disturbing a possible crime scene. So if you die doing something very incriminating, we may not be able to tuck your proverbial dick back into your pants.
Or your literal dick, so maybe think about loose-fitting sweatpants if you're worried about snuffing it on YouPorn.
Please Don't Shove Things Up Your Pee Hole
We have an older guy in our territory with a bit of a meth problem and a bit of a fascination with "sounding" (that's when you shove stuff down your pee hole; good luck unlearning that, suckers). So we get a call for a possible 5150 (involuntary psychiatric hold). We find him sitting in a car, his head back, a peaceful look on his face. What's going on?
"I'm in pain."
"Can I just get in the ambulance?"
"And maybe take it easy on the speed bumps?"
We get him in, and the story comes out: he'd smoked up, broken his wire-framed glasses, and proceeded to jam them inside his penis. Stop screaming.
It gets better.
He'd done this so often that he had scar tissue blocking his urethra. Doctors had to make a hole at the base of his penis for him to pee out of. So basically, he had a hole straight into his abdominal cavity. He broke those glasses, shoved them down the hole, and, in a stroke of genius, decided to fish them back out with a pair of tweezers ... which also got lost in there.
"While you're checking, my house keys have been missing for a week. Keep your eyes open for 'em?"
Fighting back laughter, I asked:
"What'd you do with the lenses?"
His answer: "I think they're in my ass."
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Horrific Things You Learn Preserving Brains for a Living and 5 Things Your Doctor Really Wants to Say to You (But Won't).
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