Kevin Grange is an award-winning writer with the Society of American Travel Writers. His first book, Beneath Blossom Rain, recounts a twenty-four-day trek in the Himalayas. He currently works as a paramedic with the National Park Service and is the author of the new memoir, Lights and Sirens: The Education of a Paramedic. He joins us to discuss the skills and presence of mind it takes to make it in the paramedic world.
Being a paramedic is not so much a job as it is who you are. The best paramedics are service-oriented individuals who really enjoy being around people — meeting them, hearing their stories, and of course helping them in a time of great need. While most of the stories paramedics share will center around critical calls, many of our 911 responses turn out to be patients with non-life-threatening complaints. A paramedic who delights in engaging people will be equally responsive to these patients as well as to the one’s with critical illnesses or injuries. Talking and easing someone’s worry is often the best form of treatment.
You must enjoy working as part of a team. Paramedics, firefighters, police officers, the ER physician and nursing staff all wear different uniforms and have specific skill sets, but we’re all part of the same team and share the common goal of assisting in an emergency and providing good patient care. The most successful paramedics recognize all the agencies that are involved in the “big picture” of patient care and are always friendly and respectful.
Routine should make you cringe: If you want a lifestyle where you punch in at 9 AM and punch out eight hours later, with set coffee and lunch breaks in between, being a paramedic isn’t the job for you. For a paramedic, no two days — or nights — are ever the same and you must be up for the challenge of responding to any part of your city, at any hour, for any kind of complaint.
You need thick skin and a compassionate heart. I’ve been called every name in the book by belligerent drunks, saved the lives of heroin addicts who overdosed and then had them take a swing at me for stealing their “high,” and have certainly seen my share of blood, broken bones and guts. You need thick skin so these obstacles don’t prevent you from running a call smoothly and effectively saving people’s lives. However, you can’t let your thick skin become hardened. You must always keep an open heart and stay compassionate for someone who is having one of the worst days of their lives.
You need to have courage under fire. Whatever feeling you bring with you to an emergency scene — be it calm or chaotic — that feeling is contagious and will quickly spread to your crew, the bystanders, and worst of all your patients, which could increase their oxygen demand and put a greater workload on their failing hearts. Given the chaotic accidents we respond to, it’s natural to be stressed. On scene, however, you need to be a beacon of calm and control. Once the call is over and your patient is safely at the hospital, you can stress, shout, mourn, celebrate, or cry.
You should enjoy using your hands and your mind. Working as a paramedic is an exciting blend of balancing critical thinking with practical skills. For example, on a patient complaining of chest pain, you use your critical-thinking “detective gene” to figure out if the discomfort is due to a heart attack, bad cough, cocaine overdose, traumatic injury, blood clot in the lungs, or anxiety — then treat the patient accordingly. Once you arrive at a treatment plan, you now need the practical skills to start an IV, administer medications or insert a breathing tube into the patient’s throat to keep them alive.
You should realize it’s hard to run the perfect call. The best paramedics are always learning and have the mentality that they are “always a student, never a master.” Soliciting ideas and information from the ER Physician or your partner ,along with having the mindset that you can always improve, prevents you from becoming complacent which might cause you to miss a critical symptom on your next call.
You must accept the responsibility of the job. While other professions deal in products and consumer goods, paramedics deal with people’s lives. It is a huge responsibility and you need to accept that immediately. Knowing your treatment protocols and response area; keeping your uniform crisp and clean and always arriving to work well-rested and ready, ensures your patients will receive the best care. You can’t have an off-day as a paramedic. When someone is feeling their worst, you need to be at your best.
Lastly, and most importantly, you should have fun and never lose sight of the light. Enjoy the adventure (and adrenaline!) of driving with lights and sirens, of never knowing what kind of call you’re walking into, and the camaraderie with your crew — these are the things that make being a paramedic unlike any other job in the world. And when you respond to shootings, stabbings, assaults, and drug addicts, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the majority of people in the world are good. Maintain a strong network of family and friends. Eat healthy and exercise regularly, and always keep a sense of joy about your life. After all, what other profession can say they save lives every day?