By Courtney Atkinson
Nothing can prepare you for that first call.
You spend months in class, learning exactly what precautions to take, going over practice scenarios, exploring what could be causing that stomach pain or difficulty breathing. Finally, you feel ready enough to put yourself on the unit, and the moment comes when you’re dispatched to your first call. Chest pain. You’ve been over this scenario a thousand times in class. You know what to do. Your adrenaline is pumping, and you knowing that you’re going to rock the hell out of it. You pull up to the house where you’ve been dispatched to, barely able to contain the excitement within yourself. Put on your gloves, grab the bag, step out the door, catch up to the paramedic and the other EMT, and…FREEZE.
Everything I had learned in class up to this moment had left me. There I stood, in some sort of catatonic state, in front of a patient who could very well be having a heart attack, and I was unable to assess her because not only could I not remember what I was supposed to ask and the order I should ask it in, but I couldn’t even speak a word. Great, my first run on an ambulance, and in less than five minutes I’ve already marked myself as incompetent. Thank God I was not there by myself (you’re NEVER by yourself, but that’s beside the point) – my medic and other EMT were able to see that I couldn’t bring myself out of whatever state I was in and at least got the patient on the stretcher, hooked up to oxygen, and into the back of the ambulance instead of just looking at her sit on the front porch, clutching her chest.
The next twenty seconds of that call are the most memorable of my EMT career to date....
While my medic and the other EMT were rolling the patient into the back of the unit, the medic stopped briefly, leaned to me and said, “Breathe, dear. It’s not YOUR emergency; YOU’RE the one who has to keep calm.” There was not an ounce of condescendence in his voice; his tone was not one of disapproval. He was the teacher guiding his pupil; he was the father leading his surrogate daughter. The calm, reassurance in his words subliminally said, “Hey, I know it’s your first call, and we’ve all been here in your exact shoes before, and there’s no point in scolding you because you’re doing your best, so long as you do that, what more can I ask from you?”: I think that’s what snapped me out of it. When we all got in the back of the ambulance, I was able to break free of my invisible bonds. I got a set of vitals on the patient, got a history from her, was able to do an assessment, helped my medic start an IV and administer medications.
I signed up for my EMT class initially out of desperation. No, that’s not entirely true. I had wanted to try the whole first-responder thing for years, but this time, with circumstances the way they were, it seemed fitting. My husband of only 4 months had just left me, and I had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. Lonely time. Not having many friends, and being painfully introverted and shy, I needed to get out of the house and do something rather than spend my nights at home staring at the walls hoping the cats would start to speak to me. So why not give this whole EMT thing a chance? The only issue? I would have to join a fire department to sign up; it’s a pre-requisite in Maryland. Luckily, I was in good with the president of a local company, so gaining membership was no problem.
The hardest part for me, much as I knew it would be, would be to work my way within this already tightly knit community, form bonds, and interact with complete strangers. I knew this would be hard for me in class too. Six months ago, I was blatantly not a Type A personality. But, it dawns on you eventually, that everyone there with you – be it in the same class, at the firehouse, or in other aspects of life, like at work or even in the same aisle of the grocery story – you all have something in common. Even if it’s just for that one moment in the space-time continuum, you and the people surrounding you are kindred spirits out to achieve a common goal.
Someone, somewhere is always going to be judging you, waiting for you to screw up so they can try to break you down over it. Even those who are sharing your common goal. This was, and has always been, my biggest hang up. I’ve kept to myself so as not to be judged, so that I cannot be hurt when I fail. But it’s so liberating to finally realize that even when you keep to yourself, you’re being judged anyway, so why not throw yourself out there, give them something TO watch, and be the best damn you that you can be? That attitude has gotten me a state exam away from certification, membership in two local fire companies, gearing up to start firefighting classes in the fall, and has made me some excellent friends and connections in the EMS community.
The first responder community is tight. And, yes, extraordinarily cliquey at times. It’s hard to work your way in when you’re at the bottom of the ladder. But the strange thing is, whether it’s your first day on the unit and you don’t know a soul or you’ve been with that company for 25 years and you run the show, that day, in that emergency, you are one of the team, and you’re treated like it. The first day I rode, I had never laid eyes on that crew before. But they took me in as one of their own. Could I participate in every nuance of every conversation? Of course not. But was I abandoned to the corner of the firehouse to eat a cold bowl of porridge for dinner while they grilled steaks and laughed heartily at the new girl? Absolutely not. They went out of their way to make me feel like one of them, from incorporating me in their station duties, to something as seemingly small as not referring to me as a “student” to the patients we were treating. After every call, they would (and continue to) go over why we did what we did to make sure I understand the mechanics behind it.
This doesn’t just go for my two companies. I’ve ridden all over the Eastern Shore of Maryland to complete all the calls I needed for this class. With all the different companies and the different shifts I’ve been with, it holds true. It doesn’t matter if you know the crew inside out or if you’re all strangers; there’s an unspoken camaraderie amongst all of you because you’re there for the same reason. These men and women are my brothers and sisters; they are more family to me than some of my own blood. It’s a fellowship that can never be broken, that holds us all together through the best and worst of what we see each and every day. It’s the nature of medicine that you are going to screw up sometimes or that people will sometimes die, and it is a harsh reality to accept. But, to know that after a difficult call I’m surrounded by people to lean on and who understand, it makes that reality just a little bit easier to handle each day.
Courtney Atkinson is a native of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and proud of it. She holds a B.S. degree in Biology, works as the lead lab technician and treatment plant operator at a water testing facility, and is an EMT-in-training, a life-saving superhero badass in her spare time.