I Finally Met John Wayne: Chance encounter presents modern-day hero


A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P | From the September 2008 Issue | Monday, September 8, 2008

There are many nameless characters in EMS. Some just perform in an average manner. Others fall below the average bar, often getting reprimanded for silly things. But a few are far above the barƒexceptional providers who seek no attention and just want to be a part of the team. We look up to these individuals because they_re great role models: dedicated, confident and courageous. Their demeanor seems flawless.

Some become legendsƒlike an EMS version of John Wayne. They get the IV on the first stick, zero in on conditions immediately and show compassion to every patient. These legends attract other good providers who want to be mentored and cultivated into solid and respected performers.

I always wanted to meet John Wayne, one of my boyhood heroes. He brought solid qualities to each character he played. But his greatest strength as an actor was his ability to convey tough, but honorable, men of action.

In The Wings of Eagles, Wayne starred as Commander Frank ˙SpigÓ Wead, a WWI Naval aviator instrumental in advancing the cause of American air power. In this inspiring movie, Wead tumbles down the stairs of his home and is told by his physicians that he_ll be paralyzed for life.

He_s down as low as a legend can get. But along comes wacky Navy mechanic ˙JugheadÓ Carson, who Wead had mentored despite Jughead_s many faults and vices.

In one of the most memorable scenes in movie history, Wead is flat on his stomach on a special rehab platform and Jughead comes in, sits down with a bottle of whiskey, and positions a mirror below the platform at an angle that allows Wead to see his toes. He then ˙coachesÓ Wead, forcing him to rehab his injury and loudly chant the famous words ˙I_m gonna move that toe!Ó

With this ˙encouragementÓ and sheer determination, Wead is able to move his toes and regain minimal use of his legs, but it seems his Naval career is over. He goes on to become a prolific Hollywood screenwriter, and after the attack of Pearl Harbor, he_s called back and makes a significant contribution to the military by overseeing the construction of ˙jeep carriers.Ó

Back to reality, while standing in line at an airport check-in counter in San Diego in August, I read the following words on the back of a green T-shirt: Combat Casualty Care. I looked up and saw the face of a well-built Marine with neatly combed blonde hair.

I immediately thought, ˙Cool. This guy_s a medic who_s probably on his way back to the action. I can ask him a few things I want to know about current trends in military medical care.Ó

But I didn_t see the traditional military duffel bag in his hand and noticed he was wearing shorts, not camouflaged military fatigues. As my eyes continued down toward the floor, I noticed his left leg was missing and in its place was a modern prosthetic leg. His right leg was scarred by at least 15 nasty shrapnel wounds.

At that moment, he turned around and we made eye contact. His face projected a big, broad smile as he said hello and I instinctively said, ˙You a medic?Ó

˙Yes, Sir. I was a field medic until this,Ó he said, glancing down at his prosthetic leg, ˙occurred.Ó

Not wanting to cross the line, I simply said, ˙I work for JEMS and want you to know we all appreciate the work you and your medic colleagues are doing.Ó

He thanked me for the comment and said, ˙I intend to continue as a medic. I_m in training to become an instructor in combat casualty care.Ó He revealed that he had spent two years in rehab but was committed to helping medics render quality care.

I was overwhelmedƒamazed that he would continue in an area that involved wound management after having such a devastating injury. I told him JEMS was publishing an important supplement in October focusing on military medical care and equipment advancements, such as tourniquet use, that would soon be transferred over to civilian trauma care.

He then shocked me by calmly stating that, after his vehicle struck an IED, he applied his own C.A.T. tourniquet to his left thigh and stopped his bleeding. He continued, ˙I can tell you from that and many other personal experiences that the C.A.T. tourniquet is saving lots of lives.Ó

I gave him my business card and offered to assist in his career however I could. As he walked to his gate, with not even a limp in his step, I had a lump in my throat. I realized I had finally met John Wayne. But this brave, young Marine wasn_t an actorƒhe was far above the bar, the real deal: a tough, dedicated, honorable man of action. JEMS

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Related Topics: Administration and Leadership, Operations and Protcols, Jems From the Editor

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A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P

JEMS Editor-in-Chief A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P, has a background as an EMS director and EMS operations director. He specializes in MCI management.


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