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Not Everyone Wants a Retirement Party

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April 19, 1971, is a date I will never forget. It came in a time when no one had ever heard of “Jems,” and even the journal’s famous publisher, Jim Page, was unknown in EMS. (Because, of course, there was no EMS.) I was an obscure ambulance driver with a tiny outfit called Hartson’s in San Diego, and I was working my way through journalism school at SDSU.

There I was, getting close enough to my degree to have spent time with some working journalists. I was having second thoughts. So many of them were heavy smokers who drank too much and didn’t seem to have any personal ethics. Some were simply bimbos. Meanwhile, there was no “future” in running ambulance calls, but I had discovered I liked it. No, loved it. Loved it more than anything.

I had just checked and cleaned our ambulance #33, a shiny little gold ’69 Pontiac Superior consort, in the south driveway of our main station at 47th and El Cajon Boulevard. I remember it was a nice day, and that’s about all—except for one thing. At around mid-morning, our manager paged me to the office. Roy was standing next to the coffee machine with someone I didn’t know.

“Thom,” he said. “I want you to meet Chris Olson. Chris is just back from Vietnam. He’s a Corpsman, and he’s been discharged from the Navy. He’ll be starting with us today. I’d like you to show him the ropes.”

If I had known how funny that request really was, I probably would have laughed, and that would have been unfriendly. I really should have been having palpitations. And that would have been scary, because I’d never heard of a palpitation. Chris Olson was about 5'6". But standing there in front of me was this gifted giant of a caregiver. Countless lives were about to change, and I was clueless.

Today I’ve written three books and more than 500 articles about caring for sick people. Chris Olson is closer to me than most of my siblings. We were partners for years, and we carpooled to our area’s first EMT class. We helped each other get into “P” school and then through it, and we were partners for several more years. I’m sure the man taught me everything I know about sick people. He’s taught hundreds of EMTs and medics everything they know. And that’s still only a small share of what he knows.

Here’s an example, Life-Saver: “Caring counts. Kindness heals. Service elevates. And humor begets endurance.”

See, those are the words of a master. You don’t learn them in P school; you learn them from sick people. Thousands of sick people, one at a time, alone with you in the back of an ambulance.

Chris once turned our Chula Vista station into a world-famous international botsy-ball arena. He taught me about pre-warming a scoop stretcher in a patient’s shower. He showed me how to put Nana on top of an unfolded blanket, then cover her with a full-length, double-folded blanket before wrapping her up in the first blanket like a papoose. He taught me a thousand other things, too. And he’s about to retire. In fact, he’s doing so as you read this. Chris and his wife, Kathy, are moving to Castle Rock, Colo., and we’re planning to personally endanger the world’s coffee supply together.

Now here’s something else I’ve learned from Chris. So many of us have been to retirement parties. Like memorials, they’re always meant well by people who spend a lot of money they don’t have, and work hard concocting elaborate plans. Some folks feel compelled to get up and speechify. There’s a lot of compulsory standing around, a little too much alcohol, way too much noise, some fidgeting, and finally those inevitable apologetic departures. It’s all meant well. Some beneficiaries appreciate it, but here’s a shock. Some don’t.

Do you know Chris? Do you know somebody like him, who’s about to retire? If they really want a party, knock yourself out. Or, you can do something simpler. Meet them someplace for lunch. Or, just offer them a cup of coffee. Turn off your cell phone. Look them in the eye, and simply tell them thanks. I’ve followed your example; you’ve made a difference; you’ve changed my life.

That’s it, and that’s all. It’ll mean the world to them, in an environment where they can actually hear what you’re saying. 

Trust me. They’ll remember it for the rest of their lives. 

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