The motorcycle driver was a male in his 30s. He was walking around the scene with an obvious wrist fracture. My patient, his passenger, was a female in her 30s. She was sitting on the ground. A firefighter was kneeling behind her, supporting her back. She was conscious, alert and oriented. I got a brief report from the firefighter. He said he couldn’t get her to lie down. There was no loss of consciousness. She was complaining of shortness of breath and lower back pain. I knelt down for my initial assessment.
Her skin was warm and dry, pupils equal and reactive to light, pulse and respirations a little fast, but regular. She complained that she was having some trouble breathing. Her lung sounds were clear and equal bilaterally. I asked her why she wouldn’t lie down. She told me that when she tried, she became more short of breath, and it hurt her lower back. She told me she was two months pregnant.
The only finding on my head to toe exam was lower back pain. When we tried to lay her down on the backboard, she would cry out in pain and tell me she couldn’t breathe. She became increasingly anxious. I decided to immobilize her in position. I wanted to avoid increasing her anxiety and dyspnea. I certainly wanted to avoid causing any damage by forcing her to lie flat.
We placed a cervical collar. When the cot was brought over, I positioned the head of the cot and rolled up blankets to maintain her as close to the position in which she was sitting as I could sort of a left-lateral-recumbent-semi-Fowlers. I recruited two additional firefighters, and we lifted her with a blanket, as a unit, in position, onto the cot. I padded around her with blankets and towels, and in addition to the cot straps, I stretched several lines of tape across her to hold her in place. The other patient sat on the bench seat, and off we went to the hospital. We transferred patient care, and then I went to the report room to do paperwork.
My partner, whom I didn’t know very well, came into the report room. He was almost foaming at the mouth. “You’re dangerous!” he yelled at me. Huh? What are you talking about? “You’re dangerous!” he repeated, “I’m never working with you again” and stormed out. “Huh? Say what?”
I followed him outside and asked him again what he was talking about. He ranted about my not putting the patient on a backboard, and standard of care, and how I, a paramedic instructor, could do something so heinous, and how dangerous I was. I would like to say that I chuckled and told him to stick it where the sun don’t shine, but in fact I was mortified. I was not used to being screamed at by a partner a patient, perhaps but not a partner. (Well, there was that time back in Elyria … but that’s another story). And, of course, I prided myself on patient care and was startled and hurt by his accusation.
Even when I finally got him calmed down a bit, no rationale was acceptable to him. He didn’t care about developing standards for spinal immobilization, about “first, do no harm,” about the studies of respiratory compromise and iatrogenic injury secondary to backboard use or any other argument I raised. Moreover, he couldn’t explain why “reducing” a possible spinal fracture or dislocation by forcing a patient onto a backboard was acceptable, when doing the same to, say, a possible humerus fracture was not. To him, the issue was black and white: MVC + MOI = BB , no ifs, ands, buts or exceptions. In my attempt to exonerate myself, I ended up having to write a three-page single-spaced footnoted treatise on exceptions to long spine board immobilization for our medical director.
Mercifully, we had the opportunity to move back home to Indiana shortly thereafter. One of the first things my new medical director asked me was (and I paraphrase) “Guy, can you research ways we can start cutting down on the unnecessary, harmful, and expensive immobilization of all these patients on backboards that are clogging up my ER?” You can imagine how delighted I was and, within a year, we had adopted a variation of the progressive Maine protocols for spinal ruleout in the field, protocols that have become the standard of care in much of the nation. I also continued my research on the subject of spinal immobilization. I should actually thank my old buddy Johnny Dangerous the experience of meeting face to face with blind, even zealous adherence to protocol in the face of common sense led me to eventually write, with Dr. Amir Vokshoor, “Primum Non Nocere First, Do No Harm: The Importance of Neutral Spinal Alignment for Patients of All Sizes” in March 2006 JEMS.
But I’ll never forget the closed-mindedness of that otherwise intelligent and competent, if immature, paramedic. He had worked within the same system for his entire career, a system that considered itself the best of the best, unquestioned in its methods. He viewed wearing their colors as the pinnacle of paramedic achievement. Even when confronted with evidence that there might be another way of doing things, his certitude and self-righteousness could only produce “you’re dangerous, you violated the standard of care.” Certain that it was their way or the highway, this service engaged in practices that in most systems would be considered unacceptable, if not illegal.
The only compliment I ever received during my time on that job was when, tired of being ragged for my “grandmotherly” driving, I let my ego get the better of good judgment, and I dredged up my old New York City cab driver bag of tricks to prove that I could drive just as fast and just as recklessly as any of their ambulance jockeys. “Hey, you really can drive,” my partner admitted. It was the system’s practice to transport every patient “lights and sirens” to the hospital (“we gotta keep units in service” they said “yeah, dead or alive,” I thought). Once I requested my partner not start driving to the hospital before I could obtain vital signs on a stable patient. He yelled back, “a real paramedic gets vitals en route.” Patients seen as system abusers were themselves regularly abused. Heroin O.D.? Narcan hot-shot, no I.V. Lights with no siren? No problem. Seat belts? Optional. It was the Wild West in the Northeast with an attitude of infallibility and self-righteous superiority that persisted even after a pedestrian was killed by one of their careening ambulances.
In EMS, as in every other discipline, we have to guard against the prejudices that quickly develop within a closed mind, whether that mind is individual or collective. We need to guard against prejudices that render us incapable of accepting the “other” whether that other is a different kind of person or a different way of thinking as being anything but “dangerous.” It’s one thing to pay lip-service to receptivity to new ideas it’s another to actually be receptive. It’s one thing to acknowledge the value of evidence-based medicine it’s another to actually abandon enshrined practices as a result.