This column is written as a surprise for Chris Olson, a superstar paramedic in San Diego County. If you’re in that town sometime and you see an EMS crew sitting at a hospital or street corner, ask them if they know the name. They’ll tell you, Chris is a legend. Chances are, you’ve read his name at least once in this column.
Chris has always been my professional idol. He’s been a full-time paramedic since March 11, 1977, and he’s still doin’ the deed with Rural/Metro. But he’s famous for a lot more than his medical prowess and his remarkable endurance. After all these years, he still teaches and practices the kindness and the native caregiver’s talent you’ll expect from the crew who takes care of your mom someday.
Chris was a Navy corpsman in Vietnam prior to returning to California and becoming an EMT in 1972. Even then, he showed up a half-hour early every shift to check his equipment. (He kept it waxed and spotless, and I hear he still does.) I can’t begin to count the fine caregivers he’s mentored. I’m writing about him because I don’t think we recognize great people often enough, at least not while they can still read about themselves.
Some of you may remember my EMS goat, Airway. Airway just loved Chris; he used to brag about Chris, Chris, Chris until I begged him to please just shut up. (He would always say, ˙Naaaaa-aa-aa-aah!,Ó and keep right on talking.) Airway finally took the Big Vacation about 10 years ago, and I’m still noticing how nice and quiet it is.
Anyway, Chris used to work in a busy little town called Chula Vista (now a big city), when there was only one paramedic unit to cover a population of 50,000. We had a mutual aid agreement with the City of San Diego in those days, but San Diego didn’t understand that ˙mutualÓ meant they were supposed to help sometimes. So, more often than not, we got pounded like pancakesƒpulling into the station an hour past the end of our shifts and sort of flopping out of the ambulance.
There’s nothing like the feeling you get after a shift like that. (Or two; there weren’t a lot of paramedics in those days, and sometimes we found ourselves doing 48s or 72s to cover each other’s illnesses.) Your teeth feel fuzzy, your bones seem heavy, and your nerves are just plain raw. Your hearing has a quality of dullness, almost like you’re wearing earmuffs. Nothing is fun and nothing is funny, and when you try to give a coherent turnover report, your speech seems as clumsy as your body.
The prospect of checking the charts for 25 transports (not counting dry runs) seems like a colossal undertaking, and you find yourself sorting the same ones repeatedly before you realize you still need to write a couple. (That’s pure torture.) You’re glad to see your relief crews in their clean uniforms, and you feel the sense of relief that comes from knowing the next call will be somebody else’s. But, friends or no friends, you’re in no mood for their bed-head comments. Grrr.
Chris Olson had a term for that whole state of being. He called it his ˙Maximum Fun LevelÓ (MFL). He taught it to the night crews at the local ED, who always went right for the gutter; they were just sure he was talking dirty at first. (Turned out, it was an appropriate expression for something they also felt at the end of their shifts.) He taught it to the engine companies. He taught it to the cops and the sheriff’s deputies. And, he even taught it to some of our frequent-flyers. (Thanks, Chris.)
You don’t just reach your MFL at the end of a shift. You hit it like a wall at two or three in the morning, after about three actual wake-ups (meaning, you actually made it back to bed and fell asleep). Sometimes it occurs after your fifth drunk’s fifth drink. And sometimes it happens during the span of a single call, like when you’re listening in lazy circles to a psych patient. In that situation, you can use it like a code term for ˙Time to get the restraints, Lieutenant.Ó
Main thing is, after all these years, it still is what it is. That means you can use it, too. And trust me. Until they get used to it, your peeps will still think you’re talking dirty.
See how they are?„JEMS
Thom Dick has been involved in EMS for 38 years, 23 of them as a full-time EMT and paramedic in San Diego County. He’s currently the quality care coordinator for Platte Valley Ambulance, a hospital-based 9-1-1 system in Brighton, Colo. Contact him at[email protected]