Ambulances & Vehicle Ops, Operations, Patient Care

We Can Learn Many Things from ‘Ambulance Drivers’

Issue 2 and Volume 37.

We’ve suffered some grief over the label “ambulance drivers.” Especially since the TV series, Emergency!, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which portrayed transport crews as acerebral, mute livery lackies. Nor did Raquel Welch or Bill Cosby do us any favors in 1976 with their roles in the pathetic flick Mother Jugs and Speed. That film demeaned and de-minded us for years in the public’s memory.

Of course, the focus of Emergency! was on those “paramagics.” I guess we understood that, but the implications about the ambulance crews were clear and painful. I remember confronting the show’s technical editor, Jim Page, about that. I’m proud to have called Jim my friend. He’s still one of my idols, both in EMS and in life. Always gracious, he apologized instantly.

There was a time when some of the ambulance services in the L.A. area (and perhaps elsewhere) were pretty sloppy outfits. Emergency! wasn’t about them. Still, it was obvious to me that Jim didn’t realize how many of us actually cared deeply about our work and were offended by the negative connotations.

I suppose there are still a few “lackies” among us—people who lack this and that. But I like to think most of us report for duty every day and do the best we can for the folks we serve.

Some things don’t change, Life-Saver. People still get scared when they’re sick. And when they’re scared, they need to be reassured throughout our contact with them that we’re anything but a bunch of bloody mechanics. That kind of reassurance comes from the way we interact with them: our eye contact, our tone, the smoothness of our movements, the efforts we make to keep them comfortable and protect their dignity, and the way we interface with colleagues. Mostly, they’re the smallest things we do.

I know we’ve talked before in this column about EMS as an art form, but I can’t help bringing it up again. Consider how, as a really good technician, you go into the field with a limited array of simple tools. You confront the insurmountable chaos in other people’s lives, and somehow you produce a desired result.

But some of us perform on a whole other level. I’ve seen medics choreograph a flow of observations, movements and behaviors in a way that can only be seen as graceful, even by observers who don’t understand what they’re seeing.

That doesn’t happen on every call, and most of us can’t make it happen at all. But when you’re running a call and it does happen, even if nobody else can see it, you get a sense you’ve created something beautiful. I think that’s art, my friend. I don’t know how you’d call it anything else.

When I watch a crew running a call, I see their medicine. But I love to watch the little things they do. The way they select their routing, use their warning equipment, negotiate traffic, approach and park. The way they stow their pillows, blankets and buckle straps. Whether or not they actually have to look for stuff when they reach for it. Their verbal repertoire, their tone of voice and the calm in their movements. The way they anticipate the need for equipment, and how they deploy it. How smoothly they coordinate activity, sometimes without even talking. The cleanliness of their gear, their uniforms and their leather. Their eye contact and their use of touch, not just with people in crisis, but with bystanders. And the way they smile, conduct handoffs and say goodbye to sick people and their families.

I have to tell you, I didn’t learn how to be slick in P school. I learned it from ambulance drivers who, despite their incomparable abilities, have so far remained anonymous to most of us. By far the best I ever met was a guy named Bob Hartson; then Chris Olson, John Hein, Rod Ballard, Roy Lewis, Bill Bellah, John Grindle, Herb Atwood, John Otti, Ken Prior, Gordon Anderson and maybe a dozen others. In fact, one of the things in my life of which I am most proud is the fact that, four decades ago—and throughout my career—I learned my craft from people like them.

I’m thinking, maybe you know and respect somebody today who exhibits that kind of talent. Maybe you should tell them. Or maybe you’re somebody like that.

If so, what a shame we don’t appreciate you more than we do. JEMS

This article originally appeared in February 2012 JEMS as “Little Things: Stuff we could learn from ‘ambulance drivers’.”