Administration and Leadership

Leadership Lessons from an Iconic N.J. Paramedic

Issue 3 and Volume 41.

The prehospital streets of New Jersey are less protected after one of their greatest entered eternal rest on Aug. 28, 2015.

Paramedic Walter Drivet was iconic for many reasons. He delivered exceptional care to N.J. residents for over 35 years in the highest-risk areas—where the patients needed him the most.

I met Walter for the first time as a paramedic student at a suburban medic unit where he’d come to help teach us incident command in the early ‘90s in efforts to formalize our state mass casualty incident response structure.

That day he assigned me as incident commander. I tried to talk him out of it because I was only a “student who was just there to learn.” I had no experience on the street as a medic.

Walter wouldn’t waiver. “Young lady,” he said, “I’m the commander and you just received an order—now pony up and make me shine.”

I remember his tone of voice like it was yesterday despite this being over two decades ago.

In that moment Walter was extending his hand, bringing me with him as he had with so many of us in New Jersey. Walter saw our potential before we realized we had any.

I did end up commanding the drill, and I dutifully followed orders the rest of the day. I was better because of this moment, and it ended up serving as the beginning of an amazing friendship that would be built over the next 25 years.

We later reconnected on the rural streets of Hunterdon County, where this novice suburban girl had the honor to ride side-by-side with an inner-city giant. There was no air about it; Walter delivered amazing lessons in our mobile classroom where I soaked up every word as if each were addictive candy.

As anyone taught by Walter knows, despite being long-winded, the wordsmith in him allowed him to make his points through an unbelievable use of twisting the meaning of words to construct lasting phrases that would be with his students far longer than we realized.

Walter taught every day of his life. He didn’t need to be in the classroom to impart his wisdom, and thankfully so, since he had so much to share.

All who have had the honor to teach side-by-side with him saw firsthand how his principles from the street infused the classroom with knowledge and his students—heck, even all of us involved—were better off for it.

A well-oiled machine, never wavering in the wake of change, Walter was always looking to give more for the improvement process and executing it like he was on a mission.

Affectionately known as the “navy walrus,” he used humor to make his points, bluntness to keep us sharp, large vocabulary to help us expand, and a personal touch to acknowledge to us when we had finally “made it.”

Walter’s leadership capabilities were infectious. His calmness under pressure was like watching the Navy SEAL Team 6 going in on a mission. There could be a metaphoric undertow or rip current moving around him and he showed no sign of worry, for he would always walk upright out of that ocean, unwavered by what just occurred.

His medicine was beyond cutting edge. It was infused with critical care principles, tactical medicine procedures, evidence-based practice, systematic approach and a lot of common sense.

Walter was an outstanding paramedic, educator, and leader, and he will be greatly missed. It seems fitting to share words of wisdom from Walter to help remind all of us how we can be more like him, and maybe even become an icon in the prehospital realm.

  • Embrace high standards. Always have the people around you rise to your standard; never lower yours.
  • We’re clinicians, not technicians. It doesn’t matter what words are embroidered on that patch; our scope of practice far exceeds a technical level, and it’s our job to own that we are in fact clinicians.
  • Respect must be earned. Those who talk a great game usually don’t have one. Now go earn respect.
  • Pay it forward. Stop looking for the handout and invest in the business. Do a good deed every day.
  • Prepare for every shift as if it were your first. Dress the part, check the truck and be ready for the job.
  • No guts, no glory. Never be intimidated by the moment, for the moment is what we’ve been preparing for.
  • Be resourceful with your time. Time management is key to success in this field.
  • If you’re not putting in 100% effort, it’s not worth giving any at all. Interact with patients the same way every time so you’ll never get fooled.
  • You will fail before you succeed. Those failures will serve you to achieve more than you realized you could.
  • With knowledge and experience comes wisdom. Read something every day.
  • Drama is something that should stay in Hollywood. We’re far from Hollywood guys, so knock it off.
  • Above all else, always do right by the patient. The patient chooses you—you didn’t choose them, so act like the honor that it is.
  • Pony up. You’re going to go through some tough stuff. Put on your proverbial big girl/boy pants and pony up. They are the moments that define who we are.

In closing, remember to extend your hand to a newbie with potential. Mentor for the future and embrace the principles of excellence. For you just might find yourself in the realm of Walter Drivet.