Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground.
Such was the way poet Walt Whitman wrote about the soldiers he cared for during the Civil War in his classic poem, “The Wound Dresser.” One hundred and forty years later, Kevin Hazzard embarked on his career in EMS, a wild experience he chronicles in grisly detail in his new memoir, A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back. Like Whitman, who also paused a writing career to splint bones and bandage wounds, Hazzard expertly captures the triumphs, tragedies and tolls of treating the critically ill and injured.
Over the course of its brief history, the field of EMS has always attracted action-oriented people, brave men and women who were far more interested in saving lives than sitting down at a desk and writing about it.
Thus, it’s into this relative void that A Thousand Naked Strangers arrives, “loud and terrible, ten thousand pounds of speeding menace with the lunatic wail of a screaming banshee … a street bound locomotive that can’t stop, so get the hell out of the way.” In this scene, Hazzard uses his considerable writing talent to describe the sight and sound of a fire engine responding to a call, but it’s also the perfect description of his book.Consequently, in the nearly 50 years since paramedics first stepped onto the streets, a Navy SEAL-like silence has hung over much of the profession. Things slowly began to change after Jim Page—founder of JEMS—published his memoir, The Magic of 3 A.M., in 1986, and other pioneering writers such as Paul Shapiro, Peter Canning and Jane Stern soon followed. Their memoirs-and a few others like them-were both thrilling and captivating, but the EMS bookshelf still looked quite bare compared to the vast number of military memoirs and others written by doctors, nurses and lawyers.
Between 2004 and 2013, Hazzard spent 10 years working as an EMT and paramedic in Atlanta, primarily in the projects and lawless streets surrounding Grady Memorial Hospital. “I wanted to be tested,” Hazzard writes, “I wanted to prove to myself that I could handle the pressure of life-and-death moments.”
As Hazzard earns his EMT license, an endless patient parade of junkies, drunks, prostitutes, criminals and misfits are quick to offer up opportunities. Hazzard begins his career with FirstMed, a company that runs inter-facility transports of dialysis and nursing home patients. From there, he gets hired to run 9-1-1 calls with Rural/Metro in Fulton County, earning his paramedic license in the process, and ultimately lands at Grady EMS, the 9-1-1 provider for the city of Atlanta. As he struggles to translate his book knowledge into street smarts, Hazzard perfectly captures the fear, giddiness and courage of being an EMS newbie.
Hazzard is an expert at capturing character. “My most frequent part-timer is Josh,” he writes of an early partner, “a body builder with enormous teeth, big white monsters spread wide enough to walk through, and a body to match: six and a half feet tall, chest like a beer keg, shoulders wide as a doorway, a booming voice cradled in a South Georgia accent.” With only a few adjectives, Hazzard has captured the protein-powdered soul of his partner.
When Hazzard later works with Chris, a career medic who’s “equal parts junkie and devotee,” he perfectly describes the paramedic rite-of-passage of the new initiate learning from the wise, seasoned elder. As they’re called to a private residence for an elderly woman choking, Hazzard captures the thrill and action of running a cardiac arrest: “A firefighter drops to his knees and begins CPR-a traumatic, almost obscene assault on the body. Two hands over the breastplate, arms locked, an unending string of compressions delivered with the full force of a grown man. The breastplate quickly breaks free from the ribs; the connecting cartilage snaps with each compression and makes a percussive pop like thick ice breaking deep below the surface. Chris reaches into the jump bag and pulls out the airway kit. I shuffle along on my knees and take hold of Grandma’s hand. It’s time for an IV.”
Perhaps the most telling moments in the book come after Hazzard responds to a guy who was lethally shot in the head. “His skull was obliterated,” Hazzard writes, “and the skin hung slack like a dodge ball with the air let out.” After the call, Hazzard heard a faint clicking sound in the sole of his boot every time he took a step. Was it a pebble? A shard of broken glass? Hazzard pays the sound little mind until he returns home and his floor gets scratched. He discovers then it was a piece of skull from the shooting victim. Hazzard’s wife, Sabrina, is horrified so he tosses the skull fragment into the neighbor’s yard. The skull is gone-as is the spongy brain he washes off his hands in another scene, and the blood and smell of dead bodies he routinely launders from his uniform-but does out of sight equal out of mind? What are the psychological and spiritual tolls of saving lives? And finally, could the job of saving lives as an EMT or paramedic be nearly as traumatizing as that of a soldier in combat?
Those are the intriguing questions at the tell-tale heart of this poignant, darkly funny, and unremittingly brutal memoir.
While Hazzard’s writing style shares a spontaneous, spitfire similarity to authors Tim O’Brien and Hunter S. Thompson-both of whom he quotes on the opening page-his style and tone are more similar to the film directors of violent, shock cinema such as Quentin Tarantino, Darren Lynn Bousman and Wes Craven. Most of the action in A Thousand Naked Strangers occurs in the eerie gloom of night and feels like a horror movie. Hazzard’s first call at Rural/Metro is for a man who has hacked off three toes with a “rusted steel” lawnmower blade and, that night, he responds to a lady who has spent the night slicing herself with a “bloody and rusted” meat cleaver. Later in the book, Hazzard searches for a dead body in an abandoned school: “Somewhere in the darkness, something moves and I swing my light,” he writes, “We hope it’s only a rat, but we’re not in here alone.” Near the end of the book, Hazzard is dispatched to a man who has cut himself ear-to-ear with a chain saw, and he encounters “skin, meat, sinewy jaw muscles, teeth, tongue, the bones of the jaw itself are all churned up and left to dangle in a horrible and horrifying slurry of mouth parts.”
As the violent calls continue ceaselessly, the wide-eyed optimism of the first half of the book is lost and A Thousand Naked Strangers threatens to assault the spirit rather than uplift it. As Hazzard is stretched to the breaking point, he gets bitter, his spiritual isolation grows, and he begins to lash out.
“I’m angry and miserable and I almost don’t even care,” he writes. “I’m burned out.”
Is this burnout? Or is “burnout” just the acceptable label that EMS providers have given to post-traumatic stress, compassion fatigue and their negative changes in mood and thinking? Unfortunately, one of the book’s shortcomings is that Hazzard doesn’t investigate this important question. In place of this internal exploration, Hazzard then begins to rage against all the external factors he feels are to blame-the grumpy nurses, arrogant doctors, bad partners, the hours, the pay, the threat of injury, and “the shit holes and shitbags.” His omission is then worsened when he writes that “there are realities to working at Grady that medics don’t face anywhere else,” and that “those beginning their career now have it a little easier.” By describing his feelings as singular and delegating his experience to another time and place, he threatens to discount the feelings of EMS providers today who face the same tensions, witness similar traumas, and endure the same struggle to stay sane and compassionate in a difficult profession.
Despite this, Hazzard’s memoir is a major work. To read it is to feel the rollercoaster range of emotions that EMTs and paramedics experience on a daily basis. Hazzard’s writing is action-packed, nuanced and unforgettable. A Thousand Naked Strangers has all the elements of an EMS classic.
If you’d like to purchase Kevin Hazzard’s memoir, A Thousand Naked Strangers, or to learn more about the author, visit www.kevinhazzard.com.