Administration and Leadership, Columns, Commentary

Relationship Reflections: The Importance of Choosing the Right EMS Soul Mate

Issue 5 and Volume 43.


A chance encounter at this year’s EMS Today Conference prompted me to write this month’s editor’s page.

While I was walking in the exhibit hall, an EMS provider came up to me and asked if I could answer a question for him. I said I’d be glad to, expecting a question about a conference session, a JEMS article or some other area directly related to EMS.

It turns out that what he wanted to know was how I found the perfect mate who understood my involvement in EMS. More importantly, he wanted to know how I found someone who tolerated my passion for EMS.

It caught me off guard, but I thought it was an intriguing question—one I’d never really thought about too much because I did, in fact, find the perfect spouse for me 38 years ago when I met my wife Betsy.

I spoke to him about the importance of having someone to turn to for support when the stress and strain of the job takes its toll.

We need someone who can accept that there will be times when we come home and don’t want to talk about what’s bothering us—and perhaps we don’t want to talk much about anything for a few days.

There are also times when we come home on an adrenaline high from a challenging call, or are depressed after an extremely taxing or tragic call. It’s important for us to have someone in our lives who will listen when we try to communicate our experience, excitement, failure or mental fatigue, and who will understand our moods, sorrow, tears and nightmares.

A.J. and Betsy in front of the 43-year-old MICU A.J.’s restoring. Photo A.J. Heightman

A.J. and Betsy in front of the 43-year-old MICU A.J.’s restoring. Photo A.J. Heightman

Content or Consumed?

With a degree in sociology, the study of groups and group practices, I’ve often observed and been amazed at how many people end up with incompatible spouses and many who, sadly, end up in failed marriages.

Like law enforcement and combat firefighting, EMS is a unique, dangerous and passionate field that requires the right personality and soul mate to help you survive throughout the years.

I’ve watched many relationships break up because the loved one felt that they were in competition with the provider’s profession.

When someone becomes attached to an emergency responder, they’ll always have EMS in their relationship, their household and their social circles, so it’s critical that they accept this.

In my experience, there are two types of emergency responders. First, there are those that are interested in the profession, go to work, do what’s expected of them, and want to shut the emergency response door when they’re off duty. They don’t want to do, say or think about work until their next shift.

These are also often providers who are content with their role, and aren’t interested in expanding their capabilities or entering upper management positions. These responders often do quite well in relationships with individuals who don’t like to hear a lot about their job, its stressors, unique co-workers or the wild and gory details of calls. These are good providers who like their job, but aren’t consumed by it.

Then, there are those of us who are consumed by EMS; it’s a passion—something we can’t get enough of.

People in this category want to learn and do as much as possible to improve, advance and bring about change in EMS. This is a person who will always have the need for EMS in their life, and their partner should understand and accept that.

It’s this second category of responders that I focus on for the remainder of this column, because it’s often taxing on relationships and requires careful consideration about who we allow into our EMS soul.

My First Love

When I was in high school, I enjoyed helping to lay out and equip ambulances, or working as a third runner on my dad’s rig. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, I was more interested in riding ambulances than dating or drinking with the guys. I was the only person who understood the powerful hold that the emergency service field had on me.

At the time, I dated without the intent of marriage. It’s not that I wasn’t social or interested, I just felt that I wasn’t yet ready to commit myself to what I would now call a “second relationship”—one that was compatible with my first love: emergency services.

I was a young, energetic and passionate provider who was completely absorbed in everything, from EMS to firefighting, vehicle rescue, rappelling, scuba, high-angle and confined space rescue. I wanted to follow my dream and learn as much as I could, advance as far as possible and become an educator so I could share my knowledge and passion with others.

When I landed my first EMS administrative job after college, and simultaneously volunteered as an EMT, firefighter and paramedic in my home community, I dated a lot of people who didn’t understand EMS. In fact, some were quite bored by it.

I soon learned that it was generally a losing proposition for me to date someone who didn’t understand or appreciate EMS, particularly if I had to reschedule a date because I was delayed on a pediatric cardiac arrest, or if I cancelled plans because I wanted to attend a weekend training program. I saw these as integral parts of my mission and career development.

Climbing the Ladder

During one of these weekend training programs at a regional fire academy, a young female member of my department caught my attention. She wore turnout gear that didn’t fit her, a helmet that was too big on her head, gloves that weren’t the right size for her and boots that looked like they would slip off.

She was also climbing 30 feet straight up and down a fully extended ladder, performing an exercise called the “church ladder.”

The objective of the church ladder is to help firefighters become confident in identifying the best way to access difficult-to-reach areas.

The exercise involves a 30-foot ladder that’s extended straight up in the air. Two ropes are tied off from the top of the ladder, and their running ends are held by four students on the ground to stabilize it.

It’s a very challenging and dangerous training exercise that required us to climb, untethered, straight up the ladder, lift our feet over the top of two of the rope ends and climb down the other side.

I watched as this young lady climbed up, over and down the ladder without fear, and I thought to myself, “I have to meet her!”

Her name was Betsy, and at the time, she was dating another member of my department.

Betsy was occasionally assigned as a member of my ALS ambulance crew, and I was impressed with her interest in EMS. She went through EMT training to better fit into our fire/EMS/rescue agency. More importantly, she did so to understand the unique aspects of the culture of emergency responders.

When her relationship with the other department member ended, I asked her out on a date. I soon realized that Betsy was the one for me, and the rest is history.

My EMS Soul Mate

Betsy had everything I knew I wanted in my EMS soul mate. She was beautiful, smart, conscientious and desired to have a career outside of EMS. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, she understood, respected and supported my many quirks and my passion for emergency services and education.

I know it’s cliché, but I soon realized that I’d met a girl who was very similar in many ways to my mom. I grew up watching my mom support my dad, who was absorbed in all areas of emergency service.

I saw the incredible support my mom provided to my dad, and I also saw her get frustrated and angry from time to time when my dad would prioritize EMS over personal or family plans.

The biggest lesson I learned from watching my mom and dad’s relationship was that she understood and accepted the demands and stress that her EMS “partner” experienced.

Early in our relationship, Betsy met my mentor, JEMS founding publisher Jim Page. He offered her advice and warned her that she was involved with a caged lion who wanted to pounce on EMS opportunities and problems.

He also reminded her that you can never tame a lion. All you can do is understand its traits, nurture it, and stay out of its way when it’s riled up or ready to pounce.

Keeping Calm

As our relationship grew, so too did Betsy’s tolerance of my career and volunteer tasks. My job as a regional EMS director involved 50–60-hour workweeks, with frequent night and weekend meetings.

Her encouragement and support got me through some difficult times—especially as I became outspoken about the need for a regional EMS system that many providers, chiefs, administrators and elected officials felt we didn’t need or want.

Those who felt threatened by policies or programs I developed often lobbied against them, or had me called before city, county or hospital officials to explain my positions. Some tried to get me fired.

I never would’ve survived the stress of those times without a fully supportive or encouraging spouse. To this day, I can always count on Betsy to counsel me and calm me down when tough issues or uneducated, disruptive, divisive people bring my passionate blood to a boil.

If I had a nickel for every time she stopped me from saying, writing or texting what was on my mind in the heat of the moment, I’d be a very wealthy man.

Changing & Adapting

When our children were born, Betsy politely became the angel on my shoulder, reminding me of my increasing responsibilities as a father, and ensuring that my volunteer or career interests didn’t overshadow my paternal role.

I changed and adapted accordingly. I left volunteer shifts when Betsy called to tell me one of our sons had a fever. I cut back my volunteer and career hours to focus more attention on my family. Betsy kept my calendar updated and reminded me about school meetings and programs, football practices and games, weekend family time and planned vacations.

I believe that, like many responders, I would’ve been unintentionally neglectful if I didn’t have a spouse who was clever enough to figure out how to temper my jobs and my passion with my responsibilities as a husband and father.

When Jim Page asked me to leave Pennsylvania and join JEMS in Southern California, there was no hesitation from my wife. She was completely acclimated to my job, my desires and my aspirations—and she supported the move 100%.

The Feeling’s Mutual

As the successful Chief Development Officer for an innovative and well-respected network of community clinics in Southern California, Betsy also shares her achievements, frustrations and obstacles with me, and I listen. Why? Because she does the same for me.

One of the final tips I passed on to the inquisitive responder as we spoke on the EMS Today exhibit hall floor was this: no relationship can be one-sided. To survive the test of time, a relationship must have mutual respect, understanding and patience.

Emergency responders have a strong, distinct culture, and we’re cautious about who we welcome inside our unique world. With a little careful thought and consideration, I’m confident that it’s possible for providers to find and maintain solid, lasting relationships.