Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Cry

Steve Berry is a featured speaker at the 2014 EMS World Expo, November 9–13 in Nashville, TN. Register at  

In the 1980s, while Steve Berry was working as a teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, one of his colleagues had a heart attack. Berry rushed to his aid…sort of. "I kept telling him to lie down, which of course he didn't have to do," he recalls. "I was totally useless. When the paramedics got there, I was in awe of them and what they could do."

   The experience led Berry to become an EMT. While doing a ride-along during his training, his first call was for a cardiac arrest. "It was overwhelming," he says. "You'd like to be brought into it slowly, maybe a cut finger or somebody puking. I was so naive; I was shocked when paramedics didn't save him. They were looking at me like, 'We're shocked when we do.'" But the combination of the adrenaline rush and the ability to help in life-or-death situations had Berry hooked. Berry went on to become a paramedic with a private ambulance service in Colorado Springs. Early one morning, after a particularly difficult shift, he began doodling about what he'd seen as a way to vent his frustrations and relieve job stress. Soon his fellow paramedics started posting his cartoons in the ambulance base. He eventually compiled his cartoons into a self-published book, I Am Not An Ambulance Driver!, in 1991.

   Since then, he has published 10 books and drawn some 2,000 cartoons. While often described as a humorist, Berry says his most meaningful work has been in dealing with the weightier issues faced by EMS personnel, such as knowing how to handle families in crisis situations and making sure the community knows EMS personnel are more than just "ambulance drivers."

   The following excerpted interview can be found in its entirety on the Best Practices in Emergency Services website at

   How important is humor in EMS?

   There's a lot of cumulative stress from working in EMS, and each medic tries to find a way to survive that. I've always said, 'If you can laugh at what hurts you, you will survive.'

   What's your favorite cartoon?

   That's like saying what's your favorite child! The best cartoon is when you don't even need words-it's just visual. And I love it when a medic laughs and someone outside the field looks at it and goes, 'Huh?' We have our own language.

   But the cartoon that is the most meaningful to me is a medic who is coming home after a shift. He's thinking of something he saw at work: an image of a bicycle with a baseball hat lying next to it on the street. At home, his son is nervous because he's played baseball around the house and has broken a window. There's a silhouette of the father staring at the son, then picking him up and giving him a very hard hug. That cartoon says that tragedy happens. But it helps remind medics what is meaningful to them in life. That one gets a very strong reaction. If you are going to laugh, you have to be willing to cry, too.

   What do you see as some of the major issues facing EMS?

   The decrease in volunteerism is a big one. We are not seeing an influx of new volunteers from Generation Y or the Millennials. The question is: How do we capture them? I hear a lot of old-timers complain about those generations. Well, stop complaining about them. Instead, figure out who they are and what their interests are and draw them in with what attracts them. We know they grew up in a different world than we did. They grew up with 9/11 and knowing how fragile the world is. And don't forget how irritating you once were to the generation before you. It's the job of every generation to irritate the hell out of the generation preceding it.

   Though you're known as a humorist, you also give talks on death scene management. Why is it important for EMS to better understand how to handle these situations?

   I always insist that if I'm going to do a humor talk and make them laugh, then I get to do a heavy talk on death scene management so they get the full range of emotions. Medics are always taught, 'Don't get emotionally involved in your calls.' But we are human. When we see a dead child and try to say it doesn't impact us, it's ridiculous. Not only that, there is very minimal training for how to deal with family members, such as what to say and what not to say.

   On calls in which someone dies, what do paramedics and EMTs need to know when dealing with distraught family members?

   Don't pick up your equipment, walk out and leave them. The survivors are now your patients. What you can do for them is get them through this process and help them survive this. For the rest of their lives they will remember the moment you told them their loved one is dead. That is an incredible responsibility.

Jenifer Goodwin is associate editor of the monthly newsletter Best Practices in Emergency Services.