I thought I was hot stuff because I went to the best EMT school in the state. From the beginning, the instructor was preening us young and impressionable students to be the best of the best, and we were told as much. Being an alumnus of this school was like a doctor or lawyer with Princeton or Johns Hopkins behind his name. I walked through volunteer applications using the name of my school like it was going to be the reason why I would be hired. I thought--no, I knew--I was the best thing since sliced bread. We were taught things that I thought only we in our little clique knew. I was the best of the best, and I wasn't afraid to show it.
My first post, I strutted around like I was God's gift. I knew everything there was to know about being an EMT. I could do it better, faster and knew more about it than anyone else. At the time, I worked with a medic who only saw the good in people, no matter how rude or crude they were. He constantly complimented me on how good I was, and I picked up on the tricks of how to be a good partner quickly and with ease. Nothing was going to stop me from being the best, but then how could you improve upon perfection?
That medic was too kind when he told me my shortcoming: manual blood pressures.
The LifePak 12 was the new hotness then: Everyone had one and used it to take vitals. I could proudly apply the cuff, pulse ox probe and everything else with ease, but I didn't know how to listen to a manual pressure in the back of the truck when it was running. I honestly couldn't hear it, and couldn't tell the soft thump-thump of the pulse from the whirring of the diesel engine.
I soared through, with my ignorance obvious to everyone but myself. On a nonemergency transfer, my bubble was popped in a very public way.
I didn't get along with the medic I was with; we never saw eye to eye on anything. I was only there because he needed an extra set of hands--nothing more. As I started to put the patient on the auto cuff, he tossed me the manual cuff and told me to use it instead of the monitor, which needed to be calibrated. I smiled weakly and wrapped the cuff. My heart was pounding as I tried in vain to listen. All I could hear were the tubes of my stethoscope rubbing against themselves, the tube of the BP cuff and the errant tapping of the medic across from me. Everything else sounded louder than what I was listening for.
I watched the gauge and thought I saw the needle bouncing. I re-inflated the cuff and watched the needle fall. I called out the first number where I saw the needle twitch and the number where it stopped: 141/77. Yeah, I made it up on the spot.
The medic shot me a withering look and I turned away. I was busted, big time. Once the patient was off-loaded, the medic sat in the back with me. Without saying a word, he pulled out the BP cuff, handed it to me and told me to put it on. I slowly wrapped it around his bicep, my cheeks burning. We had an observer with us that day--a kid who I thought was less than I was because he didn't go to the best EMT school in the state (he went to the local EMT Shack that seemed to let just about anyone become an EMT, in my opinion), so how could he know more than I did? We both took blood pressures, again and again and again. Each time I proved that I couldn't take a blood pressure to save a life.
After we arrived at the station, the medic pulled me aside and stomped a royal-sized mud hole in my rear. I stood there in awe. I thought I was the best, but I wasn't. I had to be shown how little the school I went to, its location, size or name of the department meant if I wasn't able to do my job. I was riding the coattails of the school's success, not my own personal achievement. I needed to learn to be humble and understand there was more to being an EMT than C-spine and vitals. I knew all the fancy words and secret tricks, but I didn't know how to use them well enough to be allowed the privilege of riding an ambulance as a provider.
All too often, we overestimate ourselves. We think because we've "been there" and "done that" we are above reproach and above learning anything new. This job is all about learning. We have a basic skill set that we build upon through years of trial and error, not through one call or two, but years of screwing up and being humble enough to learn from our mistakes.
Until next time, have fun and be safe.
Shao Trommashere is a paramedic who has worked for close to a decade in EMS and in the fire service. She completed paramedic class in 2007 after working as an EMT since 2002 in the Northeast corner of the United States. She also has a blog called Looking Through A Pair of Pink Handled Trauma Shears.