Stuff I Wish They'd Taught Me in Class: Part 1--The Human Element

A paramedic recounts what it took to understand that EMS is as much about people, as it is about medicine.


 

I had a patient, a frequent flier many moons ago, who would call us for lift assists. Every time we got there, it was the same thing. A little old lady would be sitting in her overstuffed recliner needing help to get up and out. Her feet couldn't touch the floor, and she was so small that she couldn't rock the chair enough to get herself out of it. We would bustle around diligently; getting her out of the chair, fetching her a glass of water, even heating up a microwave dinner or food that was left by Meals on Wheels.

As a young and dumb EMT, I loathed hearing her address come out over dispatch. I felt the call took me away from the people who deserved my ministrations: car accidents, cardiac arrests and all the other "important" patients. I'd complain, both to myself and my crew, about how much I hated going to her house. We would be there for at least half an hour, and invariably, we'd miss a "good" call. My demeanor would take a sour turn; I'd have that look of a 14-year-old kid who had to visit great-aunt Mildred on a Saturday instead of hanging out with friends.

I didn't want to be there, but I had to stay. I absolutely hated each call, but my crew seemed to relish it. It seemed like the days where I was most surly and angst-ridden, they'd stay longer trying to get me more involved in the "treatment."

One Wednesday, the usual day when she would call, she didn't. She habitually called at 5:30 p.m., no earlier, no later. I settled back in the couch, confident that we'd finally catch one of the "good" calls that always seemed to come in around the same time. No calls. Finally, around 9 p.m., we were called to her home, but this time, there was no moving her from her chair to the couch; we moved her from her chair to a body bag. Her neighbor had noticed that she had been sitting in the same spot without moving an inch all day long. He thought she was sleeping, but worry got the best of him and he decided to call to check. When she didn't answer, he knew something was wrong.

As I moved about to gather information, something struck me so hard it was like a ninja with a 2x4; there were no pictures of family, no cards or letters from friends, nothing. Talking to the neighbor only confirmed my suspicions. She had no family to speak of, but neighbors would stop in to check on her every so often, just to make sure she had the basic necessities and then take their leave.

I felt horrible. From that day, I never took any 'lift-assist' for granted.

It took the death of a patient to know my attitude had to change. EMT and medic school fills your head with how to treat sick patients; people with both mental and physical medical problems. What it doesn't teach is that something as simple as talking to a patient and finding out about their lives can, and will, make all the difference in the world. Sometimes, the best treatment is no treatment at all.

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.