Cell Distraction

You’re in the process of initiating transport for a 42-year-old woman complaining of three days of nausea, colicky abdominal pain and the worst sense of “simply feeling sick” of her life. You’ve mentally checked off the really bad stuff and focused on your list of clues for cholecystitis: She’s fat, female, 40 and probably fertile, and so far she’s afebrile. So your medic partner, Leo, concentrates on Os, fluids, reassuring her, watching her and keeping her as comfortable as possible throughout a gentle 20-mile transport. Speaking of which, it’s your turn to drive. You help the lady’s daughter into the shotgun seat and buckle her in, then take the wheel.

You haven’t been underway for more than a minute when you hear Leo’s cell phone go off. He casually reaches in his pocket and answers it. Answers it pretty intently, as a matter of fact. He’s on that phone for a good five minutes, mostly staring out the rear windows, and loudly enough so you and the daughter can easily hear most of his end of a conversation with his girlfriend, Lisa. And he no sooner hangs up than, without a moment’s pause, he obviously engages himself in texting somebody.

The transport is otherwise unremarkable. When you arrive at the hospital, you do your turnover report, and Leo writes the chart while you restock and clean up. You casually mention the cell phone conversation on your way back to quarters—that you feel Leo was clearly distracted, that the daughter could clearly hear the conversation from the cab, and that he probably didn’t seem very attentive to the patient. Leo doesn’t respond. You’ve been partners for two years, and you know that means you’ve been tuned out.


Leo’s a good medic. It’s probably not worth a fuss, but he does this all the time. And he’s not the only one. Should we be taking personal calls during transports?

Our cell phones have definitely become important to us. They’re cameras, alarm clocks, calendars, medical references, weather links, calculators, compasses and links to the Internet—plus so much more. We depend on them as essential tools for managing so many of the moving pieces in our lives, but while we’re on a call, we should probably have them tucked away somewhere.


That’s not easy for some people. I have friends who are constantly so connected, they can’t get through a conversation without answering at least one text message. And they can do that mid-discussion. It’s not a big deal when they’re with somebody who knows and loves them, but isn’t it kind of an insult when they’re supposed to be taking care of somebody’s emergency?

I think it’s a major act of disrespect, whether it’s perceived that way or not. But if it is perceived that way, the presence of the family member compounds the offense. If you ever want to make somebody really angry, don’t just disrespect them. Instead, disrespect them in the presence of someone who loves them more than anything in the whole world.

By the way, why would it be OK to text while you’re conversing with someone who loves you? I would think presuming their forgiveness would be worse than the original offense itself.


I don’t disagree, but let’s talk practicality. What if you’re taking care of a patient and you get a call that’s really important? Say, for example, your kid has a seizure in the cafeteria at school, or somebody makes an offer on your house?

Those are both important life events, all right. But you’re a caregiver. All your friends know you’re a caregiver. So do your kid’s teachers and your real estate agent, if you tell them so. Generally speaking, you can suggest that when your acquaintances call you, they let the phone ring three times. If you’re not on a call, you’ll answer it right away. If you are on a call and it’s important, they can let it ring until it goes to voice mail, and you can call them back. While you’re on duty, you can silence your phone at the beginning of your shift.

In general, I think your access to and accessibility by phone are personal conveniences. Neither of those things has anything to do with that commitment you make every time you show up for somebody’s emergency.

Namely, you’re there for them.

Thom Dick has been involved in EMS for 40 years, 23 of them as a full-time EMT and paramedic in San Diego County. He is the quality care coordinator for Platte Valley Ambulance Service, a community-owned, hospital-based 9-1-1 provider in Brighton, CO. Thom is also a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. E-mail boxcar_414@yahoo.com.