My favorite TV commercials are the beer ads starring actor Jonathan Goldsmith as “the most interesting man in the world.”
It’s not the product I’m attracted to; it’s the character. Who wouldn’t want to be interesting to everyone?
Twenty years as a sportswriter/engineer/manager/consultant didn’t do that for me. I could tell by the gratuitous curiosity and thousand-yard stares from cocktail-party co-minglers whenever we’d discuss work. I don’t blame them—I wasn’t all that interested in what I did for a living either.
Later I discovered paramedics aren’t rated any higher on the I-want-to-be-like-him scale than my prior occupations were. Most of us in EMS aren’t interesting enough to impress anyone we’re not treating. It’s not our personalities; it’s our work. We’d be rock stars if we handled as many shootings per shift as our stunt doubles depict on TV. Instead we spend most of our field time treating formidable but fundamentally dull diseases like diabetes and COPD. The better that people understand our routine, the less interesting we seem.
Sometimes we hurt our cause by substituting simplistic expressions for more thorough explanations of what we do. “Jump-starting the heart” is an example. If I told my neighbor I do that, he’d probably think, What’s the big deal? I jump-started my wife’s car the other day. I bet he’d be more impressed if I said I “depolarized my patient’s myocardium so intrinsic pacemakers could resume normal activity.”
If the most interesting man in the world were a paramedic—in his spare time, so it didn’t get in the way of skydiving or bullfighting—I suspect he’d maintain enough of a mystique to charm the public. I can imagine him being interviewed after yet another save:
“I don’t always defibrillate,” he’d offer, coyly, “but when I do, I prefer rectilinear biphasic waveforms.” I know I’d be thinking there’s no cooler EMS provider on the planet. Soon the legend would transcend the man, and we’d be hearing:
• He delivers babies with Apgar scores of 11.
• Patients offer to name their illnesses after him.
• His chest compressions are so effective, 90 a minute are enough.
• He has more standing orders than his medical director.
• Hospitals divert patients to him.
• Nursing homes prepare elaborate patient histories just for him.
• He finishes late calls early.
• He’s the only medic certified in IPTLS (Inter-Planetary Trauma Life Support).
• His IVs are never removed by hospital staff.
• He verifies endotracheal tubes inserted by anesthesiologists.
• He diagnoses STEMIs from artifact.
• He secretes his own disinfectant.
• Ambulances circle his scene until summoned by him.
• He eats and sleeps just to be polite.
• He’s the only paramedic to hold EMT-MD certification.
• His arrival makes scenes safe.
(Yes, I realize the most interesting medic in the world might be female, but I had to pick a pronoun. Have mercy.)
It’s fun to fantasize, but reality intervenes whenever we respond from ready rooms or living rooms to the ultra-high-definition world of live trauma and disease. Suddenly the stakes change: We don’t have to be interesting, just good. When people talk about us, we’d be happy if they just said:
• He’d make a good teacher.
• He comforts kids when they cry.
• He’s a patient advocate, even when the system makes that hard.
• I felt so much better after talking to him.
• He’s gentle with the truth when the news is bad.
• He eases pain, even when that’s all he can do.
• That’s one service I don’t mind paying taxes for.
• I hope he comes the next time I need help.
EMS providers may be uninteresting, but we’re necessary and often effective. As much as anyone, we make direct contributions to the neediest segments of society. We wish we were as admired as athletes and actors—who doesn’t?—but we understand that our jobs are to work behind the scenes. We willingly trade fame for inconspicuous competence. We’d settle for a few fans who want to be like us, even if they don’t want to be us.