Plan B

Especially in EMS, nothing lasts forever. What’s next?

“Going into the off-season, I’m going to get my EMT and do the firefighting thing so I have something to fall back on.” —Baseball phenom Bryce Harper

It’s refreshing to hear from an athlete who gets it.

Nineteen-year-old MLB sensation Bryce Harper isn’t about to let a five-year, $9.9 million contract with the Washington Nationals make him complacent. He realizes he’s only one emergent orthopedic procedure away from coaching first base in some bus league. Waking up every morning (or early afternoon if there’s a night game) knowing the average major league career lasts only 5.6 years at $3.4 million per year must be hard on a teenager who left high school to sign a guaranteed deal for just over half the $19 million the odds say he’ll earn playing ball. Hey, we all have to pay our dues.

The late Casey Stengel would have been proud of the young man. Stengel, once the colorful, quotable manager of New York’s Yankees and Mets, would have declared that the only thing a 19-year-old rookie can count on in five years is a chance to be 24. By then, Harper’s deal won’t be worth more than, say, $8.1 million, given inflation. And don’t get me started on taxes.

I don’t doubt the outfielder’s sincerity when he says, “Ever since I was growing up, I wanted to be a firefighter or a baseball player.” I’ve been there, bro. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a cowboy or a paramedic. The absence of emergency medical services in the ’50s didn’t dissuade me; I was leaning toward the medic thing until a family member speculated that paramedics were medics who parachuted. Even then I saw no reason to jump out of perfectly good airplanes, so I got me a 10-gallon hat, polished my belt buckle, jingle-jangled my spurs and went looking for dogies to drive. There wasn’t much need for that in Massachusetts. Besides, a 10-gallon hat is way too big for a 6-year-old. I resorted to Plan B—engineering school—and made a comfortable living for 36 years. Then I became a paramedic.

Like Harper, I saw EMS as something to fall back on. I figured if I ever got tired of earning six figures in clean, climate-controlled buildings, where transports were by elevator instead of ambulance and lifting was what we did to beer mugs after work, I could swap my suits for uniforms and know I was contributing something more to society than business advice. When I finally exercised that option in the late ’90s, I discovered I’d had it backwards: EMS isn’t a career to fall back on; it’s a career that needs a career to fall back on.

I’ve seen many questions on EMS message boards about choosing between a college degree and advanced certification. To me it’s a no-brainer: The latter offers a pay hike to something above poverty and skills too specialized to impress employers outside EMS, while the former becomes the foundation for a lifetime of professional opportunities.

To those who claim they’re merely delaying, not abandoning, a back-to-school decision, I’d say I’m skeptical. Spouses and houses are powerful inducements to keep working as many jobs and shifts as possible. Add children, and it becomes even more difficult to budget for college credits.

We don’t always get to choose when we change careers. Cumulative mental and physical stressors leave medical workers vulnerable to virtual retirement. I didn’t understand that 20 years ago, when I thought I could stay in EMS for as long as I liked. Ten years ago I suspected that wouldn’t be true; injuries left me doubting I could do this job into my 60s. Now that I’m almost there, I know any shift could be my last. I’m glad I didn’t postpone college to become a paramedic or cowboy or baseball player. I’m going to need that degree to support my family until I can retire for real.

Memo to Bryce Harper: I know an EMT class that starts this fall. It’ll cost you $20 to apply. (If it’s easier to just endorse one of those $1.25 million bonus checks to the school, they say they’ll make change.) Before you commit, though, I should warn you: Making the playoffs is no excuse for missing class.

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