No Meat Loaf for Lucy

In EMS, opportunities for good food are rare


I am married to a world-class cook. I’d be grateful for that even if I weren’t in EMS. My own stunted capabilities in the kitchen leave me at the mercy of anyone who knows the difference between poached and parboiled.

Working shifts punctuated by chow more convenient than nutritious makes sit-down meals with the family special. I enjoy feasting as I imagine our forefathers did—after our foremothers picked, plucked, skinned, scaled or otherwise rendered edible the day’s protein. Hearty fare like a roast or a stew has that homespun feel that still resonates, I think, with most of us in Marcus Welby’s target audience. Besides, eating at home is a lot safer than ingesting foodlike substances of questionable pedigree between transports—a high-stakes game I call The Good, The Bad and The Cholinergic.

It’s not that all street food is dangerous—just unpredictable. A dairy-derived entrée ordered on a hot summer day from the most fastidious color-coordinated franchise can cause more distress than a burrito from a body-shop vending machine. Stress is also a factor; that side order of catecholamines is a recipe for dyspepsia. And trying to time meal breaks with the ebb and flow of the rescue business is about as frustrating as forecasting the stock market.

Like wilderness medicine or high-angle rescue, selection of midshift nourishment is a subspecialty of EMS. There are many variables; you have to minimize cost and square footage of edibles while optimizing speed of delivery (quality is desirable but improbable). Success is defined by The Rule of Fives: food in five minutes for less than five dollars, requiring no more than five fingers to eat. Doing that math while navigating a drive-up window obstacle course is an acquired skill—like kneeling near but not in body fluids. Yes, there are reasons why street grub makes me think of body fluids.

Food seems to be the only part of EMS Hollywood usually gets right. In Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, suicidal paramedic Frank Pierce’s partner, Larry (played by John Goodman), takes pride in planning the perfect overnight take-out hours in advance; medics rush from a taco stand to their next call in 1998’s disturbing Broken Vessels; and Kathy Bates stars as food critic and EMT Jane Stern in Ambulance Girl. It’s no exaggeration to portray chow as central to the ethos of EMS.

An aspect of rescue not commonly publicized during primary training is the right to declare a food emergency if partners cannot agree on cuisine. During food emergencies, it is customary for the senior medic to dictate a mealtime destination—unless a much larger junior crew member raised by wolves starts using words like “gnaw” and “eviscerate.”

Store-bought food in the field feels emergent. Like patients, I have a right to refuse AMA—Awesome Meal Awaits—whenever Helen has something cooking at home. It’s hard to overrate her definitive care for acute hunger. That’s not the only reason I married her, but it’s definitely in the top 10.

I can’t claim The Lovely Helen’s kitchen prowess is unanimously appreciated in our household. I’m pretty sure our Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Lucy, wishes my wife were a wiz at, say, landscaping instead. Then there might be leftover human snacks to augment Lucy’s diet of kibbles and nibbles, or whatever they call Cheerios for dogs.

Last week, for example, Helen made her to-die-for meat loaf (see recipe below). I know, “meat loaf” sounds so uninspired, but we’re talking savory, succulent slices of ground beef, pork and veal, wrapped in bacon and bathed in brown gravy. Grown men weep in anticipation. Vegans ask for seconds. I was well into thirds when I heard Helen tell Lucy to be patient, there was a piece for her. Yes, Helen speaks spaniel.

“Not so fast,” I said, or something equally charitable. I knew Helen’s meat loaf was much tastier and healthier than anything I’d even consider consuming at work. I was already planning portions that would optimize the size and number of meals I could bring from home. Lucy’s ration, I’m ashamed to admit, became her donation to my campaign against hunger in EMS.

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