The Midlife Medic: Warm Soup and Dry Socks
“An army marches on its stomach.”
—Attributed to both Napoleon and Frederick the Great
Earlier in my career, one of my bosses was a remarkably dedicated man named Leroy Smith. Relentless in his loyalty, he arrived in EMS during its infancy and became an icon in the local industry and the city he loved so much. An uncomplicated person, he may not always have had an answer for you, but he would always be there. Whether it was showing up at your bedside after you were injured on a call or standing before the city council and fighting for our evolution to be recognized as a service, there was never a doubt Leroy had our backs.
EMS is a 24/7 operation. With a few catastrophic exceptions, we do not get the option to stay out of the weather—whether it’s operating on pavement hot enough to cook on or trudging through waist-deep snow, we still have to go out there.
When the weather turned on us and made a difficult job that much harder, Leroy would show up and make soup. Pots of whatever Campbell’s variety he could get in the giant cans simmered all day and all night. Sometimes there were crackers, most times not. Styrofoam cups filled with something hot to shove down with plastic spoons or simply drink as you pushed back out the door. He would also bring bags of plain socks, so you had something dry to change into when yours had had it.
When asked about it once, he said, “These young men and ladies work hard enough. If their bellies are full and their feet are dry, then they can go back out there, and it’s not so bad.”
He was right. You would see crews come back in wet and dragging, stripping off their wet (or frozen) exteriors as they gravitated toward the smells of the kitchen. Warming their hands and faces over small cups of cheap minestrone, the postures would change, and people would smile more and start to relax.
A couple of years ago, an excellent leader from a large urban service contacted a good friend of mine who specializes in resilience. His city had suffered a significant event, and his crews were worn thin, working around the clock in exceptionally tough circumstances. Morale was getting frayed, and he was looking for ideas. Her response was short:
“Well, you can always feed them.”
Sharing food is one of mankind’s oldest demonstrations of community and trust. Respecting a hearth and the offering of sustenance to strangers is the cornerstone of hospitality and for centuries was considered sacred.
Communal meals help build core unity and fraternal strength. You need not look any further than the fire service to understand the importance of mealtime. The investment most departments make toward eating together serves a greater purpose than developing outstanding cooks who can produce mass quantities of food. It serves as a task-oriented distraction from the stressful events of the day, and it provides sensory relief and allows for a social outlet that would not otherwise be allowed. It’s not only a tool that helps develop resilience, it’s a sign resilience exists.
Resilience is not just a buzzword, it’s a skill. There are people who develop it; others must have it fostered or taught. It can also be destroyed by bad leadership practices. There was no science behind Leroy; it was just who he was. EMS leaders should recognize that their staff notices who fights for them, even if that fight is a symbolic one against the weather.
Solid EMS leadership goes beyond budgets and clinical practices and includes basic advocacy. Your staff all have regular everyday needs that are routinely impacted by the amount and type of work they do. At some point they will be cold, hungry or tired, or will just really have to use the bathroom. If it gets to a point where they can’t eat, do your best to make sure they can. If they are exhausted, fight for ways to get them more rest. If their gear is inadequate and placing them at risk, it’s on your shoulders to find a way to correct it.
You won’t always succeed, but recognizing that your crews’ basic human needs are being hit hard by the work you’re asking them to do and fighting to make it better will help them in ways you cannot anticipate. They will go out there knowing someone sees them not as warm bodies filling holes on a schedule, but as people who are cared for and about—and they will put on those dry socks, go back out there and realize things aren’t so bad.
Warm soup and dry socks—thanks, Leroy.
Leroy F. Smith, Jr., EOW 2012
Tracey Loscar, BA, NRP, FP-C, is a battalion chief for Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough EMS in Wasilla, Alaska. Her adventures started on the East Coast, where she spent 27 years serving as a paramedic, educator and supervisor in Newark, NJ. She is a member of the EMS World editorial advisory board. Contact her at email@example.com or www.taloscar.com.
Once again Ms. Loscar, excellent job. There are certain values that I strive to bring to my agency and leadership qualities that mean a lot more to me than anyone else - all learned from the same person. RIP Mobile 1.
Tracey,Many a shift I worked at "The U" and experienced Mobile 1' commitment to his troops! I have had that hot soup and more than 1 pair of socks! Ive come in with a frozen coat and frozen gear to be greeted by Leroy saving get some soup, and are your feet wet? Mobile ! was the defining word to EMS and it was a real learning experience to be with him. His whats going on kid"
Leroy was EMS and his presence was felt every where. You may have hated him or loved him, but you knew he always had your back. his teachings carried me thru 34 years on the job, and while I may not have always mentioned his name, those who knew him knew what I was thinking. RIP Mobile 1, we have it from here.