“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself—well…how did I get here?”
—“Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads
Forty years ago last month, my wife and I got married—not to each other, which is why September was more about coincidence than celebration for us. Still, it’s an opportunity to look back once more and wonder how The Lovely Helen and I ended up in EMS, in EMS together, and just plain together.
Helen once said she probably wouldn’t have dated me if we’d met outside of EMS. I’d like to think she was acknowledging the magnificence of paramedics compared to ordinary people, but she was more likely commenting on how boring engineers can be. Not all engineers—just the ones like me, who used to keep computerized call logs. Want to know how many 63-year-old female COPDers allergic to shellfish I transported in months beginning with J? Helen doesn’t either.
Meeting Helen during my fourth year in EMS was almost as important to me as being in EMS. I say “almost” as important because in 1995, nothing was more important to me than EMS—not family or money or even living until morning. I’m not proud of those feelings. I needed someone like Helen to take hold of me, look me in the eyes and ask, “Are you mental?”
I could see right away Helen was more of a natural caregiver than I was. I suppose we both got into EMS for the same reason—to seek comfort by giving it—but I tended to focus on therapeutics while Helen could sense a broader range of patients’ needs. More than once I saw signs and symptoms I was about to treat subside after nothing more than a pleasant conversation between Helen and the sufferer. Who wouldn’t want to know Helen better?
Friendship with Helen came with conditions I thought were pretty unreasonable at the time—like having to keep commitments outside of EMS, even if that meant answering one less call. I remember an evening when we were supposed to meet for dinner, but I agreed to cover a shift for a colleague at the last minute. Helen gave me the impression I was a jerk by telling me something like, “You’re a jerk.” Clearly, I would have to treat Helen at least as well as I did people who dialed 9-1-1.
Conventional wisdom says coworkers should avoid romancing each other. Personal problems often become workplace problems that compromise productivity and perhaps even safety. That’s why many organizations have written policy restricting friendship to platonic fondness. I agree with the logic.
But logic turns out to have little to do with anything romantic. Companies that try to limit employees’ appreciation of each other confuse the way things are with the way things ought to be. You can’t legislate feelings. Helen and I came together despite mostly well-meaning advice that we shouldn’t.
EMS turns out to be a pretty good training ground for relationships. Having a great partner is a lot like having a successful marriage. Making the transition from the former to the latter is easier and more realistic, I think, than any other way of getting to know a future spouse.
So what do you do when you and your partner develop a connection that stretches beyond the workplace? You keep taking care of your patients competently and unspectacularly, that’s what. Being anything less than excellent at your jobs gives skeptics an excuse to say “I told you so.” And being discreet isn’t only good business; it’s good manners. Nobody wants to hear how much you like each other.
Then there’s the point when you “get involved.” The sky looks bluer, the daily commute seems shorter, and whatever still bothers you seems not as bad as it used to. Those are nice-to-have moments, but the real payoff of a loving relationship is its constancy when everything else seems to be changing. As Helen and I age and deal with cumulative losses shared by most seniors—family, friends and fitness—we depend on one sure thing: each other. Some partners never develop that trust. Some couples never develop that trust.
For Helen and me, it’s the same as it ever was.
Mike Rubin is a paramedic in Nashville and a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.