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Book Review: Bad Call

Pick up a copy of Bad Call, Mike Scardino’s memoir of summers spent on New York City ambulances 50 years ago, and you can’t miss the Totally unforgettable endorsement by James Patterson on the front cover.

Yup, that James Patterson, rock-star novelist and master of unadorned suspense. Why would Patterson, whose background is in advertising, not medicine, plug a nonfiction prequel to New York City EMS? Because the book is good—really, really good.

Bad Call takes us on four summers of ride-alongs with Scardino and his quirky partners aboard hospital-based ambulances in the borough of Queens. This was in the ’60s, when prehospital care was more about moving and transporting people than treating them. Ambulance attendants, the closest things to EMTs, often had no more than cursory first-aid training. At 18 the author was considered old enough to carry, monitor, console, and, if necessary, restrain patients but not drive them.

Although Scardino waited 40 years to write about his load-and-go adventures, he apparently had no trouble remembering them. His meticulous descriptions of gangrenous limbs, mangled bodies, agonal gurgles, and week-old putrefaction are vivid enough to stir all five senses in those who’ve worked urban EMS.

A bigger challenge for Scardino was figuring out how to convey his experiences. He decided to flaunt rather than hide his Woodstock-era ignorance about the human condition, with austere prose and a sense of wonder about the horrors he was witnessing. The result is a 289-page book with 43 plain-language, Patterson-style minichapters about what can happen to a well-adjusted college kid who must deal with gruesome trauma and insidious disease daily.

An impressive example of Bad Call’s appeal—one without mention of bloody body parts—is “The Least We Can Do,” an unnerving account of a 2 a.m. man-down call aboard a Swedish freighter on the East River. The author’s fear of heights provokes “one of (his) worst nightmares sprung to synapse-triggering, adrenaline-spurting life” and complicates movement of an injured seaman from the pilot house of the massive ship down several near-vertical stairways, then across a rickety gangplank to the dockside ambulance. If you’ve ever manned a stair chair along a route so narrow your hips hug the rails, Scardino’s story will sound uncomfortably familiar.

Another intriguing chapter carries the innocuous title “A House Like Mine,” but it’s a ghoulish tale of the author’s first hanging—eerily like my first hanging, right down to the surprise discovery of the patient dangling from a ceiling joist in a dusky cellar. Scardino downplays that grim outcome by noting the victim “could almost be asleep, except that he has hanged himself to death in his basement in his underwear.”

Most of you can relate to such scenarios. You’ll also subconsciously nod your heads when Scardino complains of interminable night shifts and cops waiting for him to pronounce decaying corpses at ripe scenes. None of that rules out deadpan humor, though. Scardino is a master of the genre. Consider this recap of a maternity call: “You’re supposed to wait a bit for the umbilical cord to achieve detumescence. I love that word, but I almost never get to use it in a sentence.” Now we both have.

Getting past the first 20 pages requires patience with harsh syntax, possibly because Scardino is growing into his job as a writer. Or is he intentionally using coarse language to portray his awkwardness as a caregiver? The last author I read who contrived such an effect with distinction is James Joyce, at the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Remember the “moocows” and confusion about kissing (“Why did people do that with their two faces?”)?

Mike, I just compared you to James freakin’ Joyce. You’re welcome.

Mike Rubin is a paramedic in Nashville and a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. Contact him at

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