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Book Review: Can You Hear Me?

My friend Doug Baier has accomplished a lot. He’s a Navy veteran, a college grad, and a retired paramedic-firefighter with 38 years in the essential services. He also likes to read and has a knack for finding books that are so good, I want to tell you about them.

Let’s discuss Doug’s most recent recommendation, Can You Hear Me?, by London paramedic Jake Jones (a pseudonym). After finishing Jones’s vivid account of prehospital care in the U.K., I understand why Baier calls it “the best book I’ve read about EMS.”

A Gifted Writer Who Happens to Be a Paramedic

Recreational literature thrives on two essentials: consumer-friendly composition and fresh content. Jones nails them both. His anecdotes are compelling and his prose crisp, with short, stark sentences accentuating the narrow boundaries and severe tactics of inner-city medicine. Aspiring writers should seek the curriculum, potion, or Faustian bargain that made Jones such a sublime storyteller.

Consider Chapter I, about a skanky case that reminds those of us in the 9-1-1 (or 9-9-9) business to be careful where we drop our bags. Even more stylish than the parsing of dialog between Jones and his neglected patient is the author’s sidebar about an EMS myth: that our jobs are for trauma junkies who won’t let orphaned body parts get in their way. If only it were that simple.

Then there’s Chapter III, an unsettling maternity scene with a parallel thread about Jones’s experience as an expectant father who, during labor, becomes “suddenly aware of his own irrelevance” and has nothing to offer his struggling spouse except his hand.

Don’t worry, Dad, you did right by your wife—and your readers, too, who can now imagine umbilical cords as jelly-smooth, rope-tough, spiraled and bulging like a sea creature. How in the name of Dickens did you come up with that? Medic to medic, I am in awe of your skills, and I don’t mean airway management.

EMS for Everyone

I doubt Jones means to either frighten or impress the public. He portrays EMS honestly, as a mostly tedious occupation punctuated by moments of chaos. When he talks about trauma, he doesn’t go whole-Hollywood about heroics; rather, he admits bloody calls often get undeserved attention while the seriously ill are left “languishing in the Grim Reaper’s departure lounge.”

In Chapter XXVI Jones tackles a novel topic, especially for civilians: the satisfaction clinicians feel putting advanced training to good use. “It’s not that we want bad things to happen,” the 10-year veteran of England’s NHS explains. “It’s just that we want to be there when they do.” There are limits, though, as readers learn when Jones introduces “the call no one wants to receive.” Career providers know it’s a dead kid.

Much of the author’s appeal is his self-deprecating manner. He frets that the process of learning street skills is complicated by not already knowing them and fears that “the mistake with serious, maybe disastrous consequences is always just around the corner.” He even wonders, “Am I doing it right?” during a complex case.

I’m guessing half the prospective prehospital employees who read Chapter VII will choose other work. Too bad, because the unhurried, hands-on care described therein would be the essence of EMS in a perfect world. We’re talking about labor-intensive courtesies extended to a hygienically challenged patient who’s been abandoned by society but isn’t sick enough for transport. According to the author, “This is the most useful I’ve felt in a long time.”

U.S. readers may stumble over British terms like lorry (a truck) and bonnet (the hood of a car). Also, when the “trauma doctor” arrives on scene in Chapter V, we know we’re not in Kansas anymore—or anyplace with a zip code. Still, American medics will have no trouble empathizing with our British brethren about overworked ambos treating reluctant patients. We get the feeling Jake and his mates would mesh with us anyplace, anytime.

The best thing about Can You Hear Me? is the writing—graceful and grand, no more than discerning readers deserve. Jones’s taut narrative of an EMS system in distress is a treat for the curious, the contemplative, and the committed.

Mike Rubin is a paramedic in Nashville and a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. Contact him at mgr22@prodigy.net

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