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Book Review: First Responder

When you see Jennifer Murphy’s COVID-centric memoir, First Responder, with its classy cover and $29.95 list price, you may wishfully think, Hey, I could have written that.

Not likely.

Sure, you could manage some topical content—what with the pandemic and all—but war stories alone wouldn’t tell the author’s tales of tenacious caregivers fortifying each other while aiding New York City’s neediest. You’d have to master pre-Twitter English, then use it humbly to dissect your own insecurities while acknowledging the limits of street-level stoicism.

I couldn’t do that, but Murphy does. When she links her present-day torments to 9/11—clearly, an agonizing process—she speaks a language Americans of that era understand. There’s little arrogance or jargon to burden a largely nonmedical audience, who’ll feel the author’s pain whether or not they know a Halligan tool from a hemostat.

There’s also a Vonnegut vibe to First Responder—credible, direct, easy-to-process narration that paints scary pictures. Listen: It made me unstuck in time. I started imagining I was back on a Brooklyn ambulance, playing paramedic in and around Prospect Park with a smart, funny partner like Jennifer. The mothers wept. The junkies slept. Then I caught my high-mileage reflection in a storefront, and whoosh, I’m just some old guy who hasn’t squeezed a stretcher onto an Eastern Parkway elevator in 25 years. So it goes.

Readers who enjoy art for art’s sake are in for a treat. Let me show you a few examples:

  • Murphy characterizes “psychopathic first responders” as having “the emotional life of an empty refrigerator.” I love that stuff. I’m already thinking of people it fits.
  • When Murphy freezes before treating a biker struck, she’s “glaciated by fear” upon seeing the blood “guttering from his forehead.” I was sold on that imagery even before I was sure glaciate and gutter are verbs.
  • In Chapter 4 you’ll find a sentence beginning, “Enraged as I sometimes got…” It has eight commas, all where they should be—an awesome display of grammatic integrity in an era of populist punctuation. And just because syntactic skill delights me doesn’t mean I have the emotional life of an empty refrigerator.

Even great writing can’t disguise the author’s short stretch as an EMT: three years of weekly tours at Brooklyn’s Park Slope Volunteer Ambulance Corps. Cynics will be tempted to disparage those contributions as superficial. Please don’t. Murphy owns her inexperience and is entitled to report what she saw. But there’s still a 6-foot-1 redhead in the room (the author’s oft-repeated self-portrayal): If you believe coronavirus is a hoax, bleach is medicinal, or masks are unconstitutional, this book will push your buttons. Maybe read something by Josh Hawley instead.

Much of First Responder is about volunteer EMS, an institution rendered accurately as a mix of rescue and codependence. If you’re a low-time tech looking for a way to gain proficiency or companionship, pay particular attention to Murphy’s take on that life.

Dislikes, I have a few. An opening quotation, “We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” made me assume the book would be a self-indulgent diatribe against patients, employers, and even significant others. It isn’t, but I still think that passage should be penalized for unsportsmanlike protest.

And I’m not a fan of endearing nicknames among EMS partners. Do women really call each other “wifey” on the job? Am I even allowed to ask? Perhaps the answer is in Chapter 5, where Murphy contrasts brotherhood with sisterhood, claiming we hear too much about the former and not enough about the latter. I blame my parents. So do my brothers.

Pet peeves aside, I enjoyed First Responder and wish the author hadn’t left EMS a few months before her manuscript was published. We need high-caliber writers who can excite newcomers about our industry and make old-timers want to ride again.

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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