When I was 19 I believed I was born to be a performer. I was fully convinced I’d spend at least the next decade of my life traveling from city to city in a dirty van that smelled like Doritos and old socks, delivering custom-made rock and roll to head-banging fans. I held a vision of this “hero of the underground” type of figure I wanted to be.
It wasn’t fame I was after, but to be a leader—a leader of the broken, abandoned, and abused. The music I wrote would help people make sense of their circumstances and cope with their pain. But when the record deal fell apart and the band’s drive started to lose steam, I found myself wondering, What now? Assuming I’d need to leave my ambitions of championing the lost and lonely behind, I decided I would need to learn another skill to survive and be a productive member of society. Ironically, I didn’t have to give up those ambitions after all. I still became a performer—but on a different stage, under different lights.
Fifteen years later a woman and her husband were driving quickly down a rural stretch of highway toward a hospital in a small city to the south. They had been out running errands when the husband became ill. Believing he’d just overdone things a little, he asked his wife to take him home to rest. But when his condition quickly worsened, they happened to be passing a volunteer fire station and pulled in to call for help.
The 34-year-old version of me sat in the passenger seat of an idling ambulance, enjoying the rare but welcomed break of a north-end posting assignment. My rookie partner and I were kicked back, chatting casually about nothing of great importance, when the dispatch came through. There had been a drive-up patient at a local fire station about five miles away from us—a possible cardiac condition.
A few minutes later I knelt in front of the man’s open passenger door. The first thing I saw was the fear on his wife’s face, and though she was glad to see us, our presence offered her only minimal reassurance in this desperate moment. One look at her husband told me he was in serious trouble. His skin was as pale as the sheet on my stretcher, and though it was a cool day, he was sweating profusely. He held his left arm with his right, his left fist balled tightly into his chest. His breathing was deep and labored, and he had vomited several times just before we’d arrived. He was in so much pain he didn’t care to speak to me initially. It was OK—I already knew he was having a massive heart attack.
We quickly moved him to the ambulance. His wife watched our every move with her hand nervously over her mouth. A quick EKG confirmed my suspicions: huge anteroseptal STEMI with reciprocal changes. We were in the middle of nowhere, and this guy needed a lot of interventions done really quickly. The cath lab at the local hospital doesn’t operate on the weekends, and we were over 40 miles from the next one. With his heart losing its battle with every passing second, there was no time to hang around. My EMT-B partner would have to drive, and I would have to tackle this one by myself. In other words, the stage was set, the lights were up, and the audience—he and his wife—waited anxiously for my performance to begin.
Over the next 42 minutes, my hands moved with a distinct grace and precision that goes far beyond anything I am capable of doing in any other setting. I was in the zone. At speeds somewhere north of 80 miles an hour, I managed to administer aspirin, start two lines, draw blood and label the tubes, transmit serial EKGs, administer nitroglycerin and morphine in three- and five-minute intervals, document vital signs every five minutes, and contact the receiving hospital by radio to update them on his condition and our ETA. Somewhere in the midst of all that, like any performer, I also had to establish a connection with my audience—the patient in front of me and his fearful wife watching from the cab. Their confidence in me rested on my ability to communicate that I was in control of the situation. The last thing you want to do is to put your life into the hands of someone who doesn’t appear confident themselves.
When we arrived at the hospital, we rushed him up to the cath lab, where he would receive multiple cardiac stents in his LCA. In the frenzy of transferring him, I left the man with a brief handshake. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see or hear of him again, but I walked away knowing for sure that when called to give the performance of my career, I had delivered, and he now had a fighting chance. I didn’t know if he knew or understood what my partner and I had just done for him, but it wasn’t his job to understand that, it was ours. I hoped maybe I’d hear an update on him in a few days, but I wasn’t really expecting one. Much like the nomadic rock musician I grew up wanting to be, I gave my best performance, then moved on to the next stop.
All the World a Stage
Two months later an older gentleman showed up at the EMS base where I was stationed. I felt like I had seen him before, but I couldn’t quite place him. He said he’d been trying to find me for over a week, but he’d had difficulty because he didn’t remember my name. Once he told me I’d picked him up at the fire station, I remembered immediately who he was. I told him if he’d come in sweaty, wearing an oxygen mask, I would have known right away. We had a good laugh over that.
Throughout my entire career, I had never had a patient track me down to thank me personally. He said in all his life he’d never needed it saved before, but he knew that’s exactly what my partner and I had done. After a brief visit, a handshake, a few hugs, and a picture, the man got back into his car and drove away to resume his life with his wife, children, and grandchildren.
When I was 19, I imagined performing on a stage where neon lights painted me and my bandmates in vibrant colors that would make us seem larger than life. I would hold the attention of my audience in the palm of my hand. I would throw musical lifelines to the lost and lonely and lead them to a safe haven when life was anything but. What I did not realize until 15 years after the guitars had been hung up and the amps turned off is that I was still meant to be all those things—just not in the capacity that I’d imagined.
My EMS family is my band, and we go on stage nearly every day of our lives. Our stage can be inside a destroyed vehicle, in the shadows of a dark alley, or in the quiet of someone’s living room. Sometimes we work under the light, other times behind the light, and sometimes we are the light—the only light available. Our audiences are the patients and families that hang on our every move, hoping there is something we can do to give them hope and make sense of their circumstances.
No, I don’t travel in a van from city to city, and I don’t get paid to play music. I am, however, a performer—just on a different stage, under different lights.
Greg Shields is a paramedic shift supervisor with Iredell County EMS in Statesville, N.C.