I couldn’t turn down a Saturday night ride along with Cornell Emergency Medical Services. No way. For a while now I have been anxious to rejoin the uniformed helping people business. After a series of waivers and speeches from the Director of Operations committing me to complete inaction in the event something interesting happened, I realized my chances of even wiping a runny nose as an EMS observer were next to zero. Still, I was excited. I hadn’t stayed up past midnight in a while, and I would be close to the action. If anything truly awful went down, I’d be in position to waive the waivers and get my hands dirty.
First things first, the crew had me put on an official Cornell EMS jacket. The jacket is key to mention. It’s puffy, bright and has a patch on the shoulder. From a distance, I looked like a cop wearing it. Up close, I looked like one of those screaming neon bags you see sorority girls toting. I came to learn that, from near or far, the jacket is instrumental in responding to emergencies.
For me, there was a little thrill in just putting on this piece of gear, feeling it negate the -2 degree air with more authority than my civilian coat could ever muster. It is entirely possible that it made me stand up a little straighter too. And because of the jacket, as I walked the streets something else seemed to be happening — something strange. Not only were students giving up their places in line at Nasties and crossing the street to avoid me, but cops were being nice to me. In our down time at the sci-fi space command dispatch center in Barton basement (so many flat screens), they asked me questions. Actual police officers accepted my offering of doughnuts and then the requisite ribbing about cops eating doughnuts. For a night I was bosom buddies with a class of person I had always dreaded interacting with. Don’t get me wrong, I admire cops. It’s just the overbearing attitude that civil servants often show citizens was gone, and in its place a collegial spirit. And I think it was the jacket I had on.
The night wasn’t all candy and nuts, though. Our crew was dispatched to three scenes over a period of six hours. Each time we arrived (in under 90 seconds, sirens a-blazing) to find a great deal of vomit, a pathetic looking patient and a small crowd of stunned onlookers. I am told that this uniformity was a function of the time I chose to ride along. I was assured in gallows humor fashion that if I was lucky, or went out on an afternoon, I might see something really cool, like a seizure or a bike accident.
In the meantime, our crew went to work on the drunks. With all the skill and smoothness that could be expected, they administered oxygen and tested glucose levels of the barely conscious. More to the point of this column, they tried to squeeze simple answers (name? birthday? How much tequila was it?) out of the unresponsive and obnoxious. In one case, getting the patient to respond was excruciatingly difficult as she was busy throwing up and texting simultaneously. And as I watched this particular scene unfold, hiding my laughter in the collar of my massive jacket, it dawned on me that the EMS business, like any other, is complicated by its clientele.
Going into this experience, I thought the hard part about EMS, and what sets it apart as one of a few by-line funded student groups, would be the training and hours required of the members. Some of them put in more than 25 hours per week, often sleeping in makeshift bunks at the group’s headquarters. My friend in the organization’s leadership is never without a squawking radio and sees the world through a pair of perpetually bloodshot eyes. Yet the demanding schedule and the gravity of the task set before our fellow students in EMS isn’t the hard part, as I see it.
Working with people at their worst — covered in vomit, cursing a blue streak — tries a crew’s patience and calls into question the modern communication aesthetic of calm tones and generous praise. From what I saw, an E-T-O-H call (ethyl alcohol … get it?) seems to require a commanding voice and stern prompts to resistant patients in order to gain potentially life-saving information. Yet the act of unpaid first response is one of extreme concern for perfect strangers. In short, tough love is at work in Cornell EMS, and it can be very uncomfortable.
Remember the jacket? As much as it is a cheap thrill to wear around and an emblem of core competency in basic life-saving skills, the jacket is a barrier. It protects its wearers from the vitriol of patients and the guilt that can follow when harsh words and forceful action are required to set a confusing situation in order. I came away from my ride along with a little buzz of excitement and a feeling of comfort that the next time I dial 911, me and mine will be in good, if rough, hands.
Andrew Daines is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. The Right Stuff appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.