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When people hear that you're a paramedic, they always say, "I bet you see some really crazy shit." But I'd say about 80 percent to 90 percent of our calls aren't immediate emergencies. We get a lot of calls to nursing homes, like when someone's white-blood-cell count goes too low. We also get a lot of stuff that makes you slap your head. I've had toothaches. I've had parents with babies crying because they're teething who want to go to the ER. Sometimes you'll get calls like that and there'll be three cars in the driveway, and you'll say, "No one can drive you?" Our rules are if someone wants to go, we'll take them. I've kind of gotten to the point, where I'm like, "I'm at work anyway, I've got to take somebody to the hospital eventually, why not you?" A lot of times you feel like you're providing a $500 taxi ride. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you'll see the 55-year-old guy who's sat at home for five hours with chest pains too proud to go to the ER before finally calling.
In the city, we do 12-hour shifts. I used to start at 5 p.m. and get off at 7 a.m. — a 14-hour shift — but they've since gotten rid of those. Farther out in the metro area, we have 24-hour stations. Theoretically they have lower call volume. I've worked a couple of 36-hour shifts at a 24-hour station. There's usually time for sleep on those. Some rural stations have 48-hour shifts. There's a joke that if you're on those shifts you're an EMS, someone who earns money while sleeping.
In the city, you could get as many as 10 to 12 calls in a night or as few as three to four. It always varies. iPhones have been pretty great for killing time. Before that, I read books and did crossword puzzles. Sometimes I go in the back of the ambulance and try to take a nap.
My favorite calls are psych patients. They're a trip. I had one guy who thought he was a werewolf. He was in the middle of Roosevelt. The police were there — they show up on the calls that could be construed as threatening towards paramedics and firefighters, any time there's a fight or shooting or a psych patient or anyone is suicidal — and it was a full moon. Even though this guy thought he was a werewolf, he knew where he was, he knew his name, and he didn't want to go to the ER. He just wanted to go to his brother's apartment, and the police were nice enough to give him a ride. Other times it doesn't work out as well for us. A lot of times when someone is drunk and we're on the scene, the police will say, "You can go with us to jail, or you can go with us to the emergency room." Of course they go to emergency room. That's annoying.
One of the worst things I've seen was around the holidays. Apparently the guy was robbed, the robber shot him in the shoulder and the bullet went up through his neck and paralyzed him while his foot was on the gas pedal. He crashed through a fence and into a tree. He was still conscious when we were tending to him. He couldn't feel his arms or his burns.
Another time I had a guy who'd been stabbed in his stomach two days previous. He was a Vietnam vet — a wiry guy. He was homeless. He didn't want to go to the hospital for the stab wound; he wanted to go to the VA to dry out. I called to report to the VA, and they didn't want to take him, they wanted us to divert him to the ER. I told the guy we were going to go to UAMS, and he flipped. We were a block away and the guy jumped up, and I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "Sit down!" and he gave me the crazy eyes. My partner saw what was going on and stopped and the guy jumped out. I wasn't going to put up a fight with someone with crazy eyes. I called our dispatch at the hospital and security went to look for him but couldn't find him. I was glad we weren't on I-630.
Wrecks happen all the time in ambulances. It hasn't happened with me, thankfully. We usually have to go lights and sirens even for toothaches. When we're driving lights and sirens on, I understand that because of the Doppler effect people some times don't hear sirens until we're right up on them — especially during the day when you can't see lights as well. But people are stupid. We've had a lot of people just stop in their tracks. All the time we'll run up on people and they won't move and then all of a sudden they'll swerve off and you'll see they were on their phone. If I'm ever driving, I like to pretty much come to a stop at intersections to make sure people aren't coming.
As told to Lindsey Millar.
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