It was early morning in the spring of 06. I was awake well ahead of my scheduled alarm. Not because of nightmares or a tireless struggle to sleep, but rather because there was a buoyancy of excitement and nervousness held within the deepest pit of my stomach. It was exam day.
Today was the day that I was to be a provincially certified paramedic! Years of hard work, dedication and countless hours studying were to culminate in the arena of examination. Pass this hurdle, and my name would be laminated with permanence alongside the moniker of: Paramedic. Today was the day.
There was a large group of us testing that morning. We readied ourselves in the shared lavatory without spoken word. I think we all held that sense of excitement and pre-test trepidation. I was jittery enough, so I forewent the morning ritual of coffee and instead sat alone on the steps outside of the school, practicing medical scenarios meticulously within my mind. I was regurgitating medical acronyms introspectively along with drug calculations and possible protocol deviations should the preceptor attempt to trip me up. I felt ready, but horribly nervous at the same time. The telltale sign that something matters to you, and this did. It meant everything.
Eventually the time came when it was my turn to be tested. There was a series of three medical scenarios and one trauma scenario along with a written exam that had been done the day prior. At the end of it all, the preceptor would inform you if you had passed or failed.
When my test ended, I returned to my feet and stood in front of a stoic instructor. They navigated a clipboard for what I felt to be entirely too long a period of time. But then it happened, their eyes left the pages before them and wandered upwards to meet mine.
“Congratulations, Private Heneghan; you’re a paramedic! A damn fine paramedic.”
Few things come close to matching the elation of that day. In fact, I reckon that I can count on one hand the events in my life that rival such a moment for me. The most notable equal to such a feeling is not so much a rival emotion, but rather a complimentary one to the first, and it is THE “first.”—the first save! The very first time you bring someone back from the embrace of the Reaper, well that’s pretty fucking amazing.
It’s an incredible job, being a paramedic. It is often a misunderstood career, one where we are conflated with being a fireman or merely just a driver. A profession with a struggling identity. And I don’t think that struggle is born from the fact that we are unsure of who or what we are, I feel it is more-so because of how rapidly this profession evolves. We have gone from stretcher bearers, to roadside emergency departments, to being able to perform the most unsupervised medical acts outside of any medical professional, being superseded by only that of a doctor. Truly, a unique set of skills held by an odd few. If you are or have been a paramedic, you will understand that “odd” is not an insult, nor far from the truth.
I wanted to retire as a paramedic. I wanted a long and illustrious career in the field. I had envisioned working for 20+/years, then transitioning into a school somewhere to pass on what I had learned to the new generation of ditch doctors. To bestow a nugget here or there. And just as I had felt unrivaled elation on the day that I became a paramedic, I felt an unequivocal sense of loss on my last day as one. This is made worse by the fact that I really had no idea that this was the end…
I wanted to retire, but I got wounded instead.
There is no one specific day or incident that caused this injury. Perhaps that is why it comes a such a shock once we begin to feel the pain of our wounds. Delayed onset, crippling potency. We are trained to look outward, to examine other people, to assess their emergency. Introspection is not part of Paramedic 101. At least, not in the way that I think we need it.
I don’t know when it all changed, but I can tell you how it did…
Early on in my career, the only nightmares I would have were those of my time in the army, and the loss of my friends. And at the time, they felt few and far between. A resurgence during their respective anniversaries, sure, but they felt tolerable. Normal. Biproducts of painful days. As time gifted me lived experience within the paramedic field, I found it increasingly more difficult to come home. What I mean is, the city began to feel like a roadmap of trauma attractions.
One night, while driving to the movies with my spouse, we passed a truck of otherwise no significance. To me however, it gave birth to instant nausea and cold sweat. I had no idea what was happening to me at the time but looking back now, I know that the truck we had passed was an exact replica of the one I had found the Pumpkin Man slain within. For those of you unaware of whom the Pumpkin Man is or… was, it is a description that I have given a man who I once found horribly disfigured within a crumpled F150. Half his head was missing. To make things worse, I had unwittingly and unknowingly stepped in the other half of this man and brought him home to my doorstep. Events such as this began to occur with more regularity and frequency, much to the chagrin of my now failed romance. To combat this, I began medicating, first, with a shower beer. Then beers. Eventually, I was drinking no less than 6-beers at the end of a night shift. And the night before a day shift… whiskey for dinner.
To me, all of these things fell under the “suck it up and soldier on” category. And for the most part, I did. Until I couldn’t. It took getting a DUI and a criminal record for me to realize that I was spinning rapidly out of control. A complete juxtaposition from the cool, collected self all those years ago on exam day…
I wanted to retire, but instead, I became a criminal and foolishly gave away my capacity to drive. I did not retire—I had a sudden cessation of ability. And after my mother died by way of suicide, I knew that I would never again be able to return to the job that I so love and admire. I never expected that to fall at my doorstep also, but there it is, right beside the Pumpkin man.
EMS week/Paramedic Services Week is hard for me. It is not hard in that I no longer hold adoration for the job, quite the opposite actually. It is hard for me because I can no longer and will never do that job again. It is debilitatingly sad sometimes that I have to accept the fact that I did not get the chance to leave on my own terms.
I wasn’t ready to stop. But maybe I wasn’t prepared to begin either…? Hard to say.
There is and will forever be a duality within me; the elation of day 1 and the vanquishment of day 4,927.
The uniform is not armor. It is not impenetrable. And the people that do the job are not superhuman, they are just super at what they do.
For those of you out there doing the job right now, thank you! Thank you for what you do. Thank you for being who you are. Every time that an ambulance goes by, know that I see you. I see your young faces and I am once again reminded of an elation once felt by a younger, less burdened me.
I will say it now, even though I am a little late in doing so—happy EMS week and a very happy Paramedic Services Week!
Parts of me may be sad, but there are aspects of me that are overjoyed in knowing that there are people like you out there doing the job of the few.
Congratulations, you’re paramedics! Damn fine paramedics…