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What Being a Paramedic Taught Me About Being a Man


9/11 meant something different to everyone, but for me — a directionless youth in his last year at UCLA — my feelings of unfocused rage and profound sadness led me to thoughts of becoming a fireman. I wanted to help people. After graduation and a brief stint in marketing, I went on to become an EMT. Becoming a fireman is a highly competitive process, so in order to pad my resume, I completed fire academy, then went on to paramedic school. Contrary to popular belief, EMTs and paramedics are different jobs. In the field, paramedics are the doctors and EMTs are the nurses, and while both are equally important, it takes a certain type of person to make the progression to become a paramedic. A medic is the one with the additional schooling necessary to use ALS (Advanced Life Support) tools like cardiac monitors, laryngoscopes and medications that are needed when there’s a true emergency. I was a paramedic for five years in New Haven, Conn. and Los Angeles, Calif.. All in all, I’ve worked in the field of emergency medicine for seven years, and saw the best and worst parts of humanity. In turn, the best and worst parts about humanity taught me a lot about the world.

THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LEADERS
Part of my paramedic training was to do a field internship with the Los Angeles Fire Department. I completed mine in Mission Hills at Station No. 75 in the northern part of Los Angeles. My preceptors were Firefighter Paramedic Corey and Firefighter Paramedic Brian (to further confuse you, not all firefighters are paramedics) and while both were amazing medics, they were both very different people. Brian was everything you would picture a fireman to be. Though short in stature, he was loud, well-built, one of the guys, and had the kind of presence that commanded immediate respect. His communication style was terse, but efficient. Corey also had Brian’s commanding presence, but in a different way. He took care of things at a slower pace and took the time to explain procedures and talk to patients beyond their immediate ailments. When I first started down this path to join the badge brotherhood of cops and firemen, I always thought I had to be like Brian and the other machismo men you see in movies, but I was more like Corey. I respected them both tremendously, even though they were different types of people. It was at that point I realized that if I respected two different styles of leadership, that meant others would do the same for me when I found my style. The greatest thing I learned from Corey didn’t come from instruction, but rather observation: There are different types of leaders — in order to lead, I should be myself, and the respect would follow. Growing up as a painfully shy kid, I wasn’t a natural-born leader, but when I became a paramedic, I knew the community looked up to me and I had to mold myself into this new role.

In the rural parts of Connecticut, I was frequently the only paramedic on emergencies. That meant there was a group of EMT firemen looking to me for direction and a family in need relying on me when I came on scene. I had to learn to control constantly evolving environments, and delegate orders to different personalities, all the while taking care of my patient. I was absolutely horrible at it in the beginning. Thankfully, I was great at the patient-saving part. But my leadership skills needed work. When you lead, you have all the responsibility of the outcome on your shoulders, and that responsibility — and legal liability — isn’t for everyone. If you want to lead a group, you also have to be okay with being hated. If you’re not okay with being hated, then you’re not a leader. Leading never came naturally to me, and it still doesn’t sometimes. However, with practice, I became better at it and not only became my own leader — I became my own man.

LIFE ISN’T FAIR
When I first started out as a paramedic, I was a hothead and frequently got angry at people for calling 911 for the stupidest reasons. They were preventing me from helping other people when they would selfishly call at 3 a.m. for things like toothaches, arguments with family members, or — my personal favorite — “I had a bad dream.” I met homeless people that would refuse to sleep in the free shelters provided because they would rather spend their time and last few dollars on the cheapest alcohol available on the market — Listerine. I knew all of these “frequent fliers” by name and took them to the hospital every single day when they were drunk or high on whatever they could get their hands on. One of my “regulars” even had a pacemaker — probably a $50,000 procedure paid for by your tax dollars — that kept him alive solely so he could drink more. I also met people on welfare that would call 911 to use the ambulance as a free taxi because the hospital was closer to the bar they wanted to go. Instead of getting jobs, these same people would proudly boast that they had more kids just to get more money from the government. This isn’t a commentary on the welfare system as a whole, because I only saw the people that were abusing the system; I’m sure that welfare benefits a lot of families, but it’s hard to not be disheartened when you see people blatantly exploit a system that’s supposed to exist for the greater good.

What I didn’t realize until I was more mature was that I was wrong to be angry at people that abused the system, and I’m frankly embarrassed that I acted that way. There are always going to be people that abuse our tax dollars and tie up emergency room beds that should go to more deserving people. There are always going to be people out there that game the system, but you can’t worry about them. You have to come to grips with the fact that life is unfair. Talentless reality TV stars are millionaires, white-collar criminals are living it up in the Bahamas and that girl you have a crush on is dating a complete douchebag. Life is unfair and your anger does absolutely nothing but allow negativity in your life. The only thing you can control is your own life and your own happiness.

CONFIDENCE REALLY IS EVERYTHING
When I was a clinical intern at the emergency room, I couldn’t hit a single IV — to all of the patients whose veins I missed, I’m sorry. The problem continued when I got to my field internship. Luckily, my preceptor Corey recognized the other qualities that made me great, so whenever I missed an IV he would always say, “You’re solid in everything else you do, so I’m not worried about the IV thing — it will come in time.” And he was right. By the time I was a paramedic in New Haven, I was nailing IVs. I knew it was something I wanted to get better at, so I practiced whenever the situation dictated it, upping my success rate to the point where I got a reputation for that skill from the nurses in the ER. Over the years, though, I noticed that, much like baseball, I could go through a “hitting slump,” where no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t put the needle in the vein. But when you’re having trouble hitting the ball in baseball, what do they tell you to do? Keep swinging like you normally would, and your success will eventually come back — and it did every time, not because of technique, but because of confidence. Now I have my IVs down to where I can toss a needle in the vein of a seizing diabetic or a combative drug addict while going 75 miles per hour down the potholed 10 freeway. But I only learned that from experience and forced repetition, both of which gave me the confidence I needed to succeed.

That same confidence applies to life, from talking to a woman at a bar, to parallel parking your car, to weaving confidence behind the words I write in articles. Confidence has even helped me with Olympic weightlifting in CrossFit. Think about how much weight you could lift if you didn’t have that little voice in your head saying, “This is too heavy.” I’ve seen patients on PCP fight off three police officers with superhuman strength — not because PCP makes them stronger, but because it impairs the part of their brain that tells them “I can’t do this.” It’s the same concept with the mother who lifts a car off her child in distress. In those moments, self-doubt doesn’t exist; there is only “I can.” Your faith in your abilities also has to do with the concepts of self-fulfilling prophecy and self-sabotage. Eliminate those two things and you can do anything. You shouldn’t go up to a woman at a bar thinking, “She’s never going to go for a guy like me.” You need to approach her thinking, “There’s no way this isn’t going to work.”

Your confidence affects everything you do, from business deals to how well you can cook a steak, to determining if you’re a easy target for criminals or even how well you’re going to succeed with fitness. You’ve heard the maxim “confidence is everything,” but you probably associate it with talking to the opposite sex. But for many of us, we don’t realize the true depth of that statement until we’ve applied it to every facet of our lives. Confidence. Is. Everything.

Being a paramedic gave me a different perspective on life (and death), but many of the lessons I learned didn’t have to do with medicine or saving people’s lives. Instead, saving other people’s lives affected my life in ways I never could have imagined. The choices we make are how we experience life. We know that at a fundamental level, but rarely do we embrace it. While still a licensed paramedic, I no longer practice, but I attribute the way I live my life — and the man I am — to the lessons I learned from my years of working in emergency medicine.

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Title Photo Credit: flickr

in your inbox everyday at 10am CST.

No fluff or "pie in the sky inspiration." Just real stories.

Written by Chris Backley

Wayfaring paramedic writer @Latimes @AskMen. Always knows where to go eat. Author of How Much Does Love Cost: 33 Essays on Modern Dating.