Smile Politely

Riding in vans with paramedics, part one

Note: All identifying details of patients and calls have been changed to ensure anonymity.

“Stay with us, Jonathon, you’re doing great,” yells Dave, loud enough to be heard over the wailing siren, but calm enough to mask Jonathon’s grim situation. Jonathon, conscious for the moment, thrashes his body around and emits a pained groan as the ambulance speeds 80 mph down Route 45 to the hospital.

“Please STOP moving your arms,” says Dave, frantically trying to put in a second IV, while Leann, his EMT partner, tries to get a blood pressure reading. A strapping young police officer holds down Jonathon’s flailing limbs, beads of sweat from his forehead dropping onto Jonathon’s leather jacket. My job is simply to hold gauze to the back of his head, grateful that the blood has stopped spurting and that he can’t hit me with anything.

“Dan, hold his forehead too,” says Dave. “Try to keep his head still, if you can. Hands on the front and back of the head. You’re doing great, just keep breathing — JONATHON SERIOUSLY DUDE YOU’VE GOT TO STOP FIGHTING US.”

Just as Dave pops in the IV, Jonathon makes a guttural sound, a frustrated growl, and manages to pry one of his hands loose. “Get off!!! Stop it! F*** you, man!” Leann jumps back, almost hitting the side of the ambulance. The officer immediately snatches Jonathon’s hand back, but not before the IV is pulled clean out, blood running down his arm, joining the slippery pool already on the floor.

I now realize that I did not properly think through my friend Dave’s offer to ride in the back of the ambulance during his shift on a weekend night on campus. I assumed it would be harmless trips to the ER, drunken students creating college memories, that kind of thing. So it’s a bit of a shock to be cradling the head of a motorcyclist, one who is crazy from fear, trauma, alcohol, and possible head injury, hurtling past Thomasboro in a bumpy ambulance, hoping he doesn’t die en route.

The paramedics continue their work. Jonathon fights, calms down, passes out, fights again. The officer continues to hold him down, blood from Jonathon’s head spattered on his uniform. I look away for a bit, pretty sure I won’t pass out, but not entirely certain.


Let’s get a couple things straight right away. They are called Paramedics. EMTs: Emergency Medical Technicians. EMS: Emergency Medical Services. Even just Medic is fine. Technically there are three different levels of EMT — Basic, Intermediate, and Paramedic — but they all have vital roles on the ambulance and inpatient care. They are “ambulance drivers” in exactly the same way that police officers are “police car drivers.” They are “ambulance workers” like nurses and anesthesiologists and surgeons are “operating room workers.”

Of the many and varied tasks they can be called upon to perform each shift — which include making snap medical assessments, extracting useful information from terrified and sometimes crazy strangers, calming and reassuring family members, lifting bodies onto cots and cots into mobile emergency rooms, writing up paperwork, interpreting heart rhythms, administering a variety of medications, shocking malfunctioning hearts, inserting tubes through vocal cords and down windpipes, sticking needles into veins, bones, and lungs, and generally being responsible for a patient’s life from the moment they arrive on scene to the time they get to the hospital, all while in someone’s home, out in the elements, or bumping down the road — it is true that EMTs do drive an ambulance at certain points during a crisis.

It’s just that reducing their identities and profession to that of a taxi cab to the hospital by calling them “ambulance drivers” is a bit insulting. So if you want to annoy people whose job it is to keep you alive immediately after you just did the dumbest thing ever, call them ambulance drivers.

Of course, truth be told, there’s nothing they can do about it. Even if you yell and spit and curse at them, which happens far more often than one would hope, they will still do everything they can to save your life. But a little respect would be nice.


At 7:00 p.m., I begin my evening ride-along with Professional Ambulance Service (“PRO”) in the least dramatic way possible: by signing paperwork. I promise, via my signature, to dress nicely, act sensibly, and under no circumstances, despite anything that might happen tonight, sue them.

It’s a gorgeous fall weekend evening, and there’s a festival in town. It has finally cooled off after a summer of oppressive heat. Tens of thousands of University of Illinois students are back in town and ready for a good time. Many of them are enjoying their first taste of freedom away from home, and all of them have some space before the imminent crush of homework and tests. It’s expected to be a busy night of accidents, drunkenness, and crazy.

Before things get rolling, Dave Ward shows me around PRO’s central quarters, on Neil Street in Champaign. He’s been an EMT for seven years, five at PRO, and has been a paramedic for the last two and half, after going through the year-plus medic program at Parkland. I’ve know Dave since our now-high school-aged daughters were in kindergarten. At that time, fresh out of the University of Illinois with a degree in theater and a university office job, Dave figured his life needed some more drama. On a whim he signed up as a volunteer firefighter at the Edge-Scott Fire Protection District in rural Urbana, where they trained him as an EMT-Basic. He found that he loved the rush of an emergency, be it fire or medical, but particularly enjoyed the personal interactions of medical calls, so a few years later he decided to apply at PRO and make a career out of it. And he tells such good stories that I couldn’t resist coming along when he invited me.

He gives me a tour of the dispatch room. “So, PRO covers most of the north and east parts of Champaign County, along with bits of Vermilion County to the east and Piatt County to the west.” There’s a monitor on the wall that shows a digital map of the county, and he points to it as he talks. “Plus, this month, we’re covering everything east of Neil St. in Champaign-Urbana. Dispatch can see where each ambulance is on the monitor.” Sure enough, there are little ambulance icons moving around on the map.

“We have four units in service tonight. One sits in Rantoul, one in Savoy, and two here in Champaign-Urbana. Once the tones start going off and units get sent on calls, we’ll move to different spots so our coverage is spread out more evenly. We can pretty much go wherever we want as long as we’re in our dispatched areas.”

We take a few minutes in the break room before heading out. I meet Leann Kerney, EMT-Basic and Dave’s partner for the evening. Matt Gant, a paramedic and the shift lead, strolls in, and everyone catches up on what’s been happening. They exchange stories and have an easy camaraderie with each other; capable veterans who have shared trauma together.

We head to the ambulance. Supplies are checked and restocked. Instruments are gauged, logs entered, bags stowed. Dave assigns me two tasks as we step into our seats, to be done upon our arrival at every scene: 1) put on disposable surgical gloves, and 2) turn on the lights and air conditioning in the back of the ambulance, so all is ready when they wheel someone in. No problem.

And before we even leave the station, we get our first call. Perfect timing.


Next Up: Scared Mom, Waiting, and Drunk Crazy Guy

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