When a person aspires to a career in EMS, they are drawn by many things. Some seek excitement, an adrenaline rush, a job that is different every day and appeals to the adventurous. Others have a desire to help people, they want to feel that they have a job that matters and they want to make a difference in the world. Most of us were drawn by both of these aspects. In recounting stories from my career, I usually relate the most exciting, the funniest and the most poignant memories of the last 25 years. These musings make up about 10% of what I have actually done during the span of my career. The other 90% of the time… I was taking care of old people.
When I first started in this business, I imagined heart pumping trauma calls, shootings, stabbings, massive pile ups on the interstate and tense domestic situations. Yes, I have had my share of these calls and more, but the vast majority of my time on duty has been spent caring for the elderly. Hardly a shift goes by that I don’t respond to a nursing home. Sometimes it is for a true emergency, a heart attack or other acute medical situation, but more often than not, it is to transport someone to a doctor’s appointment, or to the ER because of abnormal lab values in routine blood tests. Residents of these facilities often pull out their feeding tubes or urine catheters and have to be transported to the hospital to have them re-inserted. The majority of responses to private residences involve the over 70 crowd as well. Think about it…who is most likely to get sick? An old person!
I’ll have to confess. I did not choose this path because I had an affinity for the elderly. I admit I was one of those adrenalin junkies looking for excitement at every turn, and early in my career I hated the nursing home calls, the non-emergency transports that often made me miss an exciting auto accident or other trauma call. I felt like my training and talent was being wasted as a taxi service for Grandma. Over time, my attitude has changed. I’m sure that the fact that I am now a grandma and am rapidly approaching old age myself has something to do with my shift in thinking, but I had changed my mind about the geriatric crowd long before my offspring had offspring of their own. I was surprised to discover years ago, that I truly love…Old People!
Whether a nursing home or private residence, I get to enter into these people’s lives, if even for a short while, and see the fruits of a lifetime. Photographs, mementos, awards, all proudly displayed in peoples’ homes gives a glimpse into the decades prior to them becoming sick, old and infirm. I once took a little old woman home from the hospital who was weak and barely able to speak. She wasn’t ambulatory and we had to lift her from the bed to our stretcher. When we arrived at her home, the walls were adorned with photos of our patient as a much younger woman holding and caring for chimpanzees. There were framed newspaper articles extoling her work with primates and memorabilia from her travels all over the world.
I have also had eye opening and informative discussions with elderly patients in the back of my ambulance. When there is no acute emergency, there is time to talk. I have learned many things from these people and I relish the conversations with them. They are at times intelligent, funny, inspiring and sometimes dangerous.
I once transported a 101 year old woman for chest pains. She wasn’t showing any signs of having a heart attack or other acute illness, and her vital signs and all other assessments were normal, but I followed our chest pain protocol just the same. When it came time to start the IV, I explained to her what I was going to do. She said, “Don’t you stick me with that needle”. I patted her hand and told her it would be alright and would only hurt a little bit. She replied, “If you stick me with that needle, I’m going to hit you.” My response was to pat her hand some more, and tell her that she really needed the IV and it would be over in a second. I mean, how bad could she hurt me, she was 101!? Well, I stuck her with that needle and she punched me. I don’t mean she slapped me, or swiped at me with her bony little fist. She cold cocked me in the jaw with a powerful right hook. I saw stars, and I learned that when a 101 year old woman tells you something…you better listen!
EMS is an exciting and rewarding career. The youngsters coming into the field remind me of myself many years ago. Eager and chomping at the bit to hit the streets and participate in the spectacular events that most people only read about in newspapers and see on TV. I just hope that they come to the same realizations that I did; that the calls that don’t make the news are often just as rewarding and yes, exciting, and there are many things that can be learned by just taking the time to listen to what an old person has to say.