By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Illustrations by Bob Aul"We're a sick lot of people," says the large, thirtysomething emergency medical technician. It's hard to imagine why. For about the same wages they pay the kid at In-N-Out, EMTs spend their days dealing with the injured, the mad, the lonely and the dying. It's either laugh or go postal. Gallows humor can become a survival tool.
"Some of the guys you get out here are kind of cowboys," says another EMT, also large, gruff and imposing. "They're really serious about what they do. We all are. We all know when to cut the jokes and get to work, but when it's all over, the jokes are right back."
It's difficult to explain why someone would choose to do such physically and emotionally demanding work for such low pay. One EMT speaks of a chaotic past filled with loud rock & roll, alcohol and violence, and a desire to get past all that and do something worthwhile. Another speaks of years bartending at strip clubs and realizing he couldn't still be doing that at 50. Most want to move on eventually to become paramedics or even doctors and see this stage as paying their dues.
Regardless of why they do it, the trade-off is that they get the best stories. One night, in a spartan ambulance station in Tustin, over Starbucks Coffee and microwaved pizza, a few of them opened up. Here are their stories.
TO BEGIN WITH, THE END
About 2:30 in the morning—we're exhausted—and we get a call for an unknown type medical aid. Nine out of ten times it's bullshit. We pull up the same time the fire engines do so we all come in as a group. A guy in a pink robe comes to the door. He says, "Hey, guys. She's upstairs, in the back bedroom." It was a beautiful house—I'm not gonna say where, but it's a bunch of snotty people. This house was worth at least $1.5 million. I ask, "Who are you?" and he says, "I'm just a friend." We ask what's wrong, and he says, "She's just not right." So the cops show up, and they stay downstairs with the guy. We go up and hear the woman moaning and groaning in pain, whipping around in the bed. We're like, "What the hell's going on?" We ask her where it hurts, and she shouts, "MY ASS! MY ASS HURTS!" We ask, "Well, what did you do to it?" She shouts, "THAT FUCKING SON OF A BITCH FUCKED ME UP THE ASS!!! NOW IT HURTS AND IT'S BLEEDING!!!" We pull back the covers, and . . . I don't know how to describe a prolapsed [slipped out of place] rectum. It's like, I don't know, a sea cucumber. The kicker is that she was married, and the guy was some rock star or something. She had gone out and seen him play and took him home.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING
This woman goes into full arrest, and we go to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation when the woman's daughter comes out and says, "No! She's got a 'do not resuscitate' order,"—which means no CPR, no nothing. "Just let her die." So she won't let me start CPR, and the daughter's getting all emotional over her mom dying. We watch the woman take her last breath. The daughter starts her whole bereavement thing, and I notice the woman's dentures are sticking partway out of her mouth. I say, "Hey, I'm just going to fix her dentures so she doesn't swallow it or something." So I reach into her mouth, sticking my fingers in—which they tell you to never do—and she does one of those sudden resuscitations. She kind of moves her head back, and suddenly the bitch bites down on me! She went from dead, no pulse, to completely alive again and all I did was move her fucking teeth! It takes about 15 minutes to do paperwork, and by the time I got my paperwork done, she was up and talking to the nurse. Forty-five minutes later she was walking out of the ER.
UM, YEAH . . .
We got called on an "ankle pain" on a transient. I asked, "When did you hurt it?" and he said, "Last year at Mardi Gras."
WATCH YOUR MOUTH
There was this one trauma case where I hauled my ass there because they were going to cut this girl out of a car. Turned out I had to wait for a while. So while I'm waiting, some kids approached me and told me there was a guy down the freeway who was bleeding and not responding. I took a backboard and told my partner I was gonna go check it out. I was out in the dark alone, my fingers were cold, and I was trying to figure out what was going on. For about three minutes, I was it. No cops, no paramedics, just me walking along the 55, which usually feels like a river. The cops had blocked it off, and it was dead silent. It got my adrenalin up. I found the guy, and he was hurt bad. I leaned in toward him to see what was wrong, and he flinched, spraying blood everywhere, including right into my mouth. Suddenly, my life was tied to this guy's. If he had something, like AIDS, I had something now. You can't pay people enough for that.