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.
I pick this guy up at the OC mental-health facility to take him to a mental ward. This guy's going through all the books of the Bible in his head, quoting this and that, and finally he asks me, "What's your favorite passage from the Bible?" I decide I'm gonna fuck with him, and I quote Richard III: "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore am no beast." So he goes in his mind and I hear him mumble through the books of the Bible. Finally he gets to Revelations and says, "Dude! It's not in the Bible!" And I'm like, "Holy shit!" So I lean over to him and say, "Yes, it is!" And he says, "No, it's not. Unless I'm missing something . . . It's not in Apocrypha, is it?"
A DAY IN THE LIFE
We got called to transport a guy from the hospital to his house. This guy's like 75 years old, big strapping guy, we could barely fit him on our gurney. He was like 220 pounds and really quiet. Didn't say much. We pulled him out—he had been in the hospital for pneumonia, some bullshit—we picked him up, threw him on the gurney, jacked him into the back of the ambulance and took him to his residence, which is way the fuck up in the middle of nowhere. He lives in one of those homes in Laguna Hills where they park their cars down at the bottom of the hill. Their house is up this path, at a 65-, 70-degree angle, and there's stones all over the area. An accident waiting to happen. We just grabbed him and picked his ass up and started to carry him. As we're carrying him up, we can hear the radio go off about this guy who impaled himself on some rebar. We're like, "OH FUCK! THAT'S OUR CALL!" So the bitch is, we've gotta run this guy up to his house, carry him up all this shit, to get to the rebar guy. I kind of enjoy the blood and guts [laughs]. Not as much as when I first started, but everybody loves trauma. So we finally get the guy all the way up to his house and his wife's standing up at the top of the stairs. She says, "Okay. You've gotta take him in. His bedroom's all the way in the back." We finally set him down, right in the entryway to their home, and one of us goes to take a look to see what the layout's like, and the guy goes, "No, no. I'm good from here." He stands up, spry as anything, and just walks into the friggin' bedroom. We're like, "Son of a bitch." The guy could have walked up the whole time. We're like, "All right, let's get the fuck out of here and see if we can jump that call." By the time we got there, another unit was already on the scene and they had ended up calling for Mercy Air. The dispatchers sent us to the landing zone, to have us help out with the offloading. So we're like, "Yeah!" Stoked. Now, this is all I want to do: I want to be a flight medic. So I've got this boner, dude, and I'm all stoked. We put the ambulance in park as soon as they touch down, and we're looking at them, all mesmerized. This is like the greatest day now. The door to the helicopter pops open. The nurse pops out. The paramedic pops out. They come running up to the sides of our ambulance, and we're like, "What the fuck was that?" They throw open the back of the ambulance and shout, "WHERE'S THE PATIENT?!" The patient's down at the bottom of the hill. The other EMTs are still stabilizing him, and we're sitting here tripping, going, "Whoa. Helicopters!"
911 FOR DUMMIES
I got called for a fucking bleeding hangnail. He wanted me to transport him. I'm like, "Got a Band-Aid?"
THE WORST CALL EVER
The one story that really hurt happened last Halloween. We got called to one of Tustin's barrios, where this girl was having abdominal pains. They thought it was no big deal, said she had some spotting, some cramping, but they didn't see anything abnormal. I get there, and she looks like she has a little belly. She's maybe 15 years old. I ask if there's any chance of her being pregnant, and she denies it. She looks at least five months pregnant. She's wearing a plaid skirt, like a Catholic schoolgirl skirt, and there's like a ton of blood. She's not just spotting anymore. We expose her and it looks like she's got a pad on, but it turns out it's the fetus's back. It was at about 18 weeks gestation. There was nothing they could do for it.
LIVE AND LEARN
I just ran into an old lady, an African-American lady, and I couldn't understand why she knew all the medical terms. She was like 80-odd years old. If you want to go stereotypical, you think, "Okay. Old lady. Probably been a homemaker all her life." I asked her if she'd had any previous injuries, and she told me she had once hurt herself dancing. I asked her how she knew all these medical terms and what the paramedics were going to do, and she told me, "Hey. I went to med school back East for I don't know how many years and dropped out to become a dancer in New York City. I was in the Cotton Club for a little while." I was stunned, because I had wanted to put her in a little category here, and she just blew that apart—told me what I was gonna do next and what was insurance-related and what was B.S.
HE SWEARS THIS IS TRUE
There was a guy who tried to commit suicide—this was someone else's call—and he cut his penis off with a dull knife. He had to hack and hack and hack it. It was one of those old steak knives. The guy was running around with the tip of his penis in his mouth. He took it out and started shouting, "LOOK AT ME! I'M A COCKSUCKER!" He then put it back in his mouth and started running around the room.
AS IF THEY NEED REMINDING
We get this call on a scrotum bleed, and dispatch makes a point of getting on the radio to say, "Remember to apply direct pressure."
WATCH YOUR MOUTH,
I had the Poltergeist Lady. Y'know, she looked like the old lady from Poltergeist. You know, "Come into the light, Carol Anne!" She asked us to take her from Tustin down to South Coast Hospital, down in Laguna. On the way down, she told me how she was going to go to Hawaii, with Bob Hope, for some sort of anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and how those "goddamn Japs and those fucking Nips are fucking up the whole thing and how they continue to ruin the United States and how they're trying to take over the world." She's telling me all this stuff about the Japanese and how much she hated them and how she hated the Chinese and the Koreans. Then she looks at me and says, "You look like an island boy. You native Hawaiians are just like us Native Americans. You were taken advantage of." I say, "I don't know what you're thinking of, ma'am, but my name's Tanaka. I'm Japanese."
IT WORKS FOR BATMAN
The last shift I was on, this guy had fallen two and a half stories. We get on the scene, and I notice the medics aren't moving too quickly. They haven't even started an IV line—usually there's a bunch of things you've gotta do. We ask the medic, and he says, "Well. He fell into a dumpster." He fell two and a half stories into a dumpster. You can't even try to do that, and you usually hit something on the way down. He didn't hit anything. We ask, "What did he land on?" And the medic says, "He landed in all the cushy shit." That only happens in cartoons.
THE BUTTERFLY LADY
I didn't know my grandparents, so Leisure World's kind of been a godsend for me. A lot of these people, the reason they're so verbal is that they don't have a family that comes to see them. Their kids put 'em in Leisure World and pretty much abandon them. They think, "Wow! They've got shuffleboard!" There's this lady we used to run, called the Butterfly Lady. She'd take pieces of paper and fold them up into butterflies. She was on dialysis and one of our "frequent fliers." Her butterflies were all over Leisure World. I still remember her name and the same damn jokes she told all the time. I remember that it was important to me to be good to her because her family had kind of abandoned her. When she died it was just unreal. Every ambulance company in Orange County has frequent fliers. EMTs can spot their names off the list, know their address and the sounds they make. We have three or four, but my lady was the Butterfly Lady. She was bad-ass. She was blind, but she knew me [laughs]. It was easy. I was the big, fat, dark blob. She was always cold, so I always brought an extra blanket. As soon as she'd hear my voice, she'd light up and tell me the same friggin' jokes every time.