Through a rookie’s eyes

The wonder, compassion and joy new EMTs experience can remind us why we entered EMS in the first place


I once had a student, at a dinner celebrating a 100% success rate on their NREMT psychomotor exam, tell our state EMS director, “I’ve manufactured enough LSD to crank a Caterpillar road grader.” 

All conversation ceased, and everyone stared at him incredulously. My assistant instructor elbowed him hard, and he blushed furiously, realizing what he had said, and stammered, “But that was a long time ago, when I was a kid. This EMT class is how I got my life back on track.” 

My assistant instructor would know, having been a messed-up kid with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a substance abuse problem himself, with multiple felony convictions as a 17-year-old. Both my assistant instructor and my student had been rehabilitated, got their EMT certifications, and went on to long and rewarding careers as paramedics and supervisors. 

The daily grind of EMS tends to beat idealism out of you, and unless you remind yourself of it, you risk losing sight of the joy and wonder you experienced when entering the profession. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
The daily grind of EMS tends to beat idealism out of you, and unless you remind yourself of it, you risk losing sight of the joy and wonder you experienced when entering the profession. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Both of them serve as reminders to me of what is possible when I try to predict a student’s potential.  

As an instructor, and as a paramedic, avoiding becoming jaded is a battle we all must fight. The daily grind of EMS tends to beat idealism out of you, and unless you remind yourself of it, you risk losing sight of the joy and wonder you experienced when entering the profession. I myself used to joke that the secret to my career longevity was to work an ambulance until I started to hate patients, and then go teach in a classroom for a few years until I started to hate students. 

Lather, rinse, repeat. 

The progression of experience in EMS 

But there is something refreshing about viewing EMS through a rookie’s eyes. I enjoyed being the medic that was tasked with breaking in new partners. What I missed in the rapport and unspoken communication between long-time partners, was more than made up for by watching a rookie do things for the first time. 

Long after lights and sirens became bothersome for me, I was reminded what a cool adrenaline rush it was when I was a new EMT. The times I’d occasionally complain, “Turn that damned thing off! It’s only a lift assist!,” I’d feel as if I’d kicked a puppy, and hold my tongue next time they wanted to activate the lights and siren for that assault call, even if we did only run six blocks and stage for 10 minutes. 

Experience tempered when it was necessary to run lights and siren, and I had forgotten the feeling when every call was a chance to run the lights and siren.  

Both my current partner and I are in our early fifties, with long careers in EMS behind us. We both know each other’s moves, we can finish each other’s sentences, and pretty much every call runs smoothly, even the gnarly ones. I know when and where Doug wants to go for lunch, and vice versa. When a certain dispatcher sends us to a posting location at 7:25 a.m., we’ll both grumble, “Well, Dispatcher X is on the console again,” in perfect harmony. 

We’re solicitous of little old ladies, paternally protective of boys and girls, and we still conduct ourselves as professionals on scenes. We’re empathetic when we need to be, stern where we need to be, and can adapt our demeanor to fit the situation. We’ve got the patter down; Doug knows all my lines to put a patient at ease, and I know his. It’s a well-rehearsed routine, and to outsiders, it looks as if nothing ever bothers us. We’re the pros from Dover, and cops, ED nurses and the families of our regulars breathe a sigh of relief when we arrive on scene. 

But make no mistake, we’re a pair of grumpy old bastards. When the phone rings at 3:00 a.m., it’s a tossup as to which one of us will curse more venomously, and when the tones drop, it triggers the bladder response in each of us. 

We’ll grumble all the way to the truck, sigh and roll our eyes incredulously at the dispatch information on our data terminal, and make cynical predictions about what we’ll actually find when we get there.  

And usually, we’ll be right. 

The Game Face goes on when we arrive on scenes, and no one would ever know us for a pair of cynics. But I know, and I never wanted to be that grumpy, bleary-eyed old paramedic I see in the mirror. 

Advocating for EMS by preparing the next generation 

So in teaching, when you encounter that kid who finds himself in EMS, who discovers talents he didn’t know he had, who has the potential to be better than you ever were, you treasure it for the rejuvenation it is. It adds a big charge to your career satisfaction battery. It reminds you of why you went into teaching in the first place. On an ambulance, I can only positively impact maybe a dozen patients per shift, but if I teach 20 kids the right way to be a caregiver, I can positively impact hundreds. 

There was one such student in my last class. Actually there were two, but one of them is more active on social media more than the other, and through her posts I live vicariously, once again experiencing EMS through a rookie’s eyes. It’s a tonic to a jaded medic soul. I see in her what Randal Howard saw in me, 25 years ago. 

Both of these girls were instant rock stars who handled everything I could throw at them, and believe me, when I recognized their talent, I challenged them in every way I could. The rest of the class were no slouches, all talented and motivated in their own rights, but these two girls outdistanced them all. 

And now, when I watch one of them post on social media, watch her skills and knowledge blossom with every new experience, every new call, I swell with pride. I emphasize on my first day of EMT class what a privilege and honor it is to be the one expected to make a person’s worst day better somehow, and you can tell that she’s acutely aware of it now. My lessons stuck.  

She was a meek and bookish kid who blushed furiously every time I asked her a question, most often phrasing her answer as an uncertain question itself: “Uuuhhh, a Beta 2 receptor?” Most every time, the answer was correct. 

Now, that meek and bookish kid is gone. The uncertainty is gone. She’s confident and growing more so every day, and thirsty to learn more. Before, it was a tossup whether she’d make a career of EMS, or if EMT certification would be just a nice line on her resume. Now, it seems a certainty she’ll go on to paramedic school. Part of me wishes that she wouldn’t, because it’s a tough career, but a bigger part hopes that she will, because she’s exactly the kind of paramedic this profession needs. She’s a hand-holder with mad lifesaving skills. She’s smart, she’s skilled, she’s caring, but most importantly, she knows she isn’t smart, caring or skilled enough, yet. 

That’s a lesson it took me five years as a paramedic to learn. She’ll be better than I ever was. 

When you’re a teacher and an advocate for your profession, that’s a treasure you don’t overlook. 

[Increased professional passion heralds better patient care. Identify what you can change in your agency to create a shared action plan to find professional joy. Read: Finding the joy: Beyond job satisfaction in EMS]

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