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Being present in your work

EMS providers can and should make a unique contribution to the profession


Looking back now, I imagine that Jeff probably had better things to do that day than run a BLS inter-facility transfer. He was, after all, the owner and CEO of a fast-growing ambulance service. But the system was busy and Jeff was that kind of a boss.

Finding meaning in every call

The call was, for all practical purposes, a milk run. Something most of us would do without much thought or effort. A middle-aged, wheelchair bound patient was being transported to a doctor’s appointment to be returned later in the day. Jeff saw something different. What Jeff noticed were the numerous classic car models that lined the patient’s room.

Enroute to the doctor’s office a conversation about classic roadsters ensued. As he often did, Jeff had made one of those real and enriching human connections with the patient. Many caregivers go their whole career struggling to make authentic connections with their patients. For Jeff, this kind of thing was almost effortless. In the back of the rig the two men talked like old friends.

When Jeff got back to the office a few hours later he got on the internet and began looking for a special gift for the wheelchair bound man with the love for classic cars. And he found it. A major car show was coming to downtown Denver; plenty of time to make arrangements and secure the necessary personnel.

One month later the car show opened an hour early for an honored guest. Before the show floor filled with people, one wheelchair bound car lover was wheeled around the by a small group of EMT’s and friends. This would be one of many shows and outings that my former boss and his friend would make. As the owner of a company, you might think that these events would be covered by local media and promoted by public relations personnel.

You’d be wrong.

I was a senior employee in the company and a personal friend of Jeff’s and yet, I never even heard about it until years later. It was never about a P.R. stunt. It was about two new friends who both loved cars. And it was about finding meaning in your work beyond the patient care and the driving from point A to point B.

When I heard the story about Jeff and his friend, and their trips to the car shows that had become somewhat-regular events, I understood immediately. It took me back to a conversation Jeff and I had years earlier. While working together on an ambulance, Jeff had challenged me to find unique ways to use our resources to touch people’s lives. He was one of those characters. He challenged others to look deeper into their work and he lived his own challenge.

Be present. Show up. Believe

I learned from Jeff over a decade ago to be present in my work. It was a lesson about showing up and believing that I had something to offer greater than the nuts and bolts performance of my job duties. Jeff challenged me to think bigger about my contribution to emergency services. He challenged me to be creative.

Sometimes we talk about our work as if we are only visitors passing through. We talk about the new policy or memo as if we have no ownership in it. We lament what “they” have decided for us about our workplace. It’s easy to forget that we are the workplace. Through our work, we collectively define our places of work.

Let me ask you a question that very few of us ask with enough regularity: Why are you here? I don’t mean how you arrived at your current physical location. I mean, why did you choose this work? What are the decisions that you made that brought you to this moment in time and to this work as an emergency services provider? While you ponder those questions, consider what it might be like to believe that there is something unique that only you can contribute to this work that we do in EMS.

Contribute uniquely

That last idea is one of those tricky beliefs that is only true if you choose to believe it’s so. It’s one of those pesky you’ll-see-it-when-you-believe-it type scenarios. And we are already primed to not believe it. We don’t really want to believe that we hold something within ourselves, some vital contribution that will only be realized if we choose to bring it to fruition.

We don’t want to believe it because once we accept it as true we have to take responsibility for it. We have to take responsibility for discovering our unique contributions and growing them and following them wherever they may lead us. It’s easier to just show up and run the calls. It’s easier to deny that we are unique and important and have something vital to offer this grand EMS machine that seems so much bigger than ourselves.

We’d much rather deny our own ability to contribute. Who are we to raise our hand? Who are we to challenge our medical director or operations manager with a new idea? Who are we to write an article, teach a class or submit a proposal? Who are we to take a wheelchair bound patient to a car show or find some other way to make a meaningful connection with the humans whom we serve?

We may not have these thoughts directly. Resistance to the truth is typically more subtle than that. We instead offer resistance in the form of obstacles that are specific to our situation. “Sure, that works for some people” we might think, “But I don’t have that kind of boss.” We deny our own call to contribute by burying it under an avalanche of excuses as to why all this doesn’t really apply to us specifically.

It sounds very nice and is probably true for some people but we just don’t have the time, the resources, the right people, the right region of the country, the right patient population or the right personality to step up and bring something to our work that is uniquely ours. That kind of stuff just doesn’t fly around here.

If you feel like this doesn’t apply to you, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. There is something unique and vital and necessary to emergency service that you are here to contribute to. I can’t tell you what it is. That’s the part that you are here to figure out. For whatever reason if you are resisting the notion that this concept applies to you, you are simply mistaken. It applies to you.

I’m not saying any of this to make you feel inadequate about your current contribution to our work. That’s not the point. You are perfectly adequate right where you are at this moment. I’d just like you to consider that the world of emergency service is waiting for more from you. And more importantly, you are free to choose what your contribution will be.

Hemmed in on all sides by a world that wants you to believe that you are not free to choose to bring your own uniqueness to your work, I’m here to tell you that you are free to choose. And my greatest hope for you is that you choose something spectacular and unexpected and entirely you.

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