Christmas perspective for the rumpled angels of EMS

Christmas spirit is all around us, in the cops, EMTs, firefighters and nurses who bring hope just by showing up

"Thanksgiving is here. Somebody will be stabbing a family member with a fork in 3, 2, 1…"

It was just a simple meme on Facebook, yet another example of the black humor so common in EMS. I’ll confess I chuckled at it, having worked just that sort of call myself, as many of us have. You see enough of the injustice and inhumanity in our job, you either learn to laugh at it and retain some remnant of your soul, or you let it destroy you.

But sometimes we forget that some of us can’t laugh at it any longer.

While the holiday season is a time of thankfulness and celebration for most, for all too many the holidays tax the spirit like no other time of year.
While the holiday season is a time of thankfulness and celebration for most, for all too many the holidays tax the spirit like no other time of year. (Photo/City of Washington, Conn)

As one commenter put it, "We take all the grief and pain we experience in this job, and we put it in a box and slide it out of sight beneath the bed, and then we make jokes about the existence of the box."

And as I’ve said in this column before, if we don’t empty that box occasionally, air it out now and then with something joyous and life-affirming, what’s in it festers and overflows.

While the holiday season is a time of thankfulness and celebration for most, for all too many the holidays tax the spirit like no other time of year. Seasonal affective disorder, the holiday blues, whatever you want to call it, tensions run high, family squabbles intensify, imagined or inconsequential slights become magnified, tempers flare…

… and next thing you know, somebody’s getting stabbed with a fork.

Or getting shot.

Or stabbed.

Or a family dead in their beds from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace.

Or the New Year’s revelers entrapped in their cars, their life’s blood still thick with the smell of alcohol.

Or the couple who tried, unsuccessfully, to drive home from a Christmas family gathering after having had one too many glasses of wine. Their infant daughter survived. They did not.

Or the police and ambulance called, where we get to witness, first hand, what horrors man is willing to visit on his fellow man. And because we are often there at the worst moments of people’s lives, we sometimes forget that such moments are just a snapshot in time.

They’re not all there is to see.

And here we find ourselves, separated from our loved ones, working a rig on Christmas Eve, muttering "Bah, humbug," to ourselves, counting the moments until the holiday season is over.

That used to be me

My family was the one where the tempers flared, harsh and hurtful words were screamed, and siblings got stabbed with forks. Trailer trash clichés, were the Grayson Christmas gatherings, minus the trailer.

The joyful Christmas memories of my childhood were more than overshadowed by the fights and rancor of my adolescence, to the point that I spent close to ten years shunning all contact with my family. I lived less than thirty minutes from my parents, but I vowed that they could have the annual Grayson Christmas Screaming Match and Family Brawl without me.

So why do I tell you this, of all times, during the holiday season?

The answer is a matter of perspective. For those who find the holidays a time of joy and celebration, a few grim stories from me are unlikely to ruin their Christmas cheer.

But for those of you nodding in cynical agreement with me as you read, what you need is a change of perspective. Perhaps I can help you find yours, by sharing with you how I found mine.

In EMS, I found a family and happiness

For me, it was recognizing my depression for what it was. It took understanding that I had a problem, that the quiet voice in my ear whispering that I was too tired and too busy to have a good time, too hurt by past pain to risk connecting with another human being again, all those things … well, that was all a lie, and one all the more insidious because it whispered in my own voice.

So I focused on the things and people that brought me happiness, and oddly enough, that was my career and my EMS family, the one I chose for myself. The psychologists will tell you that throwing yourself into your work is a bad recipe for treating mental illness, but I think that only applies when it is actually, you know, work.

EMS has never been work for me, and even if your career satisfaction battery is at a low ebb, I’m betting that at one point, it wasn’t work for you, either.

And so my holidays were spent hunting with Reggie, Bodie, and Mike, EMS brothers from another mother. And when we were on shift, we’d don goofy camo Santa hats, drive the ambulance around our response district, and play Porky Pig singing "Blue Christmas" over the PA system. Some neighbors didn’t much appreciate our version of Christmas caroling, but most of them came outside and laughed.

Rather than dwell on the fact that a father and son had broken into a fistfight at Christmas dinner, I watched two cops tenderly console the children who had witnessed it, while a third cop set the Christmas tree back in its mount, straightened ornaments, and cleaned up the mess. Hard men who see hard things every day, steadfastly trying to restore some normalcy, their sense of duty undimmed.

I watched firefighters run into the burning house when everyone else was running out. Long after the Christmas tree fire was put out, the house a total loss, I watched them pass the helmet to buy Christmas gifts and clothing for a family who lost everything. The first one to donate was a driver, a kid of barely twenty. That kid was paid less than half of what I am paid, yet he dropped fifty bucks in the helmet.

I spent Christmas night one year driving around the city, singing Christmas carols with my partner in our best Chipmunks impersonation, howling with laughter in between songs. We were interrupted with a call for a homeless man who couldn’t walk, lying on a bus bench to get out of the sleet. He had a horrible case of trench foot, but he refused to let us bring him to the hospital. There were no shelters with room to take him, but I knew that any of our local Emergency Departments, even swamped, would at least provide him with a meal and warm place for a few hours.

Perhaps even the whole night, if they had the bed space.

And my partner may have screwed up her face in disgust at the stench of his feet, but she didn’t let him see. I noticed her quietly speaking to the charge nurse at the next ED we visited, picking up bandages, orthopedic socks, and leftover turkey sandwiches. When she left the station after our shift ended, I knew where she was going when she turned left instead of right. I followed her back to the bus stop, and cleaned and bandaged the man’s feet as she fed him turkey sandwiches and Gatorade.

I realized that Christmas spirit was all around me, in the cops, EMTs, firefighters and nurses who brought hope just by showing up; who made it their business to arise every day, put on a uniform, and beat back entropy just a little bit.

We are rumpled angels

So next time you feel yourself giving voice to your inner Scrooge, take a look at the partner sitting eighteen inches away from you in the cab of your ambulance. You know the guy; he’s got a bad case of 3:00 a.m. dragon breath, bed hair, and sleep crust in the corner of his eyes, and he has an annoying habit of snoring like a chainsaw and smacking when he eats.

He's also the rumpled angel who gives his best to help people, regardless of their age, creed, race, religion or social standing, and even if he ran the last call with his uniform shirt tucked into his underwear, that’s a minor thing in comparison to the size of his heart.

When you think about it, working with a guy like that is a pretty sweet Christmas gift.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

This article, originally published on Dec. 17, 2015, has been updated. 

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