EMS From a Distance: The cat with dog tags

Don't limit your potential, or the idea of possibilities, with labels

Author’s note: Just before I began writing this, I saw a timely piece about misapplied labels by EMS innovator Mike Taigman. Our perspectives differ, but Taigman’s opinions may have influenced my own. I say that because I’ve been reading Mike’s stuff for 25 years, beginning with the first book I bought as a paramedic, “Taigman’s Advanced Cardiology.” Mike, thanks for the inspiration then and now.

Unfulfilling prophecies

Today’s topic includes self-awareness, misconceptions and EMS careers. But first, a story about a cat.

Po is a black-and-white tom who showed up hungry at our back door two years ago wearing a small dog collar. My wife, Helen, and I gave Po something to eat and let him inside long enough to read the tags fastened to his collar. One showed his address – the house next door. The other displayed his name above the words, “OUTDOOR CAT.” That seemed like an odd label, mostly because we hadn’t seen Po outside since our neighbors had moved in several years before.

Po is a black-and-white tom who showed up hungry at our back door two years ago wearing a small dog collar.
Po is a black-and-white tom who showed up hungry at our back door two years ago wearing a small dog collar. (Photo/Mike Rubin)

We spoke with Po’s “mom” several days later. She confirmed he’d been living indoors his whole life. Then the family adopted two other male cats and Po started spraying the furniture – a feline’s territorial reaction to competition. With one sofa ruined, Po was banished to the wintry wild. To Helen and me, the dog tag with the curious label seemed like a lame attempt to validate Po’s exile: take one middle-aged indoor cat, put him in the backyard, then call him an outdoor cat. If only nature were that easy to change.

Po’s story reminds me of how some of us end up in the wrong jobs. We get mislabeled – sometimes by ourselves, often by others – for vocations we know little about. Why? Because something or someone is urging us toward a destiny that isn’t ours.

An example would be the 18-year-old who enlists in the military primarily because his father or grandfather had once done the same. That young recruit’s stated goal may be to serve his country – which certainly plays a part, and is admirable – but what really drives him is the desire to be what he thinks others want him to be. Such misplaced motivation doesn’t mean he’ll fail; it just makes his path to self-fulfillment more difficult. I can relate.

A label that didn’t stick

Two decades before I started in EMS, I became an engineer – not because I was attracted to the profession, but because I thought I should be a scientist. I come from a family of scientists; my mother was a chemist, my father a physicist. Engineering was a popular, well-paying option that sounded scientific and didn’t require an advanced degree – perfect for a lackadaisical student like me. I attended engineering school as a teenager without ever understanding what engineers really did.

I started working in the field a few weeks after graduation. Within a month, I was wondering what I was doing there. By the time I was 22, I was searching for another job – one that would better fit my strengths. I considered law enforcement, aviation and even the Navy before accepting a series of corporate management positions that were more strategic and less technical. I was still an engineer according to the degree in my attic, but at least I’d shed my “scientist” label.

It wasn’t until I got into EMS that I felt more comfortable. I’d taken the one part of engineering I liked – problem-solving – and applied it to clinical settings instead of profit centers. Not only didn’t I miss being the boss, I preferred the company of rank-and-file responders who saw the world as a lot less complicated than I used to.

Switching labels

I’m not claiming it was easy to move from an orderly, climate-controlled office to the back of an ambulance in a busy 911 system; I’m just saying the change turned out to be better for me. To get there, I had to stop thinking I was something I’m not: a technical whiz and a titan of industry. I’d been mislabeled. I understood how it had happened, but I still needed patience and a plan to correct it.

Some of you are struggling with the reverse: a feeling you don’t belong in EMS. You may be right. There’s no shame in that. Think about how you got here and who or what labeled you a healthcare provider. Then try a different occupation – perhaps as a hobby, at first. If it feels right and you can earn a living at it, get the training you need to build more marketable experience. You’ll know you’ve reached an endpoint when work feels like a natural act.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to Po, we adopted him. He competes with four other pets for attention and has never soiled the furniture, possibly because he’s allowed to be an indoor cat.

Read next: Recognizing how labels shape narratives in prehospital medicine

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