Humility: An essential trait for EMS providers

The public and the law increasingly judges EMS not just on the care provided, but how the care is provided

I have been writing for years about EMS and how EMS providers – in my opinion – contribute to society what nobody else can or will; that being an EMS provider is the single most important job there is (certainly better for society than being a lawyer).

Although much of what I write is laced with sarcasm, humor, and hyperbole, it is intended to motivate and inspire EMS providers to reach farther and further; to be better and to never settle for life in the mediocrity zone.

As an EMS defense attorney, I write through the prism of the law to try and illustrate actual risks and rewards providers face in real life. As an EMS provider, I write through the prism of someone who has done what you do and worked hard to encourage positive change, constant evolution, and relentless improvement of service and care.

My career is built on protecting, defending, and educating EMS providers so that they can be better and do better – because I truly believe there is no job more important.

Reality check: Message from a reader

Recently I received an email from a reader in response to my column: “The question every new paramedic has to answer” in which the reader wrote:

“While your commentary wisely focuses on the reality of what we do AND the commitment required to do the job well, it fails to address the reality that we are merely public servants - nothing more, nothing less. It is a privilege to be a paramedic. While there is nobility in this pursuit, and even as we acknowledge the benefits (?) of our "Type A" personalities, we must still practice humility alongside our medical arts…”

She went on to write:

“[F]or any medic, a measure of self-confidence is required, but a self-aggrandizing posture places us on dangerous ground, in my opinion. Such a stance clouds our judgment and we lose the very perspective so necessary to our mission of public service.”

Maybe there is something I am missing. Maybe amid the hyperbole and histrionics to drive home my points, part of the message is being lost.

As I reflected on my writing I realized she is absolutely right; my writing seems to ignore the importance of humility.

EMS provider: Equal parts confident and humble

Confidence is essential, but humility is what makes EMS function the way it is intended. In a perfect world the quintessential EMS provider must be equal parts confident and humble.

I don’t really have a problem with excellent providers who are self-aggrandizing; many providers have earned the right to boast about themselves or be prideful about the job they do. However, doing so can cloud one’s judgment and is a leading cause of lost perspective. I also wonder if it is possible to be self-aggrandizing and humble at the same time. Is that balance of conditions possible in the real world?

After careful deliberation, I have concluded that the answer, my friends, is YES! But not literally.

By definition, one cannot be both “self-aggrandizing” and humble at the same time. However, one can be confident and committed and loyal to the cause of being the best while at the same time humble about how they get it done. One can employ superior skills without making those around them feel inferior. One can be resolute in what they do without losing sight of for whom they do it.

To further understand my point, simply look at the news. Night after night, stories are reported of police officers (seemingly – and sometimes actually) overstepping their bounds and abusing the public. We all know that those officers represent only a fraction of the law enforcement community, but they are a very noticeable fraction.

EMS: A duty of disproportionate importance

EMS is no different. How many providers have to allow their ego to supersede duty before the world starts to look at all EMS providers with a suspicious stare?

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch…you’ll be a man, my son." Mildly misogynistic undertones notwithstanding, the sentiment applies perfectly to EMS providers.

EMS is a duty of disproportionate importance to most others in society; nevertheless it is a duty owed to all others in society. The difficulty of what you face is only compounded by the environment in which you face it. However, difficulty and environment should never take away from the humanity with which care must be delivered.

Doing the right thing is not always easy

Some of my old partners may be scratching their heads right now, harkening back to times when I was not always nice. It’s true. I was not always nice and I was not always humble; particularly at 2 a.m. responding to call number 16 of the day, with lights and sirens, because a 13-year-old had a bad dream. But I should have been; I should have remembered in that moment, for as stupid as I thought those parents were, they were worried about something they just did not understand and that compassion would have been a better play than the “education” I gave them.

David Givot as a young paramedic. (Image David Givot)

It has taken me years to learn that doing the right thing is not always easy, but it’s always the right thing; that it’s a privilege to be an EMS provider; that humility is what keeps us grounded,focused and excellent.

What the law says about humility

Before you write this column off as syrupy soap-boxing, let me enlighten you to what the law has to say on the matter.

From Bangor, Maine to Bakersfield, California, and everywhere in between, EMS systems have established policies, protocols and regulations regarding “what” providers do. These rules are intended to encourage proper care and establish consequences for failure, inability, or unwillingness to provide proper care.

However, as those rules evolve, “what” EMS providers do is being steadily supplemented with rules about “how” EMS care is done. Standards for “professionalism” and conduct are being woven in to technical policies and skill procedures. More than ever before, providers are being held accountable as much for how they behave as for what they do or don’t do. 

Going forward, EMS providers, paramedics especially, will face ever-increasing certification and licensure discipline based on how they care for the people they serve.

In California, for example, the State EMS Authority aggressively pursues actions against paramedics who do not demonstrate the kind of respectful, appropriate, or dignity-preserving behavior that is expected – even where there is no harm.

Respect is earned through unwavering humility

The reader who inspired this column nailed it: EMS is a profession that commands the utmost respect, but is one which cannot demand any respect. The respect accorded to any one EMS provider – and thus to the industry as a whole – must be earned through the highest level of care delivered with unwavering humility.

More simply, be the provider you would want to treat you.

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