Medic reflects on a legacy of caring, returns to her first love

Ark. medic retires after 35 years of service; and picks up an instrument from her past


For paramedic Sharon King, this past New Year’s Eve wasn’t just another target-rich opportunity to assess fruity aromas; December 31was King’s last day as a full-time EMS provider. After 35 years of caring for the sick and injured in and around Hot Springs, Ark., she knew it was time to do something else.

Like relax? Maybe. Teach? Probably. Play the French horn?

Seriously?

Before you start wondering whether brass instruments are part of Arkansas’ EMS curriculum, let King explain.

“I was a piano major in college. Like all of the music majors, I had to join a choir or a band, but I was having trouble finding one that needed a piano player.

“My best friend played the French horn,” King recalls. “I talked her into teaching me. After a month of lessons, I joined the marching band as a horn player, then put it aside after school to concentrate on teaching piano."

From the stage to the streets

There can’t be too many French-horn-playing paramedics; even fewer in Glenwood, Ark.,, population 1,200, where King volunteered at a rescue squad that had been a CB (citizen's-band radio) club.

“It was 1980,” says King. “A couple of friends who were EMT instructors convinced me to sign up. Before I knew it, I was hooked.

“My first call was a car wreck, but before we got there, the son of a doctor in town pulled up at the scene, piled three patients into his car and drove to his father’s house. I guess he thought he was doing the right thing.

“Well, we got rerouted there to pick up those people. Imagine three patients with me and my friend in the back of one of those tiny van ambulances, and somebody driving up front who didn’t know anything except how to get to the hospital.

“After that, I realized I wouldn’t be much help in EMS if I didn’t go to EMT school, so I signed up for class. Five years later I was in paramedic school.”

That was the end of King’s career as a music teacher, but she found some skills transferrable from one occupation to the other.

“Teaching and performing music put me in front of crowds a lot,” she says. “I feel pretty comfortable talking to people. That’s important because on the truck, you’ve only got about 15 seconds to establish a rapport with the patient.”

4-year-old drowning

Thirty-five years is plenty of time to stockpile memories of calls both good and bad. King says one stands out.

“It was a drowning – a 4-year-old girl. Her grandma and grandpa had just brought her home from shopping. When they realized she wasn’t in the house, they went looking for her by a lake out back. They found her in the water face down.

“Grandpa got her out and started CPR. When we got there, she was breathing, but she was still unconscious, pale and cold. We did what we’d always do – give oxygen, warm her up, start lines and take her to the hospital.

“Grandpa was so scared. He asked me at the ER, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ I told him, ‘No, you saved her life.’ A few hours later she was fine. It wasn’t anything we did, but they made a big deal about it in the paper. I still have her picture on my desk.”

Scrawny but sympathetic

In the early 1980's EMS was a male-dominated field.

“I encountered some outright discrimination,” King reports. “One place I worked had bunk beds only for the guys. There was a roll-away bed they’d put in the director’s office if either me or another woman was on duty, but there wasn’t room for both of us on the same night shift.

“There was the time, after I became a medic, that I went on a cardiac arrest with a female EMT. As we got ready to load the patient on the truck, a few of the bystanders offered to help. That was fine, but some of them complained to our boss that he shouldn’t send ‘scrawny women’ out to do a man’s job.

"I wasn't too happy about that complaint. I didn't like being stereotyped as scrawny."

“After that, my boss made a new rule: Females couldn’t work together anymore.”

The staffing rule persisted until there were too many female medics.

King sees advantages to women partnering with men. She thinks women bring their own strengths.

“I think women are better communicators. I mean, you know how women love to talk. Part of it’s empathy. I just think women have an easier time communicating with some patients.

“There are calls when one person clicks and the other doesn’t. When you have a male and a female, it broadens the possibilities of someone connecting with the patient.”

A legacy of caring

Knowing when to leave EMS can be hard after more than three decades in such an adrenalin-charged environment. Even King, who has enough other interests and skills to stay busy, agonized over her decision.

“I can’t imagine not being a paramedic,” King says, “but I’m 65 years old. My knees hurt. I’m losing strength, losing flexibility. I get into positions that are hard to get out of.

“I don’t want to be out there putting patients and partners at risk. That would be selfish. Besides, I’ve made it through all these years without any crippling disabilities. It would be really stupid to go out there now and hurt myself.”

King, who spent the last six years as clinical manager of LifeNet’s Hot Springs facility, leaves this advice for field personnel who want to follow a career path like hers.

“It’s important to know how to deal with people and handle conflict. I always felt it was better to go easy on people when they’ve made a mistake than to just shoot them down. It doesn’t matter how smart you are; if you can’t deal with people, they’re not going to respect you.”

In retirement King is returning to her musical roots. "I dug out my French horn not too long ago and started playing it again. I love it; it’s a beautiful instrument.”

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