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EMS World Expo: A call to reflect and serve in keynote

Mike Smith went on to highlight 10 key tips for longevity in EMS during the address in Las Vegas


Image Drew Johnson
Mike Smith told the audience for the 2011 EMS Expo keynote adress that medicine isn’t a job, it’s a calling.

The reasons why some EMS providers join the profession — and how medics can ensure a long and happy career — came under the spotlight at EMS World Expo in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

In his keynote address to kick off the event in Las Vegas, Mike Smith took a deep look into the heart of the profession, and he also gave his advice for maintaining a long career in a very difficult field.

Smith, a paramedic in Tacoma, Wash., and program chair of the EMS department at Tacoma Community College, said both 9/11 and last week’s deadly hurricane are stark reminders of the sometimes fatal toll the job can take.

Beginning the address, Smith asked the audience to look into the various ways medics have invested in their careers.

There’s the time investment, with many medics giving years, even decades, of their lives to EMS and often sacrificing their personal time to pick up extra shifts. Then there is the emotional investment medics, as caregivers, must make, many of them neglecting to maintain a sense of balance in their lives.

Smith also highlighted the physical toll EMS takes. After nearly 40 years in the business, his knees are wrecked, due in no small part to the jury-rigged and band-aided equipment medics had in the early years of EMS. It’s an all-too-common problem that medics at all levels struggle with.

“Now we have all these great tools, but it’s still a very physical job,” Smith said. “There’s still plenty of going up and down stairs.”

So, what causes people to keep joining the profession, despite these heavy costs?

Smith pointed to several different personality types that are drawn to EMS. There are those that are drawn to the allure of what he called “Red lights and sirens,” adding that this type is often the first to turn tail at the first difficult “vomit episode.”

Wounded helpers —– those who experienced a medical catastrophe in a loved one at a young age — and those with a hero complex are two other types Smith said are drawn to EMS.

Heroes, wounded helpers, and the red lights and siren type all share a profound misunderstanding of what their profession requires, a misunderstanding probably intensified by inaccurate TV shows.

Television programs that glorify EMS and tempt so many to the profession neglect to represent the challenges medics face, Smith said. They neglect to highlight the most important aspect of the job: the chance to be of service.

“We don’t do this job because we get thanks from our patients or because we get to go on all those ‘good’ calls that TV medics do,” Smith said. “Service is what separates us.”

He argued that it’s incumbent on the current leadership in EMS to seek out and nourish young medics who exemplify this love of service. “We don’t want the wrong people in our profession for the wrong reasons. We want the right people for the right reasons, and we want to keep them here,” Smith said.

Doing so would require a commitment to principals that keep medics healthy — physically and emotionally — in the long term. Smith highlighted these 10 key tips for longevity in EMS:

1) Always be ready to learn — never stop being curious

2) Hope for the best but plan for the worse

3) Accept the unfairness of life – bad things happen to good people, and medics can never change that

4) Like what you do, and do what you like

5) Know that what you do is important — every day you reach out and touch lives you make a difference

6) Get and stay in good physical shape — you’ll get hurt less and recover faster

7) Build relationships and a strong support network — your friends will help you through the dark times

8) Expect to be humbled by the complexities of medicine, and don’t take it personally when you don’t know something

9) Cultivate and nurture a great attitude

10) Achieve and maintain a healthy balance — do not let yourself be consumed by medicine

“Medicine isn’t a job, it’s a calling,” Smith said as he implored the medics in attendance to examine the reasons they were drawn to EMS and the ways they could thrive in the profession.

He closed by asking the audience to look to the future generation of EMS practitioners. “If the calling is for you, then you think about others, about the next generation of caregivers,” he said. “They’re the ones that’ll be taking care of us someday.”