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The 10 books every paramedic should own

As a medic you are a caregiver and a human body mechanic, not a parts replacer; educate yourself like one


"I’m about to start EMT/AEMT/Medic/CCT class, and I’d like to get a head start. What books should I be reading?"

I get that question a lot, and while it is tempting to put my book at the top of the list (I’m still saving for that swanky double-wide I’ve always dreamed about), I’m going to play this straight and recommend books, both inspirational and educational, that have had an impact on my career.

I’m also donning my flame-retardant underoos in anticipation of the inevitable backlash at the books I’ve chosen to include and those I left off the list. So, without further ado, I give you Kelly’s Totally Subjective and Opinionated List of Books Every EMT Should Read, in no particular order. The first five are for all levels of providers, and the last five are best suited to medics, but remember there is no ceiling on how much you can learn.

Inspirational and educational books can impact your EMS career and help you grow as a professional (Picture/Greg Friese)
Inspirational and educational books can impact your EMS career and help you grow as a professional (Picture/Greg Friese)

1. Your textbook

But not for what is in it. No, you want this textbook as a frame of reference for everything that isn’t in it. You’ll want to update this textbook for every new edition that is released, not only to keep you abreast of evolving standards of EMS education but to remind you of how far we still have to come.

Odds are, that textbook was written at an 8th-grade reading level if you’re in EMT class, and a 10th-grade level if you’re in paramedic school. And since most of them are on a five-year revision cycle, a good deal of the information in it is already outdated or disproven by emerging science by the time it actually appears in print.

So remind yourself of that every time some cretin defends an outdated practice because it was in their textbook, or rejects current science because it wasn’t in the book.

2. Thom Dick’s "People Care"

When I started to write about EMS, some of the most common feedback I got was how obvious it was that my writing was influenced by Thom Dick.

I’ll confess something: I didn’t read "People Care" until earlier this year. Now I wish it had been around when I started in EMS. I’d have been a better caregiver, with emphasis on the care. I had read Thom’s columns, but after so many people telling me, "It’s like Thom Dick says…" and an "attaboy" email from Thom himself that I actually printed and saved, I figured I’d see what the fuss was about.

There is a plethora of source material out there on the science of EMS and emergency care, but precious few on the art of it. I discovered on my own that the difference between a good medic and a great one is the compassion and humanity he brings to the application of his technical skills. Had I read Thom’s book, I’d have made that discovery much earlier.

The central message of "People Care" can be summed up by a Teddy Roosevelt quote that many people attribute to Thom because it sounds so much like him:  "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

I’m not sure a book can teach you compassion and people skills that aren’t already part of who you are, but Thom Dick’s book certainly illustrates why they’re so important.

3. Any anatomy and physiology textbook that isn’t written for EMS

Go to a college bookstore, ask them where they keep their nursing or medical textbooks, and pick the thickest, most intimidating one you can find, preferably one with good illustrations and big, hard-to-understand words. Avoid the anatomy coloring books and EMS A&P books that are simply watered-down versions of better texts because of the publisher’s aforementioned dim opinion on the reading comprehension skills of the average EMT student.

Don’t limit yourself to the insipid anatomy coloring books and the required texts in your abbreviated, oversimplified only-what-you-need-to know paramedic A&P class. In fact, you should view with extreme skepticism any course or instructor who purports to teach you only what you need to know, because all too often, that translates to, "I didn’t understand all those big words either and look at me now, I’m a paramedic instructor!"

Believe me, you don’t want to follow that guy’s advice.          

To diagnose what is wrong, and to fix what is broken, you have to know how the human body works. EMS anatomy textbooks are the equivalent of the parts catalog at a major auto parts retailer. They’re good for teaching the ignorant, pimply-faced kid behind the counter how to find a part — which may or may not be the one you need — but they don’t make him a competent mechanic.

You’re not a parts replacer, you’re a human body mechanic. Educate yourself like one.

4. "Paramedic: On the Front Lines of Medicine" by Peter Canning, or "Rescuing Providence" by Michael Morse.

Too many of the EMS novels out there are of the "Look at me, I’m a hero!" variety, and rarely give an unbiased look at the real practice of EMS. Either they paint their central characters in an unrealistically flattering light, or they fall victims to the tropes so common in the EMS genre: every call is life or death, and lives hang in the balance, courageously saved from the reaper’s scythe by those stalwart men and women of EMS.

Picture Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-dûm, only dressed in EMS action adventure pants, wielding a laryngoscope, defiantly shouting, "Yoooouuu shall not coooooode!"

Yeah, not exactly real life.

Plus, most of those authors are paramedics, not writers, and it shows. Michael Morse and Peter Canning are those rare medics who actually possess serious writing chops. If you’re contemplating a career in EMS, read their books. They’re a realistic, warts-and-all peek into the lives (and in "Rescuing Providence", one 24-hour shift) of EMS providers; calls good and bad, tragic and triumphant, silly and sublime, without any sugarcoating.

5. Steve Berry’s "I Am Not An Ambulance Driver" series

Every medic needs to laugh now and then, and Steve captures the cultural zeitgeist of EMS perfectly in his cartoons. I have always held the opinion that EMS is far too serious a subject to take seriously. If that sounds contradictory to you, then you need to read Steve’s books. You’ll find yourself snorting with laughter, while the non-EMS people look over your shoulder and wonder what you find so riotously funny. Occasionally, they’ll invoke a tear as well, and that’s fine. Every panel serves to help empty out that grief box we hide under the bed and pretend doesn’t exist. It’s just good therapy.

6. A good cardiology textbook

And no, I’m not talking "Basic Arrhythmias". There is nothing wrong with Gail Walraven’s book, but you need to pay attention to the first word in the title: basic. Any competent paramedic student should be well beyond the basics before graduation. Generations of medical students learned cardiology from Dale Dubin’s "Rapid Interpretation of ECG’s", and that’s a good start, as is Mike Taigman’s "Advanced Cardiology in Plain English".

But any competent medic these days needs to be well-versed in 12-lead ECG interpretation, and not just the relatively narrow scope of STEMI recognition. Get yourself one or all of the following excellent books:

7. Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide,

The hardcover 8th edition costs $223.82 on Amazon.

Worth. Every. Penny.

Judith Tintinalli’s book has been for years the most widely used and well-regarded text and reference in emergency medicine, and for good reason. It contains a wealth of practical knowledge for emergency medicine providers. Most of it is well above the knowledge level of the average paramedic.

That’s only a bad thing if you’re content being an average paramedic.

If you aspire to be a great paramedic, eventually you will have to seek information outside of the narrow confines of that EMS education box they have constructed for us. Tintinalli’s book is an excellent place to start.

8. Goldfrank’s "Toxicologic Emergencies"

This book has long been the gold standard of toxicology reference texts, the leading evidence-based resource for poisonings. Given the fact that prescription and illicit drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S., a good toxicology reference text is essential for advanced providers.

Whether you need to find the LD50 for Xanax for a 130-pound woman or the latest treatment for accidental Beta-blocker overdose, Goldfrank’s book is your best source.

9. A comprehensive medical dictionary

Every single library, from elementary school on up, has a dictionary. Your EMS library should be no different. "Taber’s" is the most widely known, but "Dorland’s" is also an excellent choice.

Within their pages lies the language of your profession. It behooves you to know how to speak it.

10. A comprehensive drug reference

The "Physicians' Desk Reference" is the accepted standard everywhere you go, but it’s a little too weighty a tome for our purposes. A good nursing drug reference like the "Nursing Drug Handbook", however, is a must for paramedics and critical care paramedics. From looking up potential adverse medication interactions, IV drug compatibility, or figuring out that non-standard medication concentration your referring hospital has hanging, a nursing drug reference is invaluable.

For BLS providers, it can help identify that bewildering array of Grandma’s medication bottles in that Wal-Mart bag, or even worse, the handy-dandy weekly pill organizer with no bottles in evidence.

What’s on your list?

That’s my highly subjective and opinionated list of must-have books for EMS providers. Get 'em in dead-tree format, and if you can afford it, for your mobile electronic devices as well. Got any you think should be on the list of books for EMTs and paramedics? Let’s hear 'em in the comments. 

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