Alright, Let's Call it a Draw: The Life of John Pryor

A vivid new memoir offers a personal and intimate account of Dr. John Pryor’s life

Editor's note: Dr. John Pryor never thought he was in any real danger as a combat surgeon. After all, he wasn’t going out on patrols, risking his life dodging IEDs. Unlike the grunts fighting urban combat, he remained within the safe confines of the field hospital. So, no one was more surprised than John when a rocket blast into a Mosul Air Base claimed his life on Christmas morning, 2008. He was 42 years old. A vivid new memoir, written by his brother, Richard, offers a personal and intimate account of Dr. Pryor’s life — from speeding in an ambulance as a teenager, to medical school in Grenada; from operating on trauma victims, to searching the rubble on 9-11 and battling death as combat surgeon in Iraq. To learn more about Dr. John Pryor's life and to order the book, Check out this exclusive excerpt from the book below of Dr. Pryor's first call.

Beep beep beep beep.

The shrill pager shattered the midnight silence, jolting me awake. I flung off the sheets, jumped into my pants and threw on my shirt. The radio squelched, and a voice spoke, "EMS dispatch to Clifton Park–Halfmoon…" I fumbled to grab the pager while zipping up my fly, "… a 9-4, twenty-four Doherty Lane…" hopped along the upstairs hallway pulling on my sneakers, "…86 year old male, difficulty breathing…" nearly tumbled down the steps and burst out the front door.

I clipped the pager to the visor and fired up our Plymouth station wagon. The whirring motor reverberated on the metal roof, and the night swirled in waves of green light. The engine roared as I accelerated down Moe road.

"1975 to EMS dispatch," a voice crackled over the pager.

"1975," repeated the dispatcher.

"1975 en route to the scene."


My hands trembled, fighting the loose power steering as I sped through the night.

9-4, I thought, is that a car accident?

My heart pounded from adrenaline, but my brain was still half asleep. It took a while to mentally wake up.

No, 9-4, that's cardiac.

Terrain blurred as I pushed the pedal to 65. The spinning green landscape made me dizzy. I concentrated on the road ahead.

I feared I would be the last crewman to arrive, holding up the response. I pictured an elderly man struggling to breath, waiting for an ambulance that, in turn, was waiting for me.

I drove faster.

Pulling into the station, I skidded to a halt and jumped out, pager in one hand, my unbuttoned pants in the other. I ran to the back doors and climbed in.

"You in back there?" asked Dwight.

"Yeah, let's go!" I said buckling my belt. The acceleration dropped me to the bench. Pulsating red and white lights reflected in the bay doors. I finished buttoning my shirt and secured the pager to my belt.

Beth Newell, who routinely rode with Dwight, poked her head in the passageway to the front seats.

"Grab the ALS gear and put it on the stretcher," she tossed keys to the drug box cabinet.

I stood in a wide, low stance, fighting centrifugal forces of the speeding ambulance and gathered equipment: oxygen, cardiac monitor / defibrillator and drug box all piled onto the stretcher.

McEvoy's flashing green light marked the house as we approached. We parked and wheeled the equipment-laden gurney to the door. A gray-haired man in white T-shirt and striped pajama pants greeted us.

"This way," he sighed.


Why write a book?

I believe any book must have a premise, a purpose to exist. This book is no exception, and there are many reasons forcing my hand to write it.

First, I wanted to keep the memory of my brother alive for friends and family. I believe his children and grandchildren should be offered a glimpse into the life of their ancestor.

But beyond this, I wanted to share the lessons I’ve learned from John. He taught me to help my fellow man. He respected his ancestry. He championed the poor and indigent. He challenged me to live life without regrets. And he never feared DEATH.

Beyond this, John was incredibly amicable, approachable, warm and comforting. He maintained his sense of humour in midst of despair and crisis. The book is a pale translation of his personality, but it’s the best I can do.

Every home tells a story — furnishings, pictures, smells. Entering a house is the first step in understanding the patient. Keen observation can reveal subtle secrets: a full ashtray, empty gin bottles, bloody clothes, empty pill bottles, medical equipment, clues that tell more than the patient is willing to admit. That first time in a stranger's home I felt like a voyeur. As the years passed, I never resolved the discomfort. I just got used to it.

On the edge of the bed an elderly man leaned forward, hands on knees, gasping for breath. An oxygen tube snaked from nose to portable cylinder. He stared straight ahead oblivious of the strangers in his bedroom. In the dim lamp light, sweat sparkled above cyanotic lips. Deep gurgling rattled with each respiration.

"He's really wet," Dwight removed a stethoscope. Beth started taking a blood pressure.

Wet? I thought.

"Yup," Mike said. He had responded wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

I remained clueless as the crew sprung into action. Even the patient and his son knew more than I did.

"Dad doesn't like taking his medications," the son said. "Do you, Dad?"

The man gave him a scowl before concentrating on his breathing again.

"Here, hold this," Beth thrust an IV bag in my hands. Grateful to finally have a role, I held it high. She spiked the bag, bled the line and tightened the clamp. Mike started the IV while Dwight rummaged in the drug box.

"Sixty?" asked Dwight.

"Eighty'd be better," Mike said

Dwight handed him the syringe. Mike injected the medication while Dwight pulled out the smallest medication bottle in the world.

"Sir, I want you to lift up your tongue…"

"Yeah. I've. Had. That. Before," he said. Dwight dropped the pill under his tongue.

Packed onto the stretcher, we extricated the patient to the ambulance. Beth jumped behind the wheel, and we headed for Ellis Hospital. Dwight opened the ALS radio and requested a medical control physician.

"John," he said, "can you grab another set of vital signs?"

I popped off the bench, plugged in my stethoscope and inflated the cuff. Listening for the pulse, I heard rumbling from the road. I reinflated the cuff and tried again; this time, I bled the cuff slower. I heard the first sound but couldn't make out the second. The patient gave me a worried look as I inflated the cuff a third time.

Dwight paused his report and looked at me for the blood pressure. I suddenly felt like I was on stage.

"160 on 90," I think.

Ellis' emergency department was deserted at 5 a.m.. Balling up the sheet tightly in my hands, we pulled the patient over to the hospital gurney. His breathing was easy, and his color had normalized.

Dwight disappeared to find supplies, and I helped Beth make up the stretcher. A physician approached me, asking questions.

"You'll want to ask that guy," I pointed to Mike, "he's the paramedic."

"The guy with the Mickey Mouse shirt?" he said.

"Yeah," I said, "that's him."

On the return home, Mike tutored me as I assailed him with questions. If I was going to survive this environment, I needed to learn a lot of things quickly.

"He had congestive heart failure, or CHF," he explained. "If the heart fails, blood backs up in the lungs. Fluid leaks into the alveoli and blocks the transfer of oxygen. So you basically drown in your own fluid."

Mike held a Ph.D. and several master's degrees as well as being a paramedic. Despite his credentials, he was humble, never giving the sense of superiority. He taught without condescension and managed to make me feel good about myself no matter how dumb I really was. I quickly realized I wanted to be like him.

We dropped Mike off at his car. He paused before closing the back doors.

"Good job tonight," he said.

Good job? I thought, I held an IV bag and took a blood pressure! I was completely useless.

"Thanks," I said.

"Stay out of trouble," he said and closed the door.

At the station, Beth and Dwight said goodbye and drove off together.

My first ambulance call was done. I was incompetent but, looking back, this day was a transition point. I had transformed from layperson to a health care provider. Admittedly, a naïve, ignorant and clueless provider, but one with potential; in the years to come, I would realize that potential.

Walking toward my car, panic gripped me as I reached for my keys. My pockets were empty.

Oh f***, I thought, where are my keys?

They could be anywhere — the patient's house, the hospital, maybe the ambulance. Then, through the driver's window, I spied them dangling in the ignition.

The car was still running.

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