Book excerpt: ‘American sirens’
Paramedic Kevin Hazzard recounts the incredible story of the Black men and women who became America's first paramedics
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from “American sirens: The incredible story of the Black men who became America's first paramedics,” by Kevin Hazzard.
In “American Sirens,” acclaimed journalist and Paramedic Kevin Hazzard tells the dramatic story of how a group of young, undereducated Black men and women forged a new frontier of healthcare. He follows a rich cast of characters that includes John Moon, an orphan who found his calling as a paramedic; Peter Safar, the Nobel Prize-nominated physician who invented CPR and realized his vision for a trained ambulance service; and Nancy Caroline, the idealistic young doctor who turned a scrappy team into an international leader. At every turn, Freedom House battled racism. Their job was grueling, the rules made up as they went along, their mandate nearly impossible – and yet despite the long odds and fierce opposition, they succeeded spectacularly.
It took Ragin screaming in their faces on the corner of Fifth and Market for people to notice him. That’s how easy he was to ignore. Thin, light-skinned, glasses. And those clothes, you know the clothes, almost a uniform for people living on the streets—dirty jeans and too-large shoes, shirt upon shirt upon shirt. The sort of guy people ignore until he’s shouting at them, and then it’s like he appeared from nowhere, by magic, a problem without a source, angry and raising hell over crimes committed against him yesterday or the week before, maybe a decade before. But he kept turning it up and eventually got so combative someone called the cops, which says something about how worked up he was, considering, in the early ’80s, Pittsburgh’s Market Square was overrun by crime and drugs, by pigeons. By countless men just like this one. People did their best to keep moving, one look—don’t look—and you’re sucked in. Now they were sucked in, all those people staring. And not one of them knew his name.
Across town, John Moon sat in a four-wheel-drive Suburban with his job (Pittsburgh EMS) and title (supervisor) painted on the door. Outwardly John seemed constructed to blend, with his average height and weight, those soft features. Inside he was a bundle of contrasts. Northern raised but a Southern accent. Mid-thirties but a string of past lives. Loved Angela Davis and the afro but polite to the point (almost) of deference. He wore silver-framed glasses that he occasionally slid back into place with a long, thin finger. Inside his car, the radio played softly, a Jackie Wilson song maybe or the jazz guitar of Wes Montgomery. His truck was spotless, gleaming, the uniform freshly pressed. Everything about him, all that he owned, was carefully tended with the meticulous pride of a man who once had nothing. Outside his window, clouds slipped past in the Pittsburgh sky.
Back at Market Square, the police arrived with a slam of car doors. Ragin was wound up, and they watched from a distance, sifting through a thousand scenarios for the one that brought this ... whatever you wanted to call it, to an end the quickest. Contain and control. One of the cops reached for his radio.
The two-way in John’s truck crackled. Along with radio traffic from his crews on the street, he kept an ear on the police radio too. Better to know what’s coming before it arrives. What arrived that afternoon, floating up from the speaker in a burst of static, caught his attention: “Black male at Fifth and Market. Possible psych. Combative.” John knew without having to be told that it was Ragin in the street. That he could get angry and loud and that when he did, people got nervous. He knew that Ragin had peered over the edge and slipped, that he’d come untethered from reality and probably he was harmless, but the cops didn’t know that, and they were in charge now. What they did next could be anything. John slipped the key into the ignition, turned it, and pumped the gas pedal until the Suburban roared to life.
Downtown Pittsburgh is a near-perfect triangle of land formed by the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers as they join to create a third, the Ohio, a confluence marked by the site of the eighteen-century remains of Fort Duquesne—a trophy from the French and Indian War known now as Point State Park. A few blocks to the east sits Market Square, and it’s here, next to an oyster house that was once (maybe) a stop along the Underground Railroad, that John found Ragin wrestling with the cops.
John cursed out loud, then yanked the wheel and pulled the Suburban to a quick stop along the curb, reaching for the two-way radio to tell the dispatcher he was on-scene.
“Medic 30.” Already throwing the truck into park.
“Go ahead, Medic 30,” the dispatcher called back.
“Show me out at Fifth and Market.” Swinging open the door. Market Square tingled with the electric pulse of danger. The crowd was jittery and tense as Ragin—scared, angry, and disoriented, rapidly coming unspooled in the street—screamed at the cops, who in turn had a hold of his arms and were trying to drag him to the ground. The cops hadn’t yet hit him or cuffed him, but John could feel their anger and frustration even from here, on the outer edges of the crowd. He stepped into the clearing.
“Mind if I try?”
One of the cops swung his head just enough to catch the white gleam of a uniform as John, hands on hips, drew to a stop with the deliberate assurance of a conductor appraising his audience. This nonchalance was a learned habit, the product of over a dozen years on an ambulance, leaping daily onto the back of emergencies big and small. To practice medicine in the street a paramedic must first gain control of the environment—come in too hot, swept up in the panic and rush, and everything goes to hell. Instead, John approached Ragin and the cops, too, the way he would any scene. Like a drop of reason in the swirling waters of chaos. He nodded toward Ragin.
“I know him. Why don’t you let me have a word?” John’s voice was gentle, half an octave higher than you’d expect, a syrupy Southern accent kids had once mocked him for smoothed over by time to a rolling lilt. He now had both cops’ attention and kept talking, asking how and when all this started, and after a moment—John standing there the whole time, an easy presence within arm’s reach—they let go of Ragin. With the fighting stopped, the screaming stopped too. Tension broke all at once like a release valve had finally burst open, and at last everyone could breathe.
John stepped forward, the crowd still watching. He kept his hands relaxed at his sides, his voice just loud enough to be heard.
“How’s it going, Ragin?” Nothing. “What’s going on?”
John kept at it, easing close but not too close, trying to penetrate the fog of psychosis or alcohol or drugs—or maybe all three—not to mention the fear and anger, the confusion of the moment. When he got within whispering distance, Ragin finally turned to him, his face twisted and angry, eyes vacant. John pressed on.
“It’s John.” A smile. “Remember?”
A look of recognition flashed in Ragin’s eyes, though it might’ve been only the recognition that John’s was a friendly face. He relaxed as the coiled spring inside him slowly went loose. That was the signal the cops had been waiting for, the evidence of de-escalation that freed them from having to fix the situation, and they slowly returned to their car with an air of nothing-to-see-here that rippled through the crowd.
As everyone left, John ushered Ragin to a low stone wall, where the two men leaned in silence while Ragin caught his breath. These two had once known each other, in a different time, another life, but to look at the man before him now made John’s heart sink. This wasn’t Ragin, not really. John had bumped into him here recently, on a good day, when Ragin knew who and where he was, yet even then John could see the issues. Covered over but not hidden, exacerbated by alcohol and drugs.
What set him off this afternoon John couldn’t say, though how the two of them ended up here, at Market Square, one wearing a supervisor’s uniform, the other a moldering bundle of clothes, was a story neither new nor unique whose details, like song lines, reached back over decades and across borders to trace the geography of their lives. It started just a few blocks from where they now stood, in the basement of Presbyterian-University Hospital, when a small group of Black men—some forty-four students in all—were selected to take the world’s first paramedic course. Nothing of its kind, not even the word paramedic, existed at the time, and yet they dedicated themselves to it, paused and even walked away from their lives for it. Nearly a year of intense study followed, a long swim in water so deep that half of them, submerged to near-drowning, didn’t finish. Those who did would go on to staff a pioneering ambulance service called Freedom House, work that would change the world, truly, and inspire a whole nation—John included—to follow them. Ragin had been one of those men.
He’d been part of a new era in emergency medicine, took ideas, practices, and technology just then being developed and carried it all out into the street to serve a population who for decades had little access to health care and even less reason to believe that, when it finally arrived, it would be delivered by their own neighbors. He was part of the front line, forever changing how Americans live and die.
Excerpted with permission from, “American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics,” by Kevin Hazzard.
Published by Hachette Books (2022).
Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., and on Amazon.
About the author
Kevin Hazzard is a journalist, TV writer and former paramedic. His first book, “A thousand naked strangers: A paramedic's wild ride to the edge and back,” was published in 2016. He now writes for film and TV, with work produced by Hulu, CBS, ABC and Universal. His journalism has been published at “99% Invisible,” “The Atvatist,” “Men's Journal,” “Creative Loafing,” “Atlanta Magazine,” and elsewhere. He is also a sought-after voice on emergency medicine. He lives in Atlanta.
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