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Silent night: A paramedic Christmas story

Paramedics’ role is to help people and do the best they can for each patient


AP Photo/John Minchillo

With the holiday season upon us, we’re happy to share this excerpt from Kelly Grayson’s book, “En Route: A Paramedic’s Stories of Life, Death and Everything In Between.” Enjoy — and we wish all our readers and members a safe and happy holiday season!

We cooed over Seth’s baby girl for nearly an hour in the NICU. Med Star called us twice on the radio, asking us when we’d be back in service.

“We’re out of service for OSHA cleanup,” I lied. “My rig is a mess. We’ll let you know when we’re ready to go.” I winked at Seth and his wife as he rocked his little girl.

“We may get to bring her home tomorrow,” Seth whispered. “Some Christmas present, huh?” I nodded and look pointedly at the clock on the wall. “I know,” Seth said, sighing. “We gotta go.”

“Sorry, Melissa,” I apologized as he handed the baby over. “There are little old ladies out there who have fallen and can’t get up.” She said nothing, just smiled and hugged Seth with one arm.

Later that night, we got called to stand by while the local police dealt with a hostage situation. Seth parked the rig on a side street several blocks away, turned off the lights, and settled back into his seat. After a while, he turned to me and asked, “How long you been a medic, Kelly?”

“Ten years,” I sighed. “It feels like more. It seems like I’ve always been a paramedic.”

“What did you do before you got into this line of work?” Seth asked curiously.

“I was a professional retriever trainer, if you can believe that,” I laughed. “Some switch, huh?”

“I’ll say,” Seth chuckled. “What keeps you doing it?”

“The great pay and the chicks, of course,” I said, deadpan.

Seth just frowned. “Come on, man, I’m serious,” he said. “I mean, here we are sitting in the dark on Christmas Eve, waiting for some guy to either shoot someone or get shot by the cops. Today an alcoholic nearly puked blood on us. You deal with drunks and derelicts and drug users. You pull broken bodies out of wrecks. You do boring transfers, shuttling little old folks back and forth between the hospital and the nursing homes. How do you do it without getting burned out?”

“Why are you a cop?” I asked him. “You see most of the same things, and you just took an EMT class. Why do you do it?”

He paused, reflecting. “I guess I just want to help people. But I’ve only been a deputy for two years. I haven’t even taken my EMT exam yet. But you’ve been a medic for ten years. So stop avoiding the question.”

I stayed silent for a while, unsure how to answer.

Why do I do it? Not for the money, certainly. I make good money for a paramedic, but it’s hardly what I’d make as a nurse or physician’s assistant. I dropped out of college, and I keep finding excuses why I can’t go back. So why do I do it?

“I’ve been burned out,” I began, not sure of what I intended to say."Maybe six years ago. The job just wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t feel appreciated, I wasn’t getting paid much, and I didn’t feel as if I made a difference. I took some time off, and I got over it.”

“How?” he pressed, unsatisfied by my answer.

“I figured out that I don’t save lives,” I explained. “Sometimes I get lucky, and we resuscitate someone successfully. Mainly it’s luck and good timing. I came to realize that what we do isn’t lifesaving. My job isn’t about blood and guts. It’s about helping people just like you do as a deputy.

“Your job isn’t all car chases and armed standoffs. You may go your entire career and never fire your weapon. There’s more to it than the adrenaline rush.” I looked at Seth and saw that he still didn’t get it.

“Look, two weeks ago I delivered a baby in the middle of the ice storm. It wasn’t fun. The fun part was seeing the mother’s face after I handed her the kid.”

“Two days ago, I took an old lady to the clinic for wound care on her bedsores. They stank, Seth. She stank, and she knew it. But I cracked a joke or two, made fun of her nurses, and I made her laugh. I held her hand on the way to the clinic, and she smiled at me when I dropped her off.”

“I started an IV on a six-year-old kid yesterday, and he didn’t even cry. He was more scared of the needle than of his broken arm, but I talked him through the stick, and he figured out that the needle wasn’t so bad.”

“We picked up a combative Alzheimer’s patient this morning, and the nurses were sure we’d have to restrain her, that she’d fight us. We talked to her for a bit, and she went with us without a fuss. We earned her trust.”

“Today I got to teach you something. That’s why I do it, for stuff like that.”

“And what about the ones without happy endings?” Seth asked darkly. “What about the ones who you can’t do anything for — the ones who die?”

“Well, you remind yourself that it isn’t your disease,” I answered. “You do the best you can. And you don’t let the things you see harden your heart.”

“Base to all units, stand down,” the radio crackled. “Repeat, stand down. Suspect is in custody. Channel is cleared for nonemergency traffic.” Seth grunted in surprise and flipped on the headlights.

“But that stuff will just eat you up,” he protested as we drove back to our station.

“I didn’t say let it eat you up, Seth. I said don’t let it harden you. You know those big, tough paramedics who don’t let anything bother them? They never last, or they stick around but nobody wants to work with them. They never cry, but they forget how to smile, too.”

“Keep looking for the good stuff,” I advised. “You can always find something good, if you just take the time to look.”

Just then the radio crackled, and an anonymous voice floated over the airwaves.

“‘And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’ Merry Christmas, everybody.”

The radio clicked again and again as units around the parish keyed their microphones in response. I looked at my watch. It was just past midnight.

The dispatcher transmitted a moment later, adding only a quiet “Amen.”

“See what I mean?” I smiled. “Merry Christmas, Seth.”


Reprinted from En Route: A Paramedic’s Stories of Life, Death and Everything In Between by Steven “Kelly” Grayson with permission.
Copyright @ 2016 by Kelly Grayson.
Available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook or paperback.

This article was originally published Dec. 22, 2011. It has been updated. columnist Kelly Grayson, is a paramedic ER tech in Louisiana. He has spent the past 14 years as a field paramedic, critical care transport paramedic, field supervisor and educator. Kelly is the author of the book Life, Death and Everything In Between, and the popular blog A Day in the Life of An Ambulance Driver.