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Don’t die from embarrassment

“In my work as an EMS chaplain, I’ve ridden in the back of an ambulance hundreds of times, but this was the first time I was on the stretcher”


There are some things we can’t control – age, gender, family history; and the time, place and bystanders nearby when we need help.

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Ten years ago, my wife and I bought a modest, two-bedroom cabin on a lake in northwestern Wisconsin. It was built 70 years ago, when land around the lake was being subdivided. The properties are fairly close together, half-acre lots with 100 feet of lakeshore. Only two hours from Minneapolis, the spring-fed lake is a popular retreat from the city. Like other vacation areas around the country, the population goes up during tourist season. With the increased number of people, public safety resources sometimes get strained – especially on weekends.

Earlier this month, my daughter and her family were at the cabin for a short getaway. My son-in-law prefers to be there during the week, when there are fewer people around; the lake is quieter and the roads less busy. They invited us to join them for a few days. Monday afternoon, we decided to take a pontoon ride. I got the gas tank from the garage and carried it down the 20 steps to the dock. I was surprised at how tired I was. But after a short rest, I felt OK and we enjoyed a pleasant cruise around the lake.

After dinner, I got up to carry a few plates to the kitchen. My intent was to wash the dishes, but the same feeling I’d had hours earlier came back, this time much more intense. I tried to relax by lying down with a fan on, but I was sweating and unable to cool off. The pressure in my chest went straight through to my back. My first impulse was to minimize the pain. The thought occurred to me that I was glad it was Monday and not Saturday. On summer weekends, there would be more people around, and if we called 911, I didn’t want an audience. As it happened, no one was at the cabins on either side of us, or two doors down in either direction.

My wife and I briefly discussed having her drive me to the local hospital 20 miles away, but I knew we would lose valuable time. She called 911, and minutes later, the ambulance from North Memorial EMS was in the driveway. In my work as an EMS chaplain, I’ve ridden in the back of an ambulance hundreds of times, but this was the first time I was on the stretcher. At the hospital, I learned that I’d had a heart attack. By Tuesday morning, I was in Minneapolis for an angiogram and, ultimately, a stent. Wednesday afternoon, I went home.

Out of our control

I never hesitated to call 911, and I don’t recall being afraid. Fourteen years of going on calls with EMS crews gave me all the confidence I needed that they would take good care of me. The part that stays with me, though, is that I even considered what the neighbors might have thought about an ambulance coming into the subdivision with lights and sirens, stopping at our cabin. Really? Why did I even care?

A 2015 article by Candace Heer sums it up pretty well: “Don’t die from embarrassment – Call 911.” Of all the things to run through my head, once I was inside the ambulance and the IV was being started, I was relieved that I was spared from having any gawking bystanders. I need to remind myself that there are some things we can’t control. One of my doctors told me, “you’re a healthy guy.” If that’s the case, I asked, why did I have a heart attack? Well, there are some things we can’t control – age, gender, family history. And a few other things none of us can control are the time, place and possible bystanders when we need help.

If there is a point to be made here, it is that I’m not alone in my conscious and subconscious fear of being embarrassed. The public service announcement is a simple message that all of us need to hear, and to share with our communities: don’t die from embarrassment. Your EMS professionals are ready and waiting. Call 911.

Russ Myers is a chaplain with Allina Health EMS, St. Paul, Minnesota, and author of “Because We Care: A Handbook for Chaplaincy in Emergency Medical Services.” He can be contacted at