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People are the heart of EMS

There are great stories waiting for you on every shift; all you need do is start the relationship


Kelly and Terry.

Courtesy photo

The key to a rewarding career in EMS is not the medicine we practice or the agency that employs us, but the relationships we cultivate. As I told a class of paramedic school graduates:

“Even when technology and the forces of health care finance have radically transformed the face of your profession, there will still be patients, there will still be practitioners, and there will still be peers.

And your relationships with each of them will be what make the difference between your life’s calling and paramedicine being just another job.”

One of the great privileges in being a paramedic and frequent EMS conference speaker is the people I meet. My patients have told me war stories from decorated veterans of World War II, tales of horror and hope from Holocaust survivors, and an insider’s look at the Kennedy assassination from a cop in his motorcade.

These relationships do a great deal to recharge my career satisfaction batteries, and hanging out and swapping stories at EMS conferences with my tribe — without the burden of griping about workplace issues with my co-workers — is a huge part of what makes them enjoyable.

One lady we met who worked as a volunteer EMT in rural South Dakota had only had the opportunity to be the lead EMT 10 times since 1985. She was a member of a small, low-volume vollie squad, and where she lived, most calls she responded to already had other squad members on scene by the time she arrived. Yet, after running less calls in 30 years than I run in a month, there she was, paying for a conference on her own dime, furiously taking notes in every lecture she attended.

Dedication like that reminds you of why you got into EMS in the first place, and makes you roll your eyes every time some career burnout sneers at “EMS hobbyists.”

Meeting the lightning artist and paramedic

At that same conference, I noticed a bearded guy sitting in the back of my keynote lecture, smiling genially and nodding at all the appropriate points. I noticed him in the exhibit hall, and at another couple of sessions, but never had the opportunity to chat.

After the conference, Nancy Magee and I set out on a road trip to see the sights through South Dakota and Wyoming. Nancy is a huge “Little House on the Prairie” fan, so our first stop was at the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in De Smet, South Dakota. While I was dutifully tagging along on Nancy’s sojourn into the books and television series of her childhood (I was a “McCloud” and “Dukes of Hazzard” fan, myself), I noticed a familiar face in the gift shop. It was the same guy I had seen in my lectures.

His name was Terry Bottjen, an EMT since 1980. That year, he started a volunteer EMS squad with an Army surplus MASH ambulance as a first response vehicle. After a few years, that squad evolved into a transport agency known the Hill City Volunteer Ambulance Service. Terry mortgaged his house and art gallery to purchase their first ambulance, and used the art gallery as ambulance headquarters. Within 10 years, HCVAS graduated to a full ALS paramedic service, and after 16 years as agency director, Terry donated the ambulance and all operating equipment and assets back to the town, and set the squad up as a volunteer ambulance district with its own governing board.

Terry has spent 36 years as a volunteer paramedic and agency director at various agencies in the Black Hills of South Dakota, but the fascinating part is that his full-time job was a pastor and artist. Billing himself as “The Lightning Artist,” Terry mastered the technique of rapidly painting large landscapes using 2-inch, 3-inch and 4-inch house painting brushes as his tools. He has painted over a hundred thousand paintings, and can complete a 2’x4' landscape in 15 minutes.

Early in his career, much like I had noticed Terry in the back of one of my lectures, he noticed a guy in the back of one of his painting seminars, sporting a fuzzy red afro. The guy introduced himself as Bob Ross, said he was intrigued by Terry’s technique, and wanted to learn it.

You might know Bob Ross as the star of “The Joy of Painting” on PBS. Next time you watch Bob painting his “happy little trees” on those reruns, remember that it was a volunteer paramedic from South Dakota who taught him how.

If I had never introduced myself to Terry Bottjen, that’s a story I’d never know. There’s a good chance there are similar stories waiting for you every shift; all you need do is start the relationship.

The heart of EMS is in the people you meet. 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.