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Unsung Heroes – Saving Lives Without a Whimper

September 4, 2009

We, as citizens, typically take for granted those who protect us, save us and heal us. When a member of your family works in one of these professions there’s a tendency to pay a little more attention to what these incredible people do every day. I have a huge amount of respect for firefighters. I think that police officers are pretty awesome in what they have to deal with and yet maintain a professional approach. And nurses, especially those working in the high stress and compassionate areas such as ER, oncology and intensive care, walk on water. But I want to focus on one profession that’s very close to me because one of my three daughters works in that area – paramedics.

Our third oldest of four adult ‘kids’ is Joanne (24). Back in high school she loved dissecting animals in biology class; our other three kids would have rather barfed their guts out. By the end of high school Joanne was laser- focused on being a paramedic. There was no dissuading her (not that my wife, Sue, and I wanted to) but Jo (as she likes to be called) would have climbed over broken glass and barbed wire to reach her goal.

When she graduated from her two-year program a few years ago, the Ontario labour market was saturated with paramedic grads. So Jo and her new boyfriend, Chris (also a paramedic grad), slugged it out for two years working for a private ambulance company, earning meager wages but gaining valuable work experience, especially the interpersonal aspect of helping seniors who were being transferred between institutions.

Well, it took a while but both landed on their feet. Chris is now a fulltime paramedic with the Ottawa service, and Jo works parttime with Leeds-Grenville, a rural-based service. But the catch is that Jo, once again, wanted to move forward in her pursuit of helping those in need. She’s now about to enter her second year as a fulltime nursing student. And she works part-time as a paramedic, burning the candle at both ends.

Gen Y often gets labeled as narcissistic, spoiled, lazy etc. But many of this cohort are hardworking, bright young people who have got caught up in a nasty recession and a plunging labour market. If Joanne and Chris are ‘lazy’ or ‘spoiled’ then I would love to see someone who is not and who works harder. For the record, Jo commutes 100 miles round trip per day when attending classes, and then gets called out for paramedic service.

Paramedics have one of the highest occupational injury rates, and most never reach full retirement age. I recall Jo telling me that when she was a paramedic student in Cornwall, Ontario, that one of her instructors had torn a disc in his back when he was extracting someone from a car wreckage. That was the end of his career – and he was only in his 30s at the time. What’s the biggest cause of death among Paramedics? Being hit by motor vehicles.

One thing that really irks me is how paramedics are at the bottom of the EMS hierarchy. I’ve already stated my admiration for police officers and fire fighters. But one paramedic I know recounted the incidence of going into a Tim Horton’s coffee shop. The clerk asked him if he was a police officer (their uniforms are similar, minus the firearm and other weapons, etc.). When he replied that he wasn’t, she said “That’ll be $1.45.” What the hell is that about?? Had it been a firefighter (again, similar uniform), I doubt that they would have received a complimentary coffee or discount. Why are police officers at the top of the food chain? We have some work to do to help the public understand the reality of EMS-based work.

As a student paramedic, I remember Jo telling Sue and me about responding to 911 calls where the victims had died, in one case where the individual was found in rigor mortis by his son. Or the elderly woman who refused to believe that her husband had died in his sleep. Jo was only 21 at the time.

As a licenced paramedic, she has responded to recent calls involving a man being hit by a train; a teenager being incinerated by a car fire; and a mother drowning in a car accident while her husband and children survived. She has performed CPR on more people than she can count – all died, except one. In that case, the victim miraculously revived after being repeatedly shocked with a defibrillator and having CPR performed in the back of an ambulance going at 150 km. And yes, Jo being Jo, took the woman flowers with her partner the next day.

I know when Joanne’s had an event. She phones us but doesn’t say anything about what happened. I just know from her unusual low-key conversation that something not good happened that day. She just wants to talk about it on her own terms. That’s fine.

Jo will be 25 at the end of September but she’s seen more than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. We, as citizens, whether in Canada or America, expect a lot from our EMS people. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re a big-shot CEO, politician, lawyer, engineer, teacher, truck driver, or machinist. NOTHING else matters when your mother, grandfather, child or grandchild is facing a life-threatening situation. All you want is for that loved one to be rescued, saved or healed.

So when you see an ambulance, police car or fire truck coming up behind you or going through an intersection PLEASE yield to them. And when you’re at the coffee shop and you see EMS people coming in, why not let them in front of you. Or better yet, why not smile at them and buy them a coffee. I know that Joanne would appreciate it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 4, 2009 11:03 am

    I must say, I have the best little sister….very proud of the work she does.

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