Smile Politely

Riding in vans with paramedics, part five

Get caught up: Part one, part two, part three, part four.

Scott Adams once famously said: We are all idiots. We are just idiots about different things at different times. When I mention this theory to the guys, Tommy is quick to point out, “Yes, that may be true. But some people seem to have a larger supply of idiocy than others.”

After riding in an ambulance for a night, I might add that some people dilute their idiocy over time, so that it doesn’t result in a major, specific catastrophe. Others concentrate it into a single night, or a single decision, requiring the immediate need of an ambulance and medical attention.

Lest you think I am passing value judgments on these personality types, know that I am a daily idiot. I often don’t wear my bicycle helmet, I eat a lot of saturated fat, I drive far more aggressively than my mild personality can account for. My wife eats well, exercises regularly, and always wears her helmet. But every now and then she will climb a cherry tree for pie ingredients and fall down after reaching for that one last cherry, or roll our family van across an intersection. She’s smarter than me in general, but needs paramedics more.


We have one final call of the night. It’s a weird guy who may or may not be mentally ill, with a hand that may or may not be injured, claiming that other people may or may not have entered his apartment and assaulted him. He doesn’t want to go to the hospital, so we leave the police officers who called us to sort it all out. We head back to PRO Central to finally get started on some paperwork. It’s after 4:00 a.m. I’m certain I won’t stay awake until the end of the shift at 7:00 a.m.

So, after a long night of emergencies in ChampaignCounty, I call it quits. For the record, here’s what I saw: a boy being ten years old, a homeless guy being mentally ill, somone running a yellow light, a drunk, helmetless motorcyclist, a tragically sad girl, a drunk college student, and a weird guy. 

“Guys, this night does not give me much hope for the future of our species,” I say.

“Well, if the night shift gives you no hope for our future,” says Tommy, with a jovial shrug, “the day shift will give you no hope for our present.”

“What gives you hope then?” I ask.

“The calls where we can directly impact someone’s life and truly make a difference. Diabetic problems, strokes, heart attacks,” Dave says. “With those types of calls, we can actually save someone’s life. That makes it all worthwhile.”

“Heck, for many diabetic calls, we’ll go into someone’s home and find them with a blood sugar of next to nothing, unresponsive and close to death. We’ll give ‘em an IV, push some sugar into their veins, and they’ll wake up and be talking and joking with us within minutes, with no recollection of what just happened. Often they don’t want or need to go to the hospital, so we’ll take out the IV and leave, having literally brought them back from the brink of death with the healing power of sugar. And man, that’s an awesome feeling.”

We arrive back at Central, and Dave and Tommy take a short break while I collect my stuff. Dave gives me a PRO pen with which to remember my experiences. I politely decline the “Junior Paramedic” sticker. Tommy gets started on some of the paperwork. I feel like I do after spending a day at Disney World: bone-tired exhaustion, coupled with surreal images from bizarre experiences, all swimming around in my brain together.

I find out later that Dave and Tommy had a major medical call after I left, a severe asthma attack for which they tried multiple meds with no improvement. The patient’s breathing stopped as they pulled into Provena, where they quickly intubated him to get him breathing again. I guess you miss the cool stuff if you leave Disney World before the Spaceship Earth firework finale.


If we are all idiots about different things at different times, the inverse is also true: we are all experts about different things at different times too. Paramedics may be poorly paid, and they may have to spend too much time dealing with cases of questionable validity, but they love what they do, and they do it well.

So if the actual makeup of most emergency calls is cause for concern about the survival of our species, then perhaps our hope can come from paramedics themselves, or even with the system that keeps ambulances idling, waiting to make tragedy a little less likely and a little more bearable.

In a way, it gives me hope that we recognize our collective ability to do stupid stuff. That we have a system in place to protect us from ourselves. To believe in the dignity of human life is to not keep score, to not make judgments about which accidents are worthy and which aren’t. Because sooner or later, you’ll try to make that light or finish cleaning the gutters before the thunderstorm rolls in or eat that one last glazed donut that will finally clog up your heart.

And on that day when I make my own contribution to the collective bank of idiocy (and it’s only a matter of time before I do), I’m awfully glad Dave, Leann, Tommy, and every other EMT in town will be there to drive me to the hospital, along with the many other things they do.

More Articles