I Was an EMT Until I Couldn't Take It Anymore
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Drive an ambulance, they said, because it’ll be nice and you’ll help people. The nice part? Not so much.
By Boyd Kemper
I became an EMT because I was seeking redemption. I did not get it. I worked nights for years, and I saw the worst of humanity on a regular basis.
I would never sleep on the night shift, just sit by the radio with a book listening for “A-48 come in.” That was the call sign of my truck. You never knew what you were going to get. It could be anything from a machete attack to rape to child abuse to a shooting to an overdose. The worst was when you heard “A-48, man down at [insert address], no further information.”
No further information basically meant all bets are off, be ready for anything. Sometimes it would be nothing, sometimes the world was on fire. There were memorable moments. One time a lesbian couple got into a dispute, and one woman stabbed the other. As I was dressing the wound, a kitten came out of nowhere and climbed into my jump bag.
Nights were fun, though, because when you got a priority 1 call, it was lights, siren, crank the radio. There is no feeling like blasting out into the unknown with a song like “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” playing at an earsplitting volume combined with the lights and siren. You never knew what absurd shit you would see at 3 am. Like the junkie playing the banjo and harmonica and singing outside an emergency room.
You had to be part cowboy to do the job. You had to develop calluses on your soul. You had to accept the fact that you were going to gain an entourage of ghosts from all the times you had your hands on a person as they died. I have my entourage. I saw so many people die while my hands were on them that I lost count. But there are nine or 10 that will be with me until the day I die.
I have been covered in blood many times, not to mention every other fluid a human can expel. I’d go in and shower and maybe I’d sleep but most likely not.
It’s a privilege and an honor to be with someone in their final moments, especially under those circumstances. It’s a sacred thing. And I have my Ghost Queen, or the Queen of My Ghosts, as I call her. On June 14, 2014, at 4:02 am she came to me. And I will never forget her.
She had been dumped, naked and bleeding from her vagina and anus on the side of the road. Her head had been beaten in with a pipe, and it looked like a pumpkin that had been dropped on the ground but didn’t burst — just got cracked and misshapen. I can still feel the bones in her head moving around in my hands. She was screaming when we got there. I can still hear it. She lost consciousness and died soon after, taking her place at the front of the line and becoming my Ghost Queen.
Around this time, I knew my expiration date for this job was approaching.
When I’d get off a night shift at 6 or 7 am, like on a Sunday morning, I had a ritual. I’d get in my car and I’d crank tracks off U2’s Joshua Tree album. I’d hit the bridge doing 80 to a song like “In God’s Country.” Sometimes I’d get pulled over by local or state cops, but once they saw my uniform, and my eyes, and I told them where I was coming from, they would just let me go.
On some occasions when I’d get home, I’d have to go into the backyard and strip down to my shorts and turn the hose on myself before I could go in the house. I have been covered in blood many times, not to mention every other fluid a human can expel. I’d go in and shower and maybe I’d sleep but most likely not.
The job could also turn you mean. To this day I have no patience for drunks. I’d be in the back with a drunk, and if they got rowdy, I’d 4-point them, which meant I’d strap both wrists and both ankles to the stretcher and then give them what I called Oxygen Therapy. Oxygen Therapy was when I’d take a non-rebreather mask and clamp it over someone’s face and hold it there with the oxygen turned all the way on. Then I’d lean in and say, “Listen, motherfucker, I don’t want to hear you say a single word unless you want to say Pabst Blue Ribbon. Say Pabst Blue Ribbon to me.” Most were utterly terrified by that point and had no clue I was quoting Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
But sometimes I’d actually have to hurt someone.
One time a junkie I’d just given Narcan to went for my eyes as I typed the report into the Toughbook laptop. I looked up and saw filthy fingernails coming at my eyes. I parried his arm to the right while simultaneously closing the laptop and slamming him as hard as I could across the face with it. His nose burst like a strawberry. He started crying.
I handed him some gauze to hold over his nose and said his jaw would go next if he came at me again. We were being tailed by a local police department unit because they were going to take him into custody after he was medically cleared. We arrived at the ER and my partner comes around the back of the truck and is standing there with the cop as the truck doors are opened.
See it their way: A crying junkie holding gauze to his freshly broken nose and me sitting there on the bench with my arms crossed. The cop just said, “No worries.”
After six years, I got out. I have never been the same, and I know I’ll never be a civilian again. Every July 14, I have a drink with my queen because, well, because she’s always with me.
- Boyd Kemper, OZY Author Contact Boyd Kemper