Interview with a Paramedic / Firefighter

What paramedics & firefighters can teach us
about health & humanity

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wayne Fitzpatrick, and as soon as I found out he was a paramedic and firefighter, my mind instantly started wondering about all the things he saw in his job. I had a million questions. Which I probably asked. And I thought, how interesting it would be to interview him so he could share his wisdom and knowledge about not only health and all the terrible things that could happen to the human body, but what his years on the job have taught him about humanity.

You may be wondering about the connection to Chinese medicine. I will say this. To keep me healthy and for most ailments I have acupuncture. I take Chinese herbs to keep my immune system strong and take different formulas when I am not feeling my best. When I am stressed out or can’t sleep I put seeds in my ears. When I am run down I will make myself a nice congee (rice porridge). If I’ve got a cold or flu, I burn moxa. I try not to eat ice cream. I meditate twice a day. I use all the wisdom that Chinese medicine has taught me, and incorporate it into every aspect of my life. I have enormous respect for Chinese medicine and all its wisdom. But, I also know that if I were in an accident, crashed in a car, broke a bone, got shot or any other serious traumatic event, it is the paramedic and firefighters who are the ones who are going to save my life. They are the first on the scene, and they are the ones who know what to do, in an instant, to keep you from dying. So, I believe that using the right tool for the right job is important for health and everything else in your life. Got a cold? Acupuncture is awesome. So are herbs, gua sha, food therapy and moxibustion. Head trauma? Car accident? You want a paramedic, who knows what to do so that you will have the best chance of survival. So, to get a little more info about this exciting/dangerous/intense job, I sat down and asked Mr. Wayne a few questions…

1. What do you do and how long have you been doing it?

I am a Firefighter/Paramedic with Sarasota County Fire Dept. I was hired March 1, 1983, so I have been with the department just over 30 years.

2. How did you decide to become a Paramedic?

I’m not sure if I decided to become a paramedic, or destiny made the decision for me before I was aware of it. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a medic. When I was a child, I loved watching war movies, and my favorite part of every war movie was when the men were in the heat of battle, the wounded would scream, “MEDIC !!”. And you would see the guy come running into the scene with his red cross helmet and arm band to the rescue. He would always reassure the wounded soldier everything was going to be okay. He’d bandage him up and whisk the wounded man away to the hospital. I loved that ! When I was a kid all the neighborhood kids would get together and play “army”. I was always playing a medic. I remember standing on the street corner watching the local ambulances go screaming by to an emergency picturing myself as the one driving to the rescue. I had always wanted to go into the military and become a Navy Corpsman so that I could go into combat with the Marine Corps. Unfortunately, I suffered from a childhood injury to my left leg that affected the circulation. After I graduated high school in 1980, this same circulation problem disqualified me from joining the military. Several months after I graduated high school, I moved from Massachusetts to Englewood, Florida to work for my uncle’s construction related business. At the time, Englewood had their own emergency ambulance service, and shortly after moving there I started to hang out at the ambulance station. In August of 1982 Englewood Ambulance sponsored me through EMT school and hired me as a driver/attendant in December of 1982. On March 1, 1983, Englewood Ambulance ceased to exist and I was hired by Sarasota County as an EMT. I went to Paramedic School a year later, and then firefighting school and they haven’t been able to get rid of me in over 30 years. It’s been a great career and I haven’t one day of regret.

3. What have you discovered about people meeting them, often on the worst day of their lives?

In my 30 + year career, I have treated thousands of people from all walks of life. From the homeless and destitute, to the rich and famous, and everyone in between. The biggest discovery I have made is that despite gender, politics, socio-economic status, fame or infamy – we all suffer from the same vulnerabilities, the same fears. A homeless person and a rich and famous person can both suffer heart problems, or respiratory problems, or traumatic injuries, or any other malady. When a medical emergency arises, especially where a person’s life may be in the balance, it tends to be a great equalizer when it comes to vulnerability and fear. It’s at that moment that despite their station in life, the only question on their mind is, “am I going to make it through this situation ?”. As a paramedic, I follow a standard set of treatment protocols set forth by our medical director because the human body is the human body no matter who it belongs to. I had a patient one time who came from a very prestigious background and she was mortified that what she was going through could happen to her. She was embarrassed and worse than that, was so consumed with what her small circle of friends would think of her because she had never seen or heard of such a condition happening to anyone she knew. As I was transporting her to the hospital I began to explain in detail what was occurring, and then pulled out my protocol book to show her the pre-written instructions given to us paramedics by the medical director on how to care for her condition. I reassured her that despite the fact that she may not have seen or heard of her condition in her small circle of influence, her condition was very common and easily addressed, which was why we had a standard procedure to care for the problem. On one hand I don’t think she appreciated being lumped with the “common people”, but at the same time, she was comforted knowing she wasn’t suddenly a freak of nature.

4. What are some of the best things about your job?

In my 30 + years on the job, no two hours have ever been the same. My job has been and continues to be dynamic and exciting. One minute you’re sitting in the station chilling out and the next minute all hell can break loose. Heart attack, stroke, respiratory problems, cardiac arrest, car crash, shooting, suicide, etc., etc. You never know what kind of situation you are going to find yourself in at any given moment. Saving someone’s life – knowing that they were facing certain death if you hadn’t intervened and being able to snatch them back from the jaws of death, there is no greater feeling. That happens on the job all the time. Lives get saved by paramedic crews constantly because we are able to be there in a short amount of time, and we are given the training to recognize the threat and the tools to treat the threat to the patient’s life, and intervene on their behalf. I love working the streets because we get involved in emergency situations soon after they occur. It’s raw, it’s fresh, it’s emotional, it’s uncontrolled and chaotic. When we arrive on scene we bring control and order to an uncontrolled and chaotic situation. There is no other feeling like being on the front lines and knowing you’re in the middle of it and you’re making a positive difference.

5. What are some of the worst things about your job?

There are two parts of my job that I consider major negative sides and that is knowing that despite my best efforts someone is going to die, or have their life changed forever. When dealing with an elderly population, some of their medical conditions are too serious to make a positive difference. They may have a failing heart or a failing respiratory system. They call 911 when their symptoms hit. They are alive and conscious when you get on scene but you size up quickly that their cardiac or respiratory system is failing. Despite aggressive treatment and intervention from the rescue crew and then the emergency room team, their condition is not responding and they ending up dying right in front of you. This has happened many times in my career. The other part that is a negative, is seeing that someone’s life and how they live it is changed in the blink of an eye. This happens with something such as a stroke, or a traumatic injury, such as a car crash. You see a once vibrant and active person go from physical independence to dependency in a matter of seconds. As I have gotten older in this business, and have suffered a few of my own health issues, I have come to appreciate every moment that much more because any of these could also happen to me. Those are the two major negatives that stand out, but there are many more. The innocent victims, both adults and children, who suffer because of someone else. The abuses of the 911 and emergency room system ( which is an entire rant in itself that I want get into here ).

6. What have you learned about humanity from your experiences as a paramedic?

The one aspect of my job I have learned in my 30 years of experience, is that despite a patient’s station in life, they all want the same thing. To be treated with respect and kindness. The technical side of my job – my knowledge, my skills, etc. although they must be top notch at all times – pale in comparison to the need for exceptional bedside manner. I could be the most intelligent, most knowledgeable, most technically proficient paramedic that ever existed, but if I am cold and distant and exhibit a poor bedside manner, many patient’s will feel as if I didn’t give them my best.

7. What have you learned about the human body?

Seeing all that I have seen and doing all that I have done in 30 years, I have learned that the human body is an amazing design. It’s vulnerable yet resilient. It’s weak yet it’s strong. A major traumatic injury occurs and with a few months of healing and rehab and the person is back to full activity. A small bee sting, and the body can shut down and kill you. It can take a lot of abuse and keep coming back for more, or it can suffer what appears to be a minor illness and the next thing you know a person is dead. I can sit here and discuss anatomy and physiology and give you details of why this works and why, yet at the same time, there are times I can’t explain why and what for because the body is that complex. All I know is that despite your personal beliefs of how and why we have the bodies we do, it’s a wondrous marvel that still fascinates me when I think about all it can do for us on a daily basis.

8. What kind of things do people say to you when they think they might not survive the trip to the hospital?

Many times the patient knows something isn’t right and they express concern that they are going to die. From the patient, the statements have always been about the same – “Am I going to die ?” or “I think I’m about to die”, or other such statements. I have had people ask for prayers, express confessions of past deeds, contact family members to tell them they loved them, and other such comments. It can be very surreal sometimes.

9. How do you keep your heart open without being overwhelmed by all the difficult things you see in your job?

Cynicism, anger, criticism, hard heartedness can occur very easily if I am not careful. We see a lot of negative on the job, and often times you close your heart as a protective measure, more out of necessity rather than a conscious choice to do so. For me, how I keep an open heart, is to remember I am dealing with people, not conditions. I am constantly reminding myself that I am dealing with flesh and blood, emotional people that are at their worst having a bad day. One way I have been able to do that is to take more of a customer service approach. Instead of trying to fit the patient into my preconceived molds and ideals, I ask them, what are your concerns and how can I address them. I have a saying, “Always be a hero in the eyes of the public”. So whenever I get on a scene, I ask them what is their concern and how can I meet their need. As the call progresses, it’s about making sure I have addressed their concerns and that they feel that I am meeting their needs. Most of what I respond to is medically necessary but not necessarily a life threatening emergency. So it goes back to the issue of bedside manner. I also try to inject humor when it’s appropriate. As a way of assessment and reassurance, I always tell them, when you see me get worked up and excited, then you’ll know there a problem, and I don’t get worked up and excited. When appropriate, I try to make it an enjoyable experience. No one wants to be sick, injured, dead or dying and I try to make the 911 experience as pleasant as appropriately possible.

10. What do you do to help you cope with the difficult things you see in your job?

That is an excellent question and an extremely difficult task. When I was brand new to emergency services. I was a new EMT student and I had two calls that shaped my response to things I saw. The first was my very first cardiac arrest patient. We arrived on scene and the patient was already without breathing or a heart beat. I was shaking like a leaf as I performed CPR and the paramedic crew worked to save his life. We transported to the emergency room, the ER staff continued to work on him for a while longer until the doctor finally decided saving his life was futile and pronounced him dead. Everyone walked away and went on about their business. I stood there, stunned. “Wait a minute ! What do you mean he’s dead ? Aren’t we supposed to save lives ? How can he be dead ?”. The second was not too long after that. A car crash – a van vs a motorcycle. Two people on the motorcycle and both were lying in the middle of the road – dead. A paramedic told me to get a sheet to place over the bodies. I had the sheet in my hand and I was standing over one of the bodies, staring in disbelief. The paramedic came up to me, yanked the sheet out of my hand and got right in my face and screamed, “Boy, this is the reality of this job. People die and there’s not a damn thing you can do about. If you can’t handle it, go back to the station, get your ass in your car and don’t ever come back !” That same night, the paramedics debriefed me on what I will experience on the job and how to handle it. They reminded me that I didn’t cause the problem and I can’t take what happens personally. We do the best we can but even the best isn’t good enough sometimes. People die and that’s just a reality. It’s important that you talk with someone about what we see and do on the job. Post-traumatic stress is very real in EMS and you have to have an outlet to vent your feelings. But it has to be to someone who is qualified to hear what you have to say, either a co-worker or a professional counselor. You don’t want to transfer the emotions you feel to a civilian or non-professional because despite how much they may love and care for you, they will not have the skills to know what to do with what you told them. You also have to leave the job on the job. When I go home, I go home. My job is my job, not my life. You have to have hobbies and creative outlets. You have to eat right, get rest and exercise. I have also found that I have to make friends with my nightmares. Sometimes what we see and do can cause nightmares; again, related to post-traumatic stress. Aside from all the recommendations above with having healthy outlets, you have to make peace with your dreams. Don’t let them intimidate you, but instead, make friends with the images because they are going to be part of your psyche for a long time.

11. Do you have any stories?

I do have stories, of all kinds and many shapes and sizes. I have sad stories, happy stories, bizarre stories, funny stories, gross stories, and stories that if I didn’t see it for myself I’d never believe it stories. Time and space do not permit me to share them here, but maybe for another interview.

12. How has being a paramedic changed your view about life and death?

I see death on a regular basis, and I have learned to appreciate life for the fragile and wonderful gift it is. I used to be invincible. Injury, illness and death was what happened to “other” people. I was the paramedic. I was the one who rescued the sick and injured, dead and dying. As I have gotten older and have been experiencing my own maladies and vulnerabilities, it’s made me a better paramedic. No longer do I look at patient’s as an outsider but rather I have learned to be more empathetic. My bedside manner has gotten better, because I no longer see myself as an “It won’t happen to me” type of person but now I am “one of you”. I’ve learned to appreciate life more. I’ve learned to stop and smell the roses. I’m more prone to hold a patient’s hand than I am to keep my distance. Death still mystifies me – one minute you’re here, the next you’re gone. I don’t try to analyze it or explain it – I just know that death is real, and it makes me appreciate my life and loved ones all the more.

13. How has your experience being a paramedic changed you?

I appreciate my life and loved ones more, especially as I get older. I am at the age and experience that I know it’s just a matter of time before I see my life winding down to the end. Dealing with elderly patients and their medical concerns, I know that at one time they used to be young and vibrant, and now they are facing their own mortality. My 30 years in the field have given me a front row seat to the seasons of life. I see the young kids coming up behind me and I encourage them to enjoy the journey. I see the elderly reaching out to me, reminding me that my time will soon come so enjoy the time I have left. How has being a paramedic changed me ? I live for today – enjoy the moment. I try not to walk over dollars while looking for a dime. Our lives can change in an instant for a myriad of reasons – often times not of our own fault. Don’t take any breath for granted. Enjoy the sunrise, as well as the sunset. I’ve learned to live – learned to love – and more importantly, have learned to forgive, others as well as myself.

14. What do you think happens to us after we die?

A loaded question to say the least. Based on what I have seen over the years, I believe that there is a spirit inside of us that departs when we die. When you look into the eyes of someone who is living, you see a spark, a twinkle. When you look into the eyes of someone who is sleeping, you still see that spark, that twinkle. But, when you look into the eyes of someone who has died, it’s obvious that something is missing. When you look at the body of someone lying down, it has a sense of “air” to it. When you look at the body of someone who is sleeping, it still has that sense of “air” to it. But when you look at the body of someone who is dead, you can see that the “air” has gone out of it. The body suddenly looks “heavy” and deflated, as if something were taking away from it. Having studied world religions in college, and having some insight to the varying religious beliefs that are in the world, there seems to be a common thread that “something” departs and seems to go “somewhere”. As to my personal belief as to what happens to us when we die, I’m still on my own personal journey of discovery. I don’t believe that we just cease to exist and we are now worm food. I believe that we have a spirit, and that spirit lives on, hopefully in a much better place than we had here. But if religious scholars and even those of the same belief system can’t agree on exactly what happens to us when we die, it would be presumptuous of me to think I knew the true answer. It is my prayer, that whatever happens, I’ve lived a worthy life during my time while here.

15. Do you live your life differently because of your experiences as a paramedic?

A definite YES. Seeing how life is so fragile, and so short, I don’t want to take anything for granted. I live and enjoy each moment. I enjoy my family, my friends. Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet. There is a saying that says, “You don’t stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing.” It’s about always being young at heart, and not getting hung up on your limitations, but maximizing your strengths and gifts. Bob Dylan said it best: May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true May you always do for others, and let others do for you May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung May you stay forever young May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true May you always know the truth and see the light surrounding you May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong May you stay forever young May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung May you stay forever young May you stay – Forever Young So, as I am winding down my career as a Firefighter/Paramedic, I made myself a “living bucket list”. What do I want to do with the rest of my life when I leave the fire department. I believe that humor is a tremendous healer and laughter can be a wonderful medicine, so I decided to become a professional entertainer. I am going to perform comedy, as a comedian/ventriloquist and comedy magician. I am putting together shows that are encouraging and uplifting. When people leave one of my shows I want them to feel encouraged, refreshed, and uplifted. Both George Burns and Bob Hope performed until they were 100 years old, so I am going to keep on laughing til my dying breath, staying, as the song says, Forever Young !

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Years ago after my first CPR/First Aid course, I wrote a blog post about my experience. This three days gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for the difficult job of the paramedic. I have posted it as a bit of a preface to this article. It is called – First Aid / CPR is Hard Core.