Ambulance Driver

44 W 12th St, New York, NY

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

So I paid $400 to St. Vincent’s nursing school and took their EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) training course in February 1989. I went to class three days a week and I also had to do eighteen hours of rounds at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was like, total misery and insanity. Then I found out that getting your EMT license from St. Vincent’s didn’t mean dick. You’ve gotta get EMS certified by the city guys–the Health and Hospital guys. So I enrolled in the EMS Academy at Fort Tott, all the way out in Bayside, Queens. Most of the trainees there were about twenty-two years old. A lot of lost people without jobs, people society would call losers, riffraff. It was kinda like the army.

We had to go out to Floyd Bennett Field to practice for our driving tests. I hadn’t driven a car since I left Tucson, and I wasn’t a good driver in the first place. So I rented a giant truck and drove around New York and generally tried to get in trouble with it. I was pathetic at first. I got all mixed up. I couldn’t use the mirrors. And you have to be able to do that because that’s pretty much what ambulance driving is all about. But I got better with the practice and I passed the test. I’m a safe driver, now.

Then they had this thing where they take you out in an ambulance as the third guy. You’d sit in the back with two working pros and try to see what’s going on. It was embarrassing because they didn’t want you there and they made you feel totally inept and in the way. You got humble real fast. And of course, the guys I rode with (as well as everyone else at EMS), made fun of my St. Vincent’s qualifications, saying, “What a waste of $400!”

Anyway, I finally finished my EMS training, got my license, and took an assignment at Metropolitan, which is on 96th and 2nd. Most of their calls came in from Harlem, which is where I had done my rotations, so I was happy about that. My first night, appropriately, was Halloween. I went up there, and they teamed me up with Chrissy K., who was a sweet, sweet girl. But if you saw her, you’d think–I don’t know what you’d think–but you wouldn’t think EMS. She wasn’t very strong. She was a little overweight. And she had really thick glasses. And this is who they teamed me up with my first night–ta daaa!–Chrissy K. She had just gotten out of the EMS Academy that August, so she only had three months experience. And it’s, like, 1:00 a.m. and we’re going out into the streets of Harlem. If I’d thought about it much at the time, I would’ve realized it was a little weird, but I didn’t really see this as part of a pattern until later on.

So there’s me and Chrissy, and I’m driving, and I’m thinking, “Yeah. This is cool. This is the job.” I’m making my hundred and something dollars and it’s great. I’m up all night, nobody telling me anything, I’m just cruising around the streets in my ambulance, do dooo doo doo doo, you know, going on calls, talking to the cops. But then the shit hit the fan.

There’s a shooting in a rap club. You can tell where the call is ’cause there’s like hundreds of kids on the street, and cops and every fuckin’ thing, and you get out and everyone’s yelling at you all at the same time, and I’m thinking “What’re you supposed to do? What’re you supposed to do with a gunshot wound? What am I supposed to take?” In the end I just kinda grabbed everything I could think of and ran up the stairs. I took the long board (a stretcher) and the oxygen, you know–everything. I didn’t know what I was doing.

We get up there and a guy comes up to me and says “Hey, man, I’ve been shot in the head.” And he’s walking around, totally lively, actually being kind of obnoxious. And then right nearby is a guy on the floor who’s been shot in the back. So naturally we focus our attention on the second guy–the guy on the floor. And the guy who’s up and walking starts being a jerk. He was like, a smartmouth. You’d never have guessed he was seriously injured, which he was. I mean, he had a bullet in his neck.

I learned later that guys can act like that, and then you take ’em to the emergency ward and you find out that they died. Usually, after a heavy injury, people are all pumped up on adrenaline. You could never tell who lived and who died. Nor did you care to find out.

I don’t think I saw Chrissy K. again for about two months. And this is one of the things that really sucked about the job–the turnover. It seemed like every night I had a new partner. I hardly ever got to trust any of them, or build up any relationships with them. Except sometimes we had bad relationships. You know, like when a person gets to you the minute they start talking, or because of the way they eat. I mean, it’s very hard to get along with somebody when you’re two feet away from them all night. But some of these people shouldn’t have been doing this kind of work in the first place. They didn’t have the training, or the common sense, or the ability to communicate. So this was a problem. And it bothered me the whole time I had the job because you really need to like and trust your partner in an ambulance.

Three or four weeks after I started, we had a young guy, like seventeen years old, who looked like he’d taken too many drugs. They had him in the chair on oxygen, and he was sort of babbling. He said he had AIDS and kidney trouble. And as we put him into the ambulance, he went into this huge seizure, this monster seizure. The paramedics had joined us on this call, so I went with them.

So we’re riding to the hospital, and this guy’s lying there, and he doesn’t look like he’s breathing. He’s got the oxygen on, and I sort of mentioned (remember, I’m new), “Hey, it doesn’t look he’s breathing,” and the medic goes (without looking) “He’s all right, don’t worry about it.”

We get to the hospital, into the emergency ward, and the doctor goes “This guy is in arrest! How come you’re not doing CPR and all that shit?” But it was too late because the guy was dead.

The medics immediately both look at me, sort of like, “Well?” And everybody came down on ME! Because I was new! And the dead guy’s family was there, and they were pissed off. It was really uncomfortable and weird and tragic.

And then I had to write up the form. My partner that night said “Do the right thing, Jeff.” This was right after Do The Right Thing came out. Basically, in this case, it meant “Don’t say that we fucked up.” So I had to kind of hide the fact that anyone had made any mistakes, which felt really bad, and led to a whole feeling of weirdness about the job.

I’d like to say it was an honest mistake. And when you consider all the crap you have to deal with as a driver, it’s mind-boggling. Everyone tries as hard as they can–no doubt about it. But everyone’s overworked, and not everyone is properly trained or experienced. So some cases just slip under the radar screen. Mistakes are made. Patients die. This happened to all of us quite a few times. Things don’t always go right. It’s not because you don’t give a shit, something just goes wrong. You simply can’t be perfect all the time. This guy might’ve died anyway. But the fact that we didn’t give him CPR certainly couldn’t have helped–which sucked.

We did a ton of overtime. The old hands who work in the morning–rookies work at night, and vets work in the day–they would call in sick a lot. Many, many times I’d come in at 9:00 a.m. to finish my shift and they didn’t have someone to fill my spot, so I’d go back out until noon or one and then go home. You had to do at least four hours overtime if someone didn’t show up. It was very tiring.

Still, though, I’d looked for an exciting job, and I’d definitely found one. For a while, I didn’t care about the problems, because everything was so interesting. I had tons of OBS calls–you know, women about to deliver. Sometimes five or six a night. You’d race to the hospital. And nobody wants to deliver a baby, especially in the street. You don’t want that responsibility. There were all kinds of strange calls with all kinds of bleeding. Finally, I delivered my first baby. I got there, and the cops were frantic, “Come on! Come on! She’s delivering!” And of course, as usual, I was with a brand new guy, so I was, like, the old hand, even though I only had six months experience. But, you know, you’re certainly not gonna whine and complain, so I did it.

The baby came out, and I cut the cord, and it was healthy and crying, and it was cute. It weighed eight pounds, and it was a boy. Took him to the hospital and I was an uncle. And then that same night, I delivered another one. Two in one night. Pretty weird.

In the end, I delivered eight in my career. They all survived, even though one of ’em was like, two pounds. After I’d done some, I realized delivering babies wasn’t really that big a deal. I mean, the woman does all the work.

There were lots of bizarre calls. I walked into a kitchen once where some guy had been tied to a chair and shot in the head with a shotgun or something. The entire kitchen was blood–all over the walls like spaghetti sauce. The guy’s head–it looked like he had a flattop–the top of his head was completely flat because it’d all been blown off. He was lying on the floor, still tied to his chair. On those calls, we’d get there, and there really wasn’t anything to do. It was the cops’ deal then. If someone was dead, we weren’t supposed to touch them. Likewise if they were armed or dangerous or too crazy for us to handle. We’d just wait for the cops. The cops were very helpful this way. They had a very hard and dangerous job, and I always respected them for it, even if some of them were kind of assholes or treated us like maids, you know, like clean-up people.

Of course, some of it was hard to take. The grossest thing for sure, hands down, was people with AIDS–rail thin, shitting and puking all at the same time, like a river. And you’re helping them get out of their apartment to go to the hospital, and the stench–you have no idea. It was the grossest, grossest, grossest smell. The fluid they were putting out–the shit and puke–that would have to be the worst thing I ever encountered. You felt terrible, because they were so miserable, and they were dying, and here you were wrinkling up your nose, but it was still very hard sometimes because of the smell.

But it wasn’t that stuff that turned me off to the job eventually. Like I said, some of the times you’d get a partner who wasn’t well-trained, which put you under the gun big-time. And you know, the stakes are high. It’s serious business. You just don’t want all this shit on your conscience if someone fucks up. It started to get to me even when I wasn’t on the job. The newspapers just can’t wait for someone to fuck up so they can slap your name in the headlines, “Man Dies In Queens Waiting For Ambulance,” etc. And I think a lot of the time, those things are honest mistakes, rather than incompetence or laziness. But there were so many of them. It really got to me. I mean, this is New York, and you don’t get more complicated than the logistics here.

We always had the example of Seattle thrown at us: “The response time, in Seattle is so and so. The save time is…” and that was fucked, because it was, like, a bunch of white boys running around with no traffic. Seattle always had the best response times. It was really annoying. I mean, I like Nirvana, but there wasn’t much else I liked about Seattle.

So, finally, after a couple years, I had the choice of going back and getting more training and becoming a paramedic. That was the next level up, and I guess I realized that I just didn’t want to invest anything more in the job. I’d gotten what I’d came for and I was sick of worrying all the time about screw-ups. How many times do you wanna watch someone die and feel like they could’ve been saved?

I don’t mean to say that many, or even most of the people I worked with weren’t great, though. They were. It’s just that everyone was under so much pressure. To this day, whenever I see someone driving by in an ambulance, I think, “Wow. Good for them.” I just don’t wanna do it anymore.

Edited by Sabin Streeter.
This is part of a series on Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood brought to you in collaboration with the editors of GiG, a book of interviews with people about their jobs. Click here for more information about GiG.

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