The Way You Do the Things You Do

Cops are gruff and authoritative. Librarians are helpful and a bit bookish. When a plumber bends over you can see his crack.

We’re all sophisticated and modernized folks here, so we understand that stereotypes aren’t true. Moreover, their broad, unthinking application can lead to many errors and evils.

Still, there’s often a certain amount of truth to them, or at least a systematic error behind them, and it can be worthwhile to ponder on this kernel. Why, for instance, do we associate certain personalities and affects — certain demeanors — with certain professions?

There are doctors of every shade out there, but what do you typically expect when you meet one? Probably his shoes are tied (and even polished) and he looks well-groomed. He shakes your hand and looks you in the eye. He listens carefully, expresses himself clearly, and generally presents the image of a serious and dedicated professional.

Nurses? Again, there are more varieties here than at any Baskin-Robbins, but we find that some traits are common. A bit hurried and no-nonsense, you might say, and a little feisty. Yet deep down, they’re caregivers at heart. And they wear comfortable shoes, and they dig free coffee.

My point is, we have these stereotypes because to a certain extent, the jobs dictate, demand, and develop certain types of behavior. The physician spent twelve years working towards this job title, a large portion of which was spent either trying to get himself accepted somewhere important or being instructed on how he should look, talk, and think. The nurses, they spend eight hours a day walking quickly from bed to bed, playing middleman between the vagaries of difficult patients, difficult doctors, and difficult bureaucracies. Imagine how you’d behave.

So, once we’ve put in enough time that we’re walking the walk and talking the talk, how do we behave in EMS?

Mostly, we behave with a kind of breezy insouciance. One part humor, one part world-weariness, one part quiet competence (if not outright cocky arrogance), and a large dash of sarcasm and cynicism (which we hopefully remember to switch off when we meet patients). We strive to be the kind of people whose panic-o-meter has no readings higher than Hmm…

We are unflappable; we’ve seen it all, done it all, and the only thing crazier than the stories we hear in the crew room are the ones we try to top them with. We are generally unimpressed. We haven’t run toward or away from anything since high school gym class. We happily eat our lunch after cleaning brain matter from our boots.

The prototypical paramedic rocks out to Journey en route to the call; he jokes with the patient and reassures them with casual self-assuredness; he easily improvises an IV using a cocktail straw and large safety pin; he’s businesslike and to-the-point with bystanders; and he flirts with the receiving nurse at the hospital. A hundred years ago he could have gotten away with wearing a cape and a sword; a hundred years from now he’ll probably own a jetpack. He is not quite a god, but he does understand if you got them confused.

As always, there are variations. But this is the basic mold of our kind.

Why are we this way? And is it a good thing?

In EMS, we do our work fast, and cut shallow. Most of our patient interactions last under an hour in total, which doesn’t leave much time for either nonsense or space-filling. Yet we also work with high-acuity, high-risk pathologies — heart attacks, major trauma, and so forth — that need to be quickly found, explicated, and managed. In the chaotic prehospital environment, our patient, our scene, and our course of care is often muddled with obstacles and red herrings; in order to function, we have to cultivate powerful and aggressive pattern filters that allow us to isolate the essential elements of a situation and pursue the key decision-points like an unshakable bloodhound.

The attitude also protects us, and perhaps it protects our patients. By skimming over the surface of every call and every patient, we never get dragged too deeply into the mud. As they say, it’s not our emergency, and if we acted like each emergency was a freak-out, we wouldn’t last very long. If we treat it like a laundry run, we can remain ready and in service for the next one. And the patients? They get the reassuring sensation of being cared for by someone who projects the message: “I’ve treated six people sicker than you already, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet.”

So is this a good thing? It clearly has benefits. But it has its negatives as well.

When we try to imagine behaving in the field like that well-tempered physician behaves at the bedside, the very idea seems bizarre to us. A swashbuckling air seems central to who we are; could we still bang through a full patient interview and physical exam in 120 seconds otherwise? Could we still concoct the same weird and wonderful solutions for our problems? C’mon, we couldn’t do this stuff by speaking slowly and wearing a cardigan.

And maybe there’s truth to that. But it’s also true that we lose something when we go this route. We lose a degree of professionalism, which affects our perception in the eyes of colleagues, patients, and the public. We lose the ability to form a certain type of bond with the patient, based upon a certain type of trust and respect; we gain a different sort of bond, but the loss is still real. And maybe, by standing too far back from the action and poking it with our toe, we also lose some of the compassion and humanity that make this job worth doing at all.

So I don’t have any prescriptions, and I’m not suggesting that we make an industry-wide effort to change our culture. But these are things worth thinking about, because automatic or implicit behaviors are the hardest to recognize, and the fact that we all do something doesn’t mean it’s the best thing.


  1. “The nurses, they spend eight hours a day walking quickly from bed to bed, either being ordered around by someone or being fed bullshit by someone else.”
    That’s a pretty old view of nurses. Today’s nurses develop their own care plans and often work with no supervision. They problem solve and work autonomously. And p.s. eight works a day? More like twelve. or thirteen and a half by the time charting is done.

    • Thans Karen; obviously I was hyper-simplifying to make the point. From my outside view, RNs probably have the greatest breadth in work environments of all the roles I mentioned, and how they spend their time varies hugely depending on where they hang their hat — are they in the ED? a hospital floor? the ICU? long-term care? home aide? etc.

      Anyway, like I said, stereotypes aren’t true, but they come from somewhere 🙂

  2. eight hours*

  3. Nicely done, Brandon.

  4. On the industrial fire brigade I’m on, prior to our uniforms I wore a button down and slacks and often a cardigan.

    EMS is way different dressed business casual.

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