Child-rearing and You

Monkey Training School


Despite my forays into educational writing like this, I have never been an FTO.

Field Training Officers or preceptors are responsible for training and supervising new hires, who typically work for several weeks as an additional third crewmember (or “third rider”) while learning the ropes. For various reasons, I’m not sure I’d be good at this, and I’ve never pursued it. On the other hand, regardless of what I want to pursue, I’ve never been able to avoid working with new partners.

By “new,” I mean minty-green new — folks who have never worked on an ambulance, or in some cases, never worked a job at all. Since this kind of EMT is usually paired with a fairly senior partner early on — and since not many people stick with this job long enough to be “senior” — if you’ve been doing this for a few years, you’ll usually wind up with a new guy sitting next to you. It is what it is.

Standard operating procedure is to drink lots of coffee, grumble, boss them around, and let them gradually absorb whatever useful knowledge you inadvertently leak out. Unfortunately, this is both stressful for the new guy, and something less than fully enriching; they learn as many bad habits as good practices, and become jaded faster than they become competent.

I am not a gifted teacher when it comes to in-person training. But like most things in this job, by learning it the hard way, I’ve developed some useful insights. So here are a few pointers for bringing along your new guy and molding them into the very bestest EMT they can be.


Make your expectations clear

For you, it’s Wednesday, you’re tired, and for some reason your left knee keeps clicking. But for them, it’s their first day on an ambulance, and everything is new.

The best thing you can do is to clarify how this game is going to work. What’s going to happen when you walk into a call? How are you going to assign responsibility? What do they know, what do they need to know, and how will that process occur?

I once punched in to find a partner I hadn’t met before. Ten minutes into checking the truck, we got sent out to a seizure at the department store. I drove, she teched. But each time I tried to let her “do her thing,” she just froze like a deer in headlights. Turned out, this was the first shift she’d worked — ever — and her entire training period had been spent running routine transfers. She wasn’t just unpracticed, she hadn’t even seen most of what takes place on an emergency call, never mind attempted it.

Although you could call this a gross failure of the training process (I did), the underlying lesson is that you never know what you’re dealing with. Your partner may have years of experience at another service; he may have just finished high school and never worked a full-time job; he might be a new EMT, but just spent twenty years as a veteran CNA. Maybe he’s a few months in, comfortable with certain situations, but wholly new to others. You need to know where they’re coming from. Not only will they resent the stress and panic induced by stranding them when they don’t know what to do, but they’re just as likely to resent your butting-in (whether explaining something or actually taking over) when they do know what to do; the dividing line can be nearly invisible, but is very real.

Some points to consider:

  • Who drives? Many seniors tend to do most of the driving while their newbie techs in back. The theory here is that you should “learn the back before you learn the front” — that is, patient care before driving and navigation. I find this arbitrary, since driving is as important to this job (and sometimes as difficult to do well) as anything else. It’s reasonable to focus on one skillset before developing the other, but I think driving should start early, because eventually they’re going to be forced into it anyway (driving for an ALS unit, perhaps), and they need to be ready. Start almost immediately by letting them drive between calls on routine matters; this acclimates them to handling the ambulance and navigating your service area. Once they’ve figured that out, they can do some emergency driving on responses. When you’re comfortable they can safely get from Point A to Point B, let them drive while occupied with patients — if they know where they’re going, or at least have a reliable GPS. But don’t throw them into this without some instruction on how to drive smoothly and safely, or you’ll spend the trip getting angry while you slide around the bench, and they won’t know why.
  • Who does what on emergency scenes? Working with experienced partners, I cleave to the golden rule: the tech runs the call, while the driver shuts up and helps out. This makes it easy to avoid stepping on each other’s toes or going different ways. If you’re the tech and your new partner is driving, this still works, because you’ll make the calls and tell them what to do, and they can watch your amazing wizardry in action. But what if they’re the tech? I always try to let them take the reins, but if they pulled the tags off their first uniform yesterday, they’re probably just going to stand there. I give ’em a few beats and then take over (you can’t stand there forever staring at the patient). But between calls, go over what needs to happen, and try to gradually work them toward familiarity with their role.
  • How will feedback be given? Like in any relationship, communication is only ever bad when it’s not undertaken promptly and directly. From day one, make it clear that if they ever have a question, they should ask it (at the appropriate time); if they’re ever uncertain, they should request assistance (you’ll only be mad when they screw up because they didn’t ask); and if they want help, you want to provide it. Conversely, explain that after calls you’ll give suggestions and feedback, which should be taken constructively; they have a lot to learn and must embrace that. If you tend to adopt a direct or brusque manner, as many of us do, warn them that it’s not personal and you’re not rebuking them, you’re just too old and tired to sugarcoat everything. Reassure them that you’ll never talk shit to others when they mess up; when anybody asks, you’ll just make vague remarks like “oh yeah, he’s good.” Above all, remind them that although you’re here to support them, patient care comes first, so there will be times when “teachable moments” need to take a back seat.


Practice, Practice, Practice

The main problem for most new folks isn’t “knowledge,” it’s application. They may have memorized the EMT textbook (although that book, of course, is a little light), but there are a thousand tiny things that comprise the everyday functioning of this job, and they know none of it.

That’s one of the goals behind Scenarioville. To get good at this job, you need practice. And even in a busy system, in a given week you may only do one or two seizures, or drunks, or chest pains, or any other type of call, with a lot of other stuff in between. If they’re weak with something, it takes a long time to to practice enough to get any better.

You can fill that gap with drills, as realistic as possible. In your downtime, make ’em go through the paces. Trouble giving radio patches? Hand ’em the mic (turn it off first) and have ’em pretend they’re talking to the hospital, complete with pressing the right buttons and hearing static-filled replies from you. Do they need to practice driving? Find a parking lot and give them tasks to accomplish, such as backing in a straight line, turning corners, or navigating tight gaps. Bad at lifting? Give ’em workout homework (get thee to the gym and start deadlifting!). Watched them fumble with a skill? Make ’em do it: take a blood pressure off you (with various locations, sizes, and methods), assemble the nebulizer or apply a dressing, or execute a thorough neuro, abdominal, or trauma assessment. In some cases verbalizing a skill is all you can manage, but whenever possible, do it for real; a disposable neb is a small cost to pay for skill mastery, and the first time they open the package shouldn’t be on a sick person.

If they’re interested, you can certainly chat about deeper medical topics like V/Q mismatching and the citric acid cycle. But they can get that from a book. When it comes to practice, something more interactive is needed. Often, I’ll do verbal scenarios, describing a call and forcing them to make decisions as they go. Nothing is quite as frightening as a totally unscripted, unstructured situation, where you stop and stare and ask, “What do you do?” And don’t let them get away with vague invocations like “scene safety” or “manage the airway”; force them to describe exactly what they mean. Oh, you’ll check for a pulse? How? Where? What are you looking for? Okay, where’s that piece of equipment? How do you size it? Are you sure we’ve got one?

History-taking is the most difficult skill to acquire. Force them to talk directly to you as if you were the patient, because they need to be comfortable with that. With experience, you develop a patter, and you have go-to lines at each juncture — what you say in greeting, what to ask for certain complaints, how to unpack certain responses. They haven’t acquired those moves yet, but they need to develop them, so by presenting them with those situations in a practice setting, they have a low-stress way to hone their own tools.

Every new partner I’ve had has gone through a similar learning curve. At first, they don’t know anything. After a while, the first things they get comfortable with are the “skills,” simple, concrete tasks they know how to execute. As a result, when they walk into a scene and don’t know what to do, they immediately start doing whatever task they’ve mastered — taking a blood pressure, writing down meds, etc. The challenge is getting them to move beyond rote psychomotor skills to the nuanced business of actually approaching the patient, greeting them, assessing them medically with questions and focused physical examination, deciding what’s wrong, and making decisions accordingly. This is tough, and occasionally I’ve had to take things away from people (cuffs, glucometers, nasal cannulas, pens) so they couldn’t “hide” in them.

In the end, the key to mastery is repetition. A single repetition is nothing. When the two of you run a call and you realize they need to practice something, debrief afterward by discussing the details, make them describe the considerations and goals, and spend the rest of the day verbalizing scenarios similar to the call you did. Once they’re absolutely sick of it, you’re starting to make progress, because boredom means they know what to do, and that’s the whole idea.


Managing your own blood pressure

One of the biggest challenges, of course, is not losing your mind.

Even smart students will sometimes drive you out of your gourd. Usually, this is because they don’t know something you figure they should. In fact, everybody should know that. In fact, how in god’s name can you be old enough to drive a car without being able to figure this out? It’s common sense!

The trouble is, it isn’t common sense. When you started out, you had to learn it. But that was so long ago, you’ve forgotten how much you originally had to learn; many of the routine aspects of the job are now second-nature to you. But they’re not second nature to your partner; he has to consciously learn them all, and think about them when he does them, and he can only internalize so many at a time. So while he’s trying to remember to do X, Y, and Z, he might forget A and B. Even if A is something that he does know. And maybe he never even learned C. See?

When they develop confidence, they improve exponentially, because once they relax they can actually think; most dumb stuff is the result of blind panic. (The secret of veteran providers is that they often don’t know what to do, but they use their noodle and do what makes sense. This isn’t a difficult skill, but you can’t do it while holding your breath.)

My own pet peeve is when I tell ’em something, and next week tell ’em again, and six months later I swear I’m telling ’em the same thing, and they’re staring at me like they’ve never heard it. Ain’t you listening to me, Jethro? Well, they are listening. But I’ve also been talking a whole lot, and between the V/Q mismatches and everything else, they’re not going to remember all of it; it’s going in one ear and most of it out the other. So either I can slow the flow a little, or expect to repeat myself. Either way, my problem, not theirs.

The point is that there’s a great deal to learn just to master the basics of this job, never mind acquiring true clinical acumen. Combined with the fact that many new hires are young, and haven’t developed the general problem-solving skills that only come with years and failures and overall life experience (being a good employee, talking to other humans, empathizing with suffering, avoiding dangerous situations, and so on), and you get a perfectly intelligent person who sometimes seems like they’ve had a lobotomy.

Take deep breaths, try to remember what it was like when you were in their shoes… and warn them early that you will occasionally get fed up, sometimes act short, and at the 15th hour of a shift, will not always be gentle Grandpa Patience. Advise them that you’re not perfect and will not always act out the principles you espouse. And request that, although you like to teach and you like your job, when you’ve been working for 60 hours straight you may need some quiet time.

Most of all, look around at all your competent coworkers who once upon a time made their partners pull out their hair and ask whether they were working with a trained monkey. Because it does get better, and years ago, that monkey was you.

Missing your Manners


“Hi, my name is Brandon. I’m an EMT with Save-a-life Ambulance. Can I help you?”

Anybody remember that? I think it was on page 6 of the EMT textbook.

I suppose it’s about communicating your name, which is nice. And it’s about obtaining consent, which is important, although in reality, consent in EMS is usually handled the same way as consent in sexual activity — you just go until someone says stop.

But mainly it’s about courtesy and professionalism. It’s gauche to swoop into a room and just start playing with somebody’s lesions without so much as a how-do-you-do.

The trouble is that the formal intro is so hokey nobody actually uses it. Or uses anything remotely similar. And I think that’s a shame, because although it’s silly, it’s getting at something important.

We understand that people call us mainly to bring some order to their crisis. Obviously, that involves Doing Medicine. But the medicine is just a means to an end.

Why do we call plumbers? When your sink starts flooding water into the kitchen, you don’t know what to do. This situation is alien; it’s outside of your expertise. You may be very good at many things in life, such as fueling your car, tying your shoes, and making cherries jubilee, but you don’t know what to do about this.

You know that there are people who have the answers, though; they’re called plumbers. So you call a plumber, and say, make it right.

We’re the same way. People don’t know what to do when they get chest pain or crash their car. But they know that if they call 911, professionals will come who know what to do. So they call us. That’s why people sometimes ask 911 to fetch cats out of trees or ask when the circus is coming to town. It’s why the first reaction of so many motorists after a crash is to call their spouse or their dad.

The thing is, when we walk in and our first reaction is to Do Medicine, it’s not helping the problem. All that medicine is just more strangeness, unless your patient is a fellow clinician. So now their distress is going to continue until you can finally tell them what’s wrong. Except you won’t, because you don’t think you’re qualified for that. So now they’ll stay confused and scared until they get to the hospital. And on and on.

Throw them a rope!

The fastest way to restore normality to a situation is to reintroduce a familiar activity. And social courtesies are very familiar to everyone.

When you introduce yourself and shake someone’s hand, they’re transported from the confusing world of a medical crisis to something much more comfortable. They know how to do this. Smile, shake, say your name. It’s easy. They’re good at it.

Sometimes patients are visibly shocked when you do this, and seem to reset; you can literally watch them change channels. Now they’re a little calmer, a little happier, and you can work with that. With enough balls, you can pull this off in the most outrageous circumstances. Sing praise for the EMT who can walk in on the triple traumatic amputation and say “Hi! I’m Jim. What’s going on?”

Now, of course, you don’t want to minimize the patient’s distress. In an emergent situation, it can be galling and obnoxious for their freak-out to be met by your apparent apathy or boredom. That’s why you have to find a middle ground between projecting calm confidence and acknowledging the seriousness (perceived or real) of the patient’s situation. Don’t let them drag you along into panic, but don’t try to abruptly pull them to a halt either; strike a balance, pace them, and then gradually slow them back down. The point is that introducing yourself like a regular person is a powerful tool for restoring normality to a crazy situation: use that tool liberally, but intelligently.

I’ve had patients tell me I was the only Medical Person they could remember introducing themselves. That’s a damned shame. People greet each other and make a introduction when they meet. And aren’t patients people?

Podcast: EMS to ED Interface

Streamlining a patient’s entry to the healthcare continuum is one of our main roles in EMS, and the key step in most cases is when we transfer care at the emergency department. This isn’t rocket science, but you can do it well or less well, and frankly I think it’s tough to do right unless you can see the whole picture. We never really know in what ways we’re setting up people effectively for their ED care and in what ways we’re part of the problem, unless perhaps we work on both sides.

So I asked for a little help here. I sat down virtually with Dr. Brooks Walsh, ED attending extraordinaire — author of Mill Hill Ave Command and Doc Cottle’s Desk — and with Jeff, an ED nurse from my area. We discussed how to work and play together better, including topics like handoff reports, useful histories, and typical ED courses of care.

Click here to listen or download (1:15, MP3 format)

A few of the bullet-worthy points:

  • Jeff’s hospital saves time in all trauma, stroke, and STEMI activations by assigning patients an alias immediately upon notification by EMS. That way registration isn’t lurking around while the team is trying to treat the patient.
  • Cath lab activations from the field are still often about trust — whether staff knows the individual provider or the particular service calling. Rightly or wrongly, there’s also a stricter de facto standard for activation during off hours when nobody wants to get out of bed.
  • For stroke, neurology may be in the room when you arrive, but more often, especially in smaller hospitals, they’re available by page or teleconference.
  • When bringing in the stroke, try and ensure that family who can testify to time-of-onset/time-last-seen-normal, as well as consent to treatment on the patient’s behalf, are present — ideally transported with you — not unavailable in a taxi somewhere.
  • When you walk in the room, the typical team is a doctor, a nurse, a tech, then any extras — residents or other students, surgery, pediatrics, whomever. And registration is the dude with the clipboard or computer, of course.
  • When reporting to the doc, focus on: first, anything that needs to happen immediately; second, information he can’t get elsewhere (i.e. not patient medical history unless it’s not available in the records, laundry list of negatives, etc.), such as how you found the patient, general context, changes en route, etc.
  • Written PCRs are usually not read due to difficulty obtaining them and general unfriendliness (hard to find info, obscure writing), but sometimes there’s useful stuff in there, particularly in the narrative itself.
  • Baseline patient info from EMS is great if we know the patient well (frequent fliers); baseline info from bystanders, staff, family etc. is okay but less reliable.
  • Get patients to their usual facility if at all possible, especially those with complex histories, and especially anyone with recent surgical history — otherwise they’ll just get transferred later.
  • “Take me to x, my doctor is there” (meaning PCP or specialist) — less important, but can be nice if there are chronic issues and they’d like to maintain the existing treatment plan.
  • Disagreements over patient triage or treatment: find the attending or perhaps resource nurse and voice your concern. In the long-term: raise issues with the hospital’s EMS liaison (either directly or through your internal chain of command).

Clinical Judgment: How to Do Less


It was around 11:00 AM when we were called to a local skilled nursing facility for a hip fracture. The patient was a 61-year-old male with mild mental retardation and several other issues, who’d fallen last night while walking to the bathroom. He was helped back to bed with moderate hip pain, and the staff physician stopped by to check him out. A portable X-ray was performed, which the physician interpreted as showing a proximal femur fracture as well as an associated pelvic fracture. This was communicated to us via a scrawled note and a cursory report.

The patient was found resting comfortably in bed, semi-Fowler’s and alert. He had no complaints at rest, although his pelvis and left femoral region were mildly tender and quite painful upon movement. No deformity was notable and there was no obvious instability. His vitals were stable and he was generally well-appearing, in no apparent distress. He denied bumping his head and had no pain or tenderness in the head or neck.

We gently insinuated a scoop stretcher underneath him, filled the nearby voids with towels and other linen, and bundled him into a snug, easily-movable package. Then we gave him the slow ride to his requested emergency department, a teaching hospital in town just a few minutes away.

We rolled into the ED and were lifting him into bed on the scoop when a young man entered the room, bescrubbed and serious-looking. I gave a brief report. As the words “pelvic fracture” left my lips, his mental alarms started visibly beeping and flashing, and he hurriedly asked, “What kind of pelvic fracture?”

“We don’t know. All we’ve got is the radiology note, which doesn’t say much.”

“Okay, but pelvic fractures can be a big deal. It could be … ” he sucked in air, “… open-book. There could be a lot of bleeding.”

I stared at him. “Well, sure. But he’s been stable since last night, and has a basically normal physical with no complaints at rest. He’s not exactly circling the drain.”

He didn’t seem to hear me as he briskly approached the patient and began poking him and asking questions. While we pulled our stretcher out of the room, he asked, “Does your neck hurt at all?”

Now that the patient had been stuck on a scoop stretcher for over twenty minutes, he thought for a moment and then shrugged. “Sure.” The doctor immediately ordered the placement of a cervical collar.

As we escaped, he was on the phone to the SNF, and the last thing I heard was him berating them with his urgent need to know exactly what type of pelvic calamity the patient had suffered.


What was the failure here? It was a failure of clinical judgment.

Clinical judgment is a phrase which means different things to different people, and often its meaning is so nebulous (much like “patient advocacy“) that it sounds good while saying nothing. But most would agree that it means something like this: the ability to combine textbook knowledge and personal experience, applying them intelligently to the current patient’s situation to yield an accurate sense of the possible diagnoses and the costs vs. benefits of possible treatments. In other words, it means knowing what the patient’s probably got and what to do about it, which is the heart of medicine anyway. So what’s all the fuss about?

In reality, when clinical judgment is mentioned, what’s often meant is something specific: the wisdom to know when something’s not wrong. Much of medicine is about planning for the worst, ruling out the badness, and looking for the unlikely-but-possible occult killer that nobody wants to miss. As a result, we often act as if nearly everybody is seriously ill, even when they probably aren’t.

On a practical level, most complaints — from chest pain to the itchy toe — could conceivably represent a disaster. Anything’s possible. So if we want to truly adopt perfectly mindless caution, we should be intubating every patient and admitting them directly to the ICU so that we’re ready when their skin melts off and their eyes turn backwards.

But we can’t do that, and we shouldn’t. So how do we know when to do a little less? Clinical judgment.

Clinical judgment is the acumen to assess a patient and say, “I think we’re okay here. Let’s hold off on that.” It’s what you develop when you have both the knowledge and experience to understand that a person is low-risk, and that certain tests or treatments are more likely to harm than to hurt them. That doesn’t mean that nothing will be done, or that more definitive rule-out tests will not occur, but it means you’re not freaking out in the meanwhile. It’s a triage thing.

Put another way, imagine the patient who you’re placing in spinal immobilization, or providing with supplemental oxygen, or to whom you’re securing a splint. They ask, “Look, I don’t much like this; do I really need it?” Well, I don’t know, rockstar — does he? If you’re simply acting on algorithms, reflexively doing x because you found y, then you really don’t know. How important is that oxygen? To answer that, you’d need to truly understand the benefits versus the potential harms, which means having a strong grasp of the mechanism of action, familiarity with the relevant literature (including the pertinent odds ratios, NNT and so forth), prior experience with similar patients, et cetera… only with that kind of knowledge do you really understand what’s happening. In essence, the patient is asking for the informed element of informed consent, something he’s entitled to, and you can’t provide it if you don’t have it yourself.

But when you do develop that depth and breadth of knowledge, you gain a special ability. It’s the ability to do less. When you truly understand what you’re dealing with, and more importantly, what you’re not dealing with, you can titrate medicine to what’s actually needed and stop there. Along with the knowledge comes the confidence, because you don’t merely know, you know that you know; in other words, you don’t need to take precautionary steps merely because you’re worried there might be considerations you don’t understand.

When it comes to withholding anything, even the kitchen sink, you might ask, “isn’t there risk here?” And strictly speaking, there is risk. But you can set that bar wherever you want. The important thing to grasp is that “doing everything for everyone” is not the “safe” approach; overtriage and overtreatment are not benign. All those things you’re doing have a cost. They may cause real harm. Even at best, they cost time and money, and subject the patient to unnecessary discomfort and inconvenience. We’d like to minimize all that whenever possible.

So, we return to the gentleman with the pelvic fracture. Strictly speaking, fracture of the pelvis has the potential to be life-threatening; certain types of unstable fracture can cause massive bleeding, along with damage to nervous, urinary, and other structures. So a textbook response to “pelvic fracture?” might be to treat it as a high-risk trauma.

But a patient with an unstable, severely hemorrhaging open-book pelvic fracture probably wouldn’t look like that. It would be evident; it would cause a number of apparent effects, such as pain and distress, shock signs, altered vitals, deformity or palpable instability. Except in bizarre cases or in patients who are clinically difficult to evaluate, big problems create big changes. While it’s true that we don’t know exactly what the X-ray showed, so one could theoretically argue for any conceivable pathology, there’s no question that the patient appeared stable, had remained unchanged for many hours, and had apparently been judged low-acuity after evaluation and imaging by his own doctor. In other words, let’s take it easy.

The question of spinal immobilization is another example. Strictly speaking, could we rule out the possibility of a cervical spine fracture? Well, no. Not without CT and MRI and even then who knows. But the fall was many hours ago, the patient was freely mobile and turning his head throughout that period, had no peripheral neurological deficits, denied striking his head or loss of consciousness, and quite frankly, had no pain until he spent twenty minutes with his head against a metal board.

It’s not often that you find a doctor more concerned about C-spine than an EMT. How did it happen here?

Despite the fact that we delivered the patient to a major tertiary center, it was nevertheless a teaching hospital, and the new interns had just hit the wards. While this particular clinician was undoubtedly smart and well-educated, at this stage he had about two weeks of experience behind him, and that is not conducive to providing judicious (rather than applied-by-spatula) care. He had neither the experience to know when to take it easy, nor the confidence in that experience to stand by such a decision.

We don’t want to take this concept to its extreme, which would involve doing very little for most of our patients. In the end, this is still emergency medicine, and emergency care will always involve screening for the deadly needle in the benign haystack. There’s also danger in simply becoming lazy and burned-out, and using Procrustean application of cynical “street smarts” to justify never bothering with anything. The real goal is to do the right things for the right reasons, no more, no less. And to get to that point, you have to put in some time.

Your High Horse

What happened to kneeling?

People have problems, so they call the ambulance. We arrive and find them — mostly — seated in a chair, or lying in a bed, or perhaps down on the ground. Then we kneel beside them and introduce ourselves. We ask questions, put our hands on them, give medicines, and so on down that clinical flow you learned in school.

Here is what we don’t do: stand six feet away, look down at the patient (and maybe, maybe deign to bend over a little, with our hands on our thighs like we’re admiring a gregarious puppy), and shout in their direction. “Do you want to go to the hospital?” This is not yodeling practice. This is caregiving.

When did we stop kneeling? More and more, this practice seems to be spreading, and it’s reached the point where I can hardly remember the last time I saw one of us kneel beside a patient. Occasionally somebody will kneel to take vitals, but the provider actually speaking and interacting with the sick person still towers over them like a cop chalking off a body.

Yes, yes, I get it. Your knees are bad. I’ve been there. And your back, it’s stiff. You’re not 21 anymore, you can’t go kneeling willy-nilly. Sure.

But we’re not talking about an Olympic sport here, okay? We’re talking about kneeling, at least for a moment, in whatever manner you can successfully perform. At the very, very least, sit down on something so you’re level with the patient. Park your butt beside them on the sofa or pull up a chair.

It’s about patient comfort, because they want to feel like they’re engaging with a fellow human, not yelling up at Rapunzel’s tower. But it’s also about the dynamic it creates between you. As a novice provider, when I first read Thom Dick write about humility, I didn’t understand. But as time passed, it made more and more sense to me (something that happens suspiciously often with Thom’s stuff). Body language says something, not just to others, but to yourself.

When you kneel, you’re saying: I’m here to help. I’m here to serve you. We don’t kneel very much anymore, not in the modern Western world, but we understand instinctively why one would kneel before a king. It’s not in spite of the effort it takes you to get down there, it’s because of it: by making yourself uncomfortable, you’re demonstrating a willingness to put someone else’s needs before your own.

It’s not saying that they’re your master, and you’re not making them the boss of anything. They’re not making you kneel, which is all the difference: it’s a gift, freely given. You’re acknowledging that the patient is important. More prosaically, it’s very much like the relationship that the cashier at Wal-Mart is supposed to have with you (at least in theory). If you met him on his day off, he might cut you off in traffic, flip you the finger, and drive away cackling. But while you buy batteries, at least, it’s his job to help you out. If he’s lucky, he enjoys doing that; if he’s not, he feels forced into it because he wants to keep his paycheck. We’re in a different boat, though, because our obligation doesn’t come from a boss looking over our shoulder. It comes from the fact that we accepted a duty (perhaps sacred, perhaps mundane, but a duty either way) — that when someone calls 911 and asks for our help, we’ll come and serve them. That makes us servants, and not in a bad way.

Something different happens when you refuse to lower yourself before a patient. It tells everyone in the room, including the patient and especially including yourself, that although you’re here, and although you might perform the clinically-indicated medical treatment, you’re not putting yourself out at all. Drive-by care is all you’re willing to offer. It’s like telling the patient: “Just to be clear, we were in the area anyway, and I thought you might have some snacks.”

I have great respect for police, and we work alongside them often. But their business is very different from ours, and it highlights the dangers in conflating the role of EMS with that of public safety. The job of a caregiver is to serve. The job of a cop is to enforce. It means they have to elevate themselves — you can’t exert authority unless you’re coming from a place of some kind of superiority (legal, moral, even physical). It means they have to judge. I don’t know if they enjoy it, and I do know that it’s highly necessary. But it takes a different kind of person, or at least a different kind of thinking, to judge people than it takes to serve them. Try to imagine a cop kneeling, or helping to wipe Mrs. Smith’s bottom. Now imagine yourself wearing aviators, crossing your arms and leaning against the wall while you bark at her, and understand that it’s just as misplaced.

What’s funny is that when you accept this “lesser” role, you can find an awful lot of meaning in it, because it’s a privileged place too. The privilege isn’t something you exert over others: rather, it’s freely granted to you by the patient. When they see that you’re here to help them, they give you permission to enter their home, to touch their body, to ask them the most intimate questions. This is essential, because you need that access to do your job (and it’s why I believe that mixing EMS and law enforcement would mean a major blow to our ability to treat people). But it’s still a gift. And I think that’s worth something. Even sore knees.