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.

The Laws of EMS

One more post about glucometry is pending, but for now, something lighter.

Decades of medical interns have been raised on the Laws of the House of God. The House of God was a cynical and dark look into the world of modern medicine, and its “Laws” were about as uplifting as condensed soup, but they rang true enough that you’ll still hear them quoted in the halls of medicine today (including those of the real-life “House of God,” where I find myself more shifts than not).

In any case, laws come in handy. Although I’m a believer in the nuanced and detailed analysis, as I age and my neurons gradually turn to cotton candy, I increasingly see the value in basic rules of thumb to guide us through the tangled web of life, and especially of this job.

A good law is simple. It’s always true, or almost always, and the exceptions prove the rule. It’s not specific to a certain region or company, but is something you can keep under your hat and carry with you throughout your career. It’s clear and it say something fundamental about the kind of provider you want to be. But most of all, a good law is not just an empty platitude, but rather an actionable guide-post that can answer real questions in real situations. When times are hard or temptations loom, it’ll tell you what to do.

With no further ado, then, here are mine. I believe in them, I follow them, and like good unguent, I wholeheartedly prescribe them for universal application. I am not wise, but whenever I do a good job of faking it, it’s by following these principles.



  1. Help your patient in any way you can.
  2. Be nice to everybody. It’s your job.
  3. If you can’t save their life, make their day a little better.
  4. Protect your partner.
  5. Have a reason for everything you do.
  6. Leave the patient better off than when they met you.
  7. It should get calmer when you show up.
  8. Good habits make doing the right thing easy.
  9. Tomorrow, nothing will remain but your documentation.
  10. Everything’s a bigger deal to the person on the stretcher.


But that’s just me. What laws do you believe in?

Editor’s note: this post was expanded into a feature piece for EMS World Magazine in the March 2014 issue.

Confidence vs. Competence


Do you know what you’re doing?

Do you look like you know what you’re doing?

Although these things are connected, they aren’t the same.

Some of the most common advice a new EMT might hear is to be more confident. And it’s justified: the typical new guy looks and behaves like a scared bunny, and it’s perceivable by everyone around him. You can’t be an effective field provider that way. Other responders won’t take you seriously, patients will decide they’re better off taking the bus, and other medical personnel will mentally delete your input. You won’t make the right decisions, because you won’t have the confidence to commit to them. Plus, your shifts will be nerve-wracking, and your hair may fall out. No good.

Oddly enough, though, this isn’t the worst-case scenario. Worse still is this: you’re supremely confident… even though you’re clueless.

Confidence is a statement. It says to the world, “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.” In response, they grant you further responsibility. “If this guy knows what he’s doing, then let him handle it,” they think.

If you project that message, yet are making things up as you go along, you’re telling a lie. You will be given responsibility, only to err terribly. You were trusted according to your level of confidence, but didn’t deserve it; your confidence exceeded your actual competence.

So, you need both. We want EMTs on the ambulance with the ability to assess, treat, and transport sick people. And we want them to demonstrate that they have that ability, by their words, body language, and appearance.

The good news is that confidence tends to grow from competence, which how it should be. As you learn the ropes, you become more comfortable, smoother in your actions, and more certain of your conclusions. Rest assured, you’ll broadcast this difference to everyone around you.

So where’s the problem? The problem arises when there’s an imbalance between the two qualities. Some people are just naturally “nervous-looking” or withdrawn; they may be entirely competent, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. These are the folks who need a slap on the ass, and to be told to throw their chest out, strut a little, and say it like they mean it. Even generally mousy people can usually learn to develop a “patient face,” a professional, commanding persona they wear during calls. (Think of your favorite medic… now think of his “medic voice.” Talk about heavy artillery.)

Conversely, some people are either overly confident in their abilities, or have simply been taught to fake it until they make it. (“A commander can be wrong,” as Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “but never uncertain.”) In fact, some of the most difficult partners to work with fall into this category — the “newish” guy who can perform the everyday basics of the job, but whose cockiness swelled far beyond his actual knowledge, to the extent that he can no longer be educated or corrected. He knows it all, so he’s done learning. These folks need to be taken down a peg, because while ignorance is temporary, wrongness can last forever. If they’re simply afraid to admit when they’re unsure, it helps to reassure them that nobody has it all figured out yet, this is a team sport, and asking for help is much better than dropping the ball.

In the end, the goal should be supreme confidence, clearly palpable to those around you, yet directly built upon a foundation of clinical competence. If you’re good enough, you don’t have to put on a show; you can even hide your moves a little, because they’re going to come out anyway, and a certain amount of humility is professionally appropriate. (Plus, you won’t have to act like a douche all the time.) If you know your stuff but come up short in confidence, that’s your cue to start strutting a little more. And if you lack both, then start by developing quiet competence — not ignorant cockiness.

Dialing it Down a Notch

Bringing order to chaos. It’s hard to suggest a more important skill for an EMT.

Emergencies are chaotic. Heck, even non-emergent “emergencies” are chaotic. The nature of working in the field is that most situations are uncontrolled. Part of our job is to bring some order to it all, sort the raw junk into categories, discard most of the detritus, and loosely mold the whole ball of wax into something the emergency department can recognize. Call us chaos translators. This is important stuff; it’s why the House of God declared, “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse”; and it’s why we walk rather than run, and talk rather than shout.

The thing is, it’s not just those of us on the provider side that need this. Oftentimes patients need it too. Imagine: every other day of your life, you’re walking around without acute distress, in control of your situation and knowing what to expect. Today, something you didn’t anticipate and can’t understand has ambushed you — a broken leg, a stabbing chest pain — and you don’t know how to handle that. So you called 911 to make some sense of it all.

Most ailments are side effects of other problems: the fear of going mad, the anxiety of being so alone among so many, the shortness of breath that always occurs after glimpsing your own death. Calling 911 is a fast and free way to be shown an order in the world much stronger than your own disorder. Within minutes, someone will show up at your door and ask you if you need help, someone who has witnessed so many worse cases than your own and will gladly tell you this. When your angst pail is full, he’ll try and empty it. (Bringing Out the Dead)

With some patients, this is more true than with others. With some patients, there may be little to no underlying complaint; there is mainly just panic, a crashing wave of anxiety, a psychological anaphylactic reaction to a world that is suddenly too much for them. Particularly in those cases, but to a certain extent with everybody, bringing that patient to a place of calm may be exactly what they need. I have transported patients to the hospital who clearly and unequivocally were merely hoping to go somewhere that things made sense.

The burned-out medic likes to park himself behind the stretcher, zip his lip, and allow things to burn out on their own. This may sound merciless, but there is a certain wisdom to it.

We are very good in this business at escalating the level of alarm. Eight minutes after you hang up the phone, suddenly sirens are echoing down your street, heavy boots are echoing in your hall, and five burly men are crowding into your bathroom. We have wires, we have tubes, we have many, many questions. What a mess. So sometimes, once we’ve finished ratcheting everything up, it behooves us to pause, step back, and make a conscious effort to turn down the volume.

Take the stimuli of the environment, of the situation, and dial it way back. One of our best tools is to simply get the patient away from the scene — the heart of the chaos — and into the back of the ambulance, where we’re in control. It’s quiet, it’s comfortable, and there is less to look at. Move slowly, consider dimming the lights, and whenever possible avoid transporting with lights and sirens. Demonstrate calm, relaxed confidence, as if there’s truly nothing to be excited about. Some patients with drug reactions, or some developmental or psychological disorders (such as autism spectrum), may be absolutely unmanageable unless you can reduce their level of stimulation. Just put a proverbial pillow over their senses.

If you’re stuck on scene, try to filter out the environment a little. If bystanders or other responders (such as fire and police) are milling around, either clear out unnecessary personnel or at least ask them to leave the room for a bit. Make sure only one person is asking questions, and explain everything you do before you do it.

There’s a human connection here, and if you can master it, you can create an eye of calm even as sheet metal is being ripped apart around you. Look directly into your patient’s eyes, and speak to them calmly, quietly, and directly. Take their hand. Use their name, and make sure they know yours. Narrate what’s going on as it occurs, describe what they can expect next, and try to anticipate their emotional responses (surprise, fear, confusion). If they start to lose their anchor, bring them back; their world for now should consist only of themselves and you. To achieve this you need to be capable of creating a real connection; it is their focus on you that will help them to block out everything else. Done correctly, they may not want you to leave their side once you arrive at the hospital; you’re their lifeline, and it may feel like you’re abandoning them. Try to convince them that the worst is over, and they’ve arrived somewhere that’s safe, structured, and prepared to make things right. They’ve “made it.”

Applying these ideas isn’t always simple, and learning to recognize how much each patient needs the volume turned down requires experience. But just remember that no matter who they are, no matter what their complaint, most people didn’t call 911 because they wanted things more chaotic. Try to be a carrier of calm.

Because it’s Cold Out There

We rarely think about it. If we did, we’d probably lose our marbles.

But it’s true.

The universe doesn’t care.

We are born, we live for a little while, and eventually, we die. In the duration, we will have hopes and fears, passions, desires, successes and defeats, joy and pain. The whole gamut is out there. And as a rule, the inexorable pull of the world is downward — into darkness, into chaos. Scientists call it entropy. We just call it life.

But it means that at any given moment, if we want to be happy — comfortable, fulfilled, free from suffering — we have to be waging a constant battle. If we ever stop paddling, we start to sink.

There’s a certain point in your youth (maybe this is the moment that you become an adult) when you realize this battle is nobody’s but your own. When you’re a child, your parents agree to fight in your ranks until you can walk and talk and drive a car. But once you step out onto the world stage, the only one wearing your colors is you. As self-centered people, we find this hard to believe; we feel like we’re important players in the grand scheme. But the truth is that although everybody else feels the same way about themselves, they certainly don’t feel the same way about you.

Nobody cares about your problems like you do. Not even remotely close. They’re busy with their own battles, which are just as burdensome to them as yours to you. So we learn that if we want to solve our problems, change our circumstances, or just keep from backsliding in the constant undertow of life, we’re on our own. The tools we bring to the table are the only ones available, and our to-do list has only our name at the top. There is no oversight, unless we have strong religious views; no referee ensures that the dice land fair; and if the game proves too difficult, we don’t get to quit and try another.

Isn’t this horrible?

Of course it’s horrible. What could be more horrible than to be utterly alone in an uncaring universe?

So we try to build ties. From the little twirling piece of driftwood we’re clinging to, we throw out ropes to the other flotsam and jetsam. We bring them close and tie knots in the hope of building a raft that can stay afloat during the next storm. Maybe this way, we think, if I capsize, someone will pull me back in.

This is hard work, though. Because our own problems are bad enough, and to tie ourself to someone else means we’re taking on some of theirs, too. It means when they get hit, it’s our job to try and keep them afloat. That’s a lot of responsibility, and our plate was already full to begin with. (Everybody’s plate is full, no matter how big it may look from the outside.) So at the best, we only make a few really strong ties.

Oh, we might have a lot of weak ones. Folks we know, and who will occasionally drift by to exchange favors or chat. Maybe a group that we’ll cruise with for a while. But make no mistake: they might be floating alongside us, but they haven’t tied any knots in that rope. If you start to founder, the best you can hope for is a little sympathy as they sail on ahead, and maybe toss you a spare life preserver. It’s not their problem.

The ones who really throw in their lot with you — who say that in thick or thin, in sickness or health, they’ll be at your side, fighting to keep you afloat — they’re few and far between. Maybe a little family, one or two close friends. A significant other. That’s all.


What do you think happens when you get older?

If you have the good fortune to live to a very old age, then a lot of things will change. Life is not going to suddenly become easy; if anything, it will become harder. And where are those ties you’ve built?

Dead. Moved away. No longer capable of anything more than clinging to life.

The luckiest among us will make it to the very last pages of life with our partners-in-crime still at our side. The spouse of fifty years, the close and loving family, the lifelong friend. But for most of us, these lifelines are lost over the years, one by one. And eventually, we may have nobody. Nobody to fight for us, to love us, or even to note our passing.


The next time you transport the 80-year-old man with dementia, who never seems happy and complains about everything —

The next time you’re called to the home of the little old lady with toe pain, whose husband died recently after a lifetime spent together —

The next time you pick up the same homeless man from under the bridge, drunk once again —

Try to imagine what it would be like to be truly alone.

Nobody to lean on. Nobody to throw you a rope when you start to founder. Most of all, nobody who gives a damn you exist. Imagine what it would be like to know that you could walk into the sea tomorrow and nobody would even know you’d died — let alone that you’d lived.

We can’t be everything for these people. But one day, hopefully not soon, you might just find that you’ve become one of them. So do what you can, knowing that nobody else is likely to. Knowing that, even when it has little effect, the difference between having somebody to fire a few shots for you, and having nobody — can be all the difference in the world.