Behind the Scenes with a New York City Paramedic
I often don't understand why drivers don't move to the side when an ambulance is coming through. Why is it so hard to understand that beyond those sirens, somebody can be dying in the back of that bus? As a former Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), I know how it feels to possibly lose a patient, while rushing to the hospital. I consider myself lucky, that I never had to encounter a death in my care, but that's not to say for Paramedic John Saratoga and the entire 911 Emergency Unit of of New York City, who constantly dance with death and life on the job. Just talking to John about his experiences made my heart beat fast, just thinking about how stressful it can be. Talk about real life drama and action. Being a Paramedic is a powerful job and trauma is an inherent part of their job. Trauma that is often invisible to us. We usually meet them on our worst day or after the fact, where we see the wrecks, burnt down homes, or heard the ambulance sirens racing by, or when we see them in uniform in the streets. As a matter a fact as I'm writing this blog, I just heard the wailing of blazing sirens pass by, yet I kept writing because it's normal in this city. We become so immune that we don't realize that in that ambulance there are heroes like John chasing time to get to someone in need and we often don't stop to ask how these professionals are feeling. Listening to John's real thoughts as a Paramedic, turns out to be absolutely one of my best interviews by far.
Photo by NY Post
What inspired you to become a Paramedic?
You ever saw the TV show "Emergency 911"? I saw that one day and I thought that was the coolest thing . Saving lives, you know. I don't know it just attracted me to it.
Who was your favorite character on that show?
The dude with the black hair, I don't even remember his name.
(Randolph Mantooth played "Jone Gage".)
What was the process of you becoming a Paramedic, what did you have to do?
First of all you have to go to school to become an EMT for four months. So, you become an EMT for 4 months and then it's preferred that you actually get some kind of experience in the street, before you go to Paramedic school. Paramedic school is a little bit more challenging and it's about 10 months long and it's basically everything that you would learn in anatomy/physiology and besides in EMT school, but you get it ten fold. You know what I mean. So instead of basic anatomy/physiology, now you getting intense to the muscular system the nervous system and how they get affected by the medications that you actually administering people.
What would you say are one of the best times of you being a Paramedic and the most challenging patient that you've had?
I can't answer that, I mean every single patient is challenging enough. You know what I mean. I mean, you deal with people's miseries, this is not really a comfortable situation when you come into something like that, but I guess when you actually do save someone's life or you actually help a mother deliver a baby, because you actually are not delivering it you actually are assisting her.
So those are one of your best moments, helping someone administer childbirth?
Yea, helping that happen. Helping to bring another man's baby to life, that he has to support for the rest of his life.
What do you think a Paramedic faces every day? Some days are good some days are bad, on a good day what does a Paramedic do?
On a good day, you helped somebody that needed to be helped. You know. You help an elderly female who has fallen and couldn't get up and you may have helped a child. There are so many different aspects of it. There are so many different forces on how to deal with human emotions, that every day it's something different. You know, it's not the same basic punch in at 9 to 5 and go home. It's not like that, I mean I can have a day when I do absolutely nothing and then there's a day when it can be absolutely busy and I've tried to resuscitate two or three patients and I've lost them. That's a bad day for me.
Do you think people abuse the 911 system?
Of course. We've had people call right in front of where they are to take them to the hospital, because they live on the same block, to use us as a cab.
Yeah, I've had that numerous times.
How do you keep your emotions in check?
You know, it's just basic, I mean it' going to get you upset after the call is done and said, but you have to be professional at all times and that's what it is. It's all about professionalism.
Do you have a method to comfort your patients? Is there some that you do for kids and the adults?
Well it depends, you show them what you are going to do before you actually touch them and that’s one way to comfort children. As far as adults, being honest and telling them. Not for nothing, you know a lot of people are absent minded and don’t take care of themselves and sometimes you have to tell them the truth and say listen this is what’s going to happen. I have had talks with people about me incubating them and sticking a tube down their throat, because they couldn’t breathe.
Tell us about one of your ambulance rides from hell, because I know a lot of times people don’t move out of the way for ambulances.
Yeah, that’s, that 5’oclock rush hour in Midtown. That’s just the way it is, that’s the nature of the beast.
So, as one of the first respondents among the many, like firefighters, police offices, most of the time an Emergency Medical Technician or Paramedic on an ambulance are called. Do you think that the doctors and the nurses show you the respect that you deserve?
It depends on the re-pour that you have with the Emergency room. If the nurse is having a bad day, she can necessarily take it out on the EMS unit. So, it really isn’t the nature or, usually the EMS gets along with nurses and doctors, because we all work as one. So, we usually, actually work together, but don’t get me wrong you have some nurses that are nasty and have been doing this a long time and there are some doctors that really couldn’t care less, but in the same aspect you have doctors that actually listen to the EMS and that are Pro EMS.
Do you think the patients give you the same respect that they would give a nurse or a doctor?
Yes, oh yes of course, I mean, usually nurses and doctors don’t come to their house and take them to the hospital. We do everything that an emergency room can do in the back of an ambulance. So, I do think that they do have a little bit more respect for us. I mean don’t get me wrong this generation now that is growing up couldn’t care less regardless of who it was, what kind of uniforms come in through their doors.
In all the years of you being in this industry, about how many lives you think you saved?
Oh wow, there's gotta be hundreds. I mean over my career, I’ve delivered 15 or so kids.
15 kids! Wow.
Yeah, 15 children, as far as resuscitating people back, I cant even remember how many. You talking about, NYC is one of the busiest EMS systems in the world and we do about average all together about 5,000 jobs a day. From the moment that that clock strikes midnight starts a brand new day and all the way to midnight again and that’s for the 5 boros (Manhattan, Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island).
What is the key to success when communicating with the public? You know, the Police Officers are kind of losing the respect from some people in the communities. The Fireman, most people like them, because they put out the fires and save people in the process. As a Paramedic in an ambulance do you feel like you have the respect if the community.
I think they do, i think once they see that the ambulance is there to help, they actually respond very well. I mean like all, you also going to have the people that abuse the system so much that they care who comes. They don't care, just take me to the hospital let me get a meal and a warm bed and that's about it, but at least when somebody is in need like stabbed or shot or a car accident, it's comforting to know that you EMT or Paramedic there to help you.
In an incident like the 9/11, where we lost a lot of First Responders on that day, what are your after thoughts on that kind of tragedy, what do you think? Were you there?
Yea, I was actually on the other side in Brooklyn working out of a hospital, where I actually watched it happening when the plane hit a second time. There is no thinking, it's second nature your just respond. I mean, it's what you are trained to do.
Today that's kind of conflicting, because a lot of people got sick by going in and aren't or didn't get any real help after the fact.
Actually, asking that question now after everything that I have seen and been through and watching co-workers die of Cancer and complications. Do you respond? Legally you have the right to respond, that's your job, it's not like you can say no not today.
Share an experience you had with a difficult person and how did you handle the situation?
That happens a lot, I mean sometimes people's emotions get out of hand and they feel like their in a crisis that they they never going to get help or get out of. You just have to comfort them, that's all you do.
When you go home at night and you been through a hard day, how do you get through it? We always care about the patient, but hardly consider the person going into the situation. So how do you cope with it how do you keep yourself sane?
You have to pick up a hobby. You have to deescalate your emotions and yourself and just say you know what I gotta relax. You know, there are many different ways to cope with stress and that's why a lot of EMS workers have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), because they don't know how to cope. There are specific departments that actually teach you how to distress that teach programs like Craig's Management and stuff like that. A lot of people keep things to themselves and that's what actually harms the EMS workers.
What is life to you?
Can you rephrase that?
I don't know. Life is a beautiful thing.
What advice can you give a new Paramedic?
Run (laughter). I don't know. It takes a certain person to do this kind of job.
What excites you about this job?
The action, the adrenaline flow. 20 years now.
We love this interview! Thank you John for an inspiring interview. Please don't forget to be kind to First Responders. Thanks for reading, please don't forget to subscribe.
Paramedic - a person trained to give emergency medical care to people who are seriously ill with the aim of stabilizing them before they are taken to the hospital.
EMT = Emergency Medical Technician
a person who is specially trained and certified to administer basic emergency services to victims of trauma or acute illness before and during transportation to a hospital or other healthcare facility.
PSTD - Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that can occur after a traumatic event like war, assault, or disaster. PTSD treatment can help.