You see ambulances all the time when you’re driving around and you vaguely know their job is to save people in emergencies. But what is it really like to be an EMT? What sorts of things do they see each day? How do they deal with encountering carnage on a regular basis?
My guest today published a memoir of his ten-year career as a paramedic in Georgia, and it’s one of the most interesting, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny books I’ve read this year. His name is Kevin Hazzard and his book is A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back. In our conversation, Kevin pulls back the curtain on this service that we often take for granted in our lives. He shares why he decided to become a paramedic and EMT, what’s involved in becoming one, and what a day in the life of an EMT looks like. But more importantly, Kevin shares insights about life and the human condition that he picked up while touching some brain that had landed on top of a car and looking for severed toes in the grass.
- Why Kevin decided to go from newspaper reporter/novelist to paramedic
- The training involved in becoming an EMT
- The different types of people that become an EMT and the different reasons they decide to become EMTs (some existential, some for no reason at all)
- Why it’s surprisingly hard to find EMT jobs when you’re first starting
- The sometimes shady world of private ambulance companies
- The difference between an EMT and a paramedic
- Kevin’s first traumatic call
- How being an EMT gave Kevin a sense of competency and mastery and how that carried over to other areas of his life
- The difference between “Tourist” EMTs and “True Believer” EMTs (and the moment Kevin became a True Believer)
- How becoming an EMT made Kevin more compassionate (even though the people he was trying to save often physically fought him)
- Why EMTs often don’t get as much respect as other first responders
- The time Kevin didn’t get a “First Responder” discount at the 9/11 Memorial because he was “just” an EMT/paramedic
- The only TV show ever about EMTs that aired in the 1970s and why it’s time for a new show about the job
- Why Kevin stuck with his job for 10 years and why he finally decided to retire from it
- What Kevin misses most about being an EMT
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Kevin’s novel Sleeping Dogs
- Black Hawk Down
- The difference between an EMT and a paramedic
- Find EMT classes near you
- Grady Hospital in Atlanta
- Private ambulance services
- Mastery by Robert Greene
- Emergency! 1970s TV show about EMTs
If you’ve been curious as to what it’s like to be a paramedic, then you’ll enjoy A Thousand Naked Strangers. Some of the stories in it are extremely graphic, but Kevin does a great job weaving in life lessons and humor throughout the book, making it a thoroughly interesting and engaging read.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Kevin Hazzard, welcome to the show.
Kevin Hazzard: Thanks. Thank you for having me on. It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: Your book, I don’t know how I first found out about it, but it’s called A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back. It’s a memoir, basically, of your time as a paramedic in Atlanta. The backstory of how you became a paramedic is fascinating because before that you, as you talk about in the book, you were a novel. You’ve written a fiction book. You were a newspaper reporter. Then you decide to become an EMT and that’s a huge career change, right? I figure if someone’s looking for a change in their career with your background, becoming a high school English teacher would be it. What drew you to becoming a paramedic?
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, it is a huge change. There are a few different factors that were involved in that and they’re not in any way necessarily even related. The first was that while I was in college, I went to school in South Carolina and lived in Charleston. While I was in college, I had this summer job where I led jet ski tours and one afternoon, I had these 2 guys in one of the tours I was leading that were spraying each other with the jet skis and they wound up crashing into one another. The one ski jumped up in the air. The one guy was knocked into the water. The jet ski came down and hit the one guy in the face and pretty much everything below the nose was gone.
Here he is. He’s floating in 75 feet of water. He’s missing half of a face. This is a horrible, just terrifying, life-threatening moment. I’m 19-years-old. I’m hopelessly outgunned by the situation. I did the only thing that bystanders are asked not to do in the event of an emergency. I totally panicked. That was my one experience with an emergency was just not handling it well and just having this horrible feeling of God, this is what it’s like when things go wrong.
Then I graduate. I was supposed to have gone to the Peace Corps, but I met this girl who essentially changed my whole world and I was like all right. I guess I’m not going. I’m going to stay home to be with her, so I had to figure out what I was going to do from there and I wound up being a reporter, which is great because in so many ways, it fit exactly what I wanted to do. The problem was, I had this intention all along of going off to live this adventure and to do something that was much larger than myself and be part of something, at least in my mind, that would’ve mattered. Now I found myself covering city council meetings and highway budget meetings and it just felt the opposite of everything that I thought I was going to do.
Then 9/11 happens and because I had gone to the Citadel, which is a military college in Charleston, a lot of my friends were in the military and they are marching off to Iraq and Afghanistan. One of them was one of the first marines to go into Iraq during that invasion. I’m hearing from them and they’re telling these unbelievable stories and I just know without even having to speak to them that they are involved in a huge thing, this massive moment that’s going to define our generation and I am at home covering a city council meeting. Just all those things came together at the exact same moment, the constant wondering if I am no more than someone who panics at a time of emergency. The feeling that I thought I was going to do something larger than myself and now I’m not. Then just a general malaise of being a 22-year-old kid who suddenly finds himself really bored with where he is. All those things happening and I just realized there’s got to be something more than what I’m doing. This isn’t what I want to be.
Around that time, I covered a tunnel collapse. In the subsequent articles … From witnessing these guys the night of that disaster and then talking to them afterward, I saw something in them that I realized could address all these things, these voids, I guess, that I had. It was just this epiphany moment of oh, wow, right here, under my nose, at home is something that I can do that satisfies all these needs. I couldn’t shake the thought, so my wife, who is very typical, type-A personality and it’s just like, “Don’t talk about it. If you want to do it, just do it. Shut up and do it.” That’s what she said one morning when I was talking about it. She said, “If you want to do it, just quit your job and go to school. Just do it,” and so I did.
Brett McKay: That’s interesting. This is the Art of Manliness podcast. I hate playing armchair psychologist, but I think what you experienced, I think a lot of men have gone through that sort of thing where they feel like they’re missing something. They want to know that they’re competent and in times of crisis they have this idea that to be a man, they need to know what to do when things go wrong. You think a little bit was going on with that in you, as well, or you just …
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a huge part of it that and I think that’s the word, competent. I remember way back when I read Black Hawk Down and the description that one of the widows gives of her husband, who’d been one of the Delta snipers and that she was concerned that she was never going to be able to … How can you ever replace a guy who has that level of competency? No matter what he entered into, she felt confident that he could do it, whether it was fixing the refrigerator or sewing a Halloween costume or heading off to Mogadishu to be a Delta sniper. He was that guy who could just handle any situation.
When you haven’t been put in that situation, when you haven’t forced yourself into that situation, when you haven’t done anything to say, “I want to test myself under extreme conditions,” you don’t know and you do have no way of even gauging where you would fall in that line. That was a huge part of it and that was a big part of what I noticed in these guys. They were this special rescue-tactical team that go out for various types of incidents, including the tunnel collapse. There was the way in which they carried themselves suggested that they were supremely confident in their abilities and that they had been there before, would have to go again, and knew that they could handle it. That was something I envied and certainly wanted that in my own life.
Brett McKay: Your wife, I love how you have a supportive wife. She’s like, “Do it. Quit talking about it. Do it.” Your wife said, “Go do it,” so you did it. I guess walk us through because I think the job of a paramedic, I think it’s a big mystery to a lot of civilians. They just don’t know what’s involved becoming a paramedic or what’s the job like. I always imagine that your training was really interesting. You talk about the training. EMTs, paramedics, these are the people are first responders you call whenever people are dying or there’s big trauma, so you think these are highly trained, rigorously trained medical specialists. Is the training very rigorous to become an EMT?
Kevin Hazzard: The training is a funny thing. EMT, it’s different for a paramedic. The difference between EMT and paramedic is the easiest way to say it is imagine the EMT is a nurse and the paramedic is the doctor, that sort of hierarchy and difference in training. The EMT training is really a funny thing. Unlike other branches of public safety, it isn’t something that you have to be first hired by the city and go through the city’s hiring practices. If you want to be a cop, that’s what you have to do. You have to apply with the city and it’s this long, Byzantine process. Then you go to the city’s academy. Same thing if you want to be a firefighter.
EMS, in most places, although it’s starting to change, a lot more and more municipalities are pairing fire and EMS into one service, but essentially, anyone who wants to sign up for night school can come out registered as an EMT. You don’t have a job, you just simply have a certificate that says I went to 6 months of school. Now I am an EMT. I passed this nationally administered exam and I have the requirements to be an EMT should somebody want to hire me. In that regard, it’s different. You can just to the school and be it and so there’s not a ton of standardized training. The test is standardized, but how people are trained, how rigorously they’re trained, is all over the board.
When I got there, my teacher was very good. He’d been in this for a long time. He had a huge class. I think there were 60-some odd of us in there and so he had a hard time, I think, keeping us in line because he had a bunch of like 22-year-old kids who were just goofing off. Some of it was just trying to herd cats and keep us moving, but he was very good and when I walked out of it, I felt as prepared as somebody could be. The training, essentially, is you’re taking people with zero experience and you’re trying to teach them to handle every single emergency that could possibly happen. It’s almost like Western Civ that you take in college. There’s no way you’re really going to be able to learn 1000 years of Western history, so they just touch on really the big points. It’s a lot like that.
We did the CPR-Heimlich section. There’s some stuff on bleeding control. You get an overview on stuff like seizures and diabetic emergencies and strokes and heart attacks, just enough so you have some clue of what’s happening around you. We did some work on how to read the signs on the side of tractor-trailers, so you know if a tractor-trailer has tipped over and you’ve been called out to it, you should at least be able to look at it and say, “Hey, the stuff in there is really flammable. We should be careful.” That’s what it is. It’s this massive overview of everything that could possibly happen, as well as a couple weeks of anatomy and physiology crammed in there.
There’s some practical skills that you have to learn, like IVs and using airways and using various types of splints and stuff, but it’s essentially a sprint through emergency medicine. Then you come out after 6 to 8 months and then luckily, in most cases, you’re the junior member, so ideally, you’re working with someone with some experience who can say, “Okay, remember that stuff you learned? Here’s how you put it into practice.”
Brett McKay: Right. Tell us about your classmates. What walks of life did they come? Did they cover a spectrum of socioeconomic classes? Did you have doctor students? You said 22-year-old kids who just didn’t really know what to do with their lives, is that what went to school?
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, we had all sorts of people. In my class, I noticed in general, in EMS, you have a wide swathe of the American public, whether it’s someone who went to Duke and is trying to get into med school, but screwed around too much in school and so now has to try to bolster their application. There are people like that, but my class, in particular, was very much a blue-collar group. The oldest guy I think was 65.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, he’d been a truck driver and one day, a car full of nuns … It would be hard to pick a worse scenario than this. A car full of nuns runs a stop sign and he T-bones them and kills them all. Of all the things you can do, to kill a car full of nuns and even though it wasn’t his fault, he just couldn’t drive a truck anymore. That was it. That was his moment. He said, “I was done,” but he was sufficiently impressed with the guys who showed up on the scene to say, “Well, maybe this is something I could do.” He was in his mid-60s, heavy smoker, in horrible shape. None of us had any illusion that this guy was actually going to be able to do this, but I think it was just some sort of therapeutic step he was trying to take after having just killed a carload of nuns. He was the oldest. The youngest was probably about 21. He was just part-time mailman. He looked like he was 13. Everyone else seemed to fall somewhere in between.
A lot of it was people who just graduated from high school a few years ago, had been bumping around from one odd job to another, and somehow or another had heard about this and thought I can do 3 nights a week for 6 months and maybe that’ll be a good career field for me. They entered into it a little bit capriciously, thinking hey, maybe this will be cool. There’s a handful of people who they are fanatical. They have wanted to be an EMT since they were a kid and here’s their moment and they’re ready to rush off and do it. It’s people from all walks of life that get into it.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s interesting that everyone had their different reasons for doing it, like existential reasons and just reasons they didn’t really have big level reasons why they’re doing it, just like …
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, I was surprised. I expected to be something of an outcast coming in because I had no clue really what it was. I had some understanding that ambulances existed, but I didn’t really know what they did. I didn’t really know what the job was. The first night that I walked into class, I remember distinctly saying to myself, “Am I going to do this? Is this some weird thing that I’m just going to try for a week?” I had entered into so almost accidentally that it was hard for me to even imagine that I was going to make it all the way through. Then, of course, there was the specter of me panicking back in ’97. Then I’m flipping through the textbook and I’m looking at these horribly mangled bodies and getting lightheaded and thinking man, this might not be for me.
Brett McKay: What I thought was surprising you talk about in your book when you first … You went through the classes. You got certified. Then you got out there to look for a job. I knew that EMS had a high turnover rate because it’s a tough job, but you had a hard time finding a job at first. Why was that? What’s going on there? Also, you can talk a little bit about, I didn’t know about this, the different levels of EMS jobs that exist out there.
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah. As I said before, in some cities, the EMS department has been enveloped by the fire department and they exist. As I said, those are tough jobs to get, to get in with a fire department. Not necessarily that the standards for hiring are any different, necessarily. It’s just that cities tend to hire those kind of jobs once or twice a year, so you have to really be patient and you have to understand that hey, they might not be hiring for another 6 months. Then when they do, there might be 750 applicants for 4 jobs. That’s how it goes with these. People who get into that job, they tend to retire in it, so there’s not a ton of openings. That was one area that pretty much immediately I realized okay, I’m not going to get in with a fire department. It’s so difficult to do that, nor did I really have any interest in fighting fire. It just wasn’t what I was there to do.
Then you look at all right, who provides 911 EMS in Atlanta? If you’re in Atlanta, frankly, if you’re in Georgia, the place you want to be is Grady. It’s this massive public hospital. It’s one of the largest trauma centers in the US. It’s very well-known. They run the EMS department for the city of Atlanta, so if you want to work in Atlanta, that’s where you want to be. There’s no doubt. Of course, that’s what I wanted to do, but I went and applied to them and they said, “Yeah, no, you need experience. We’re not going to hire anyone without experience.”
All right, how do I get experience? I started looking around at some of the other EMS providers, whether it’s Fulton County or different counties, different cities. I did find one who said, “Oh, man. I wish you had called me 2 days ago. We just got done hiring,” which was one of those gut-wrenching moments. Then I got to the private ambulance services, which I didn’t even know existed until this moment.
Essentially, you have 2 types of EMS services. You have 911, which, obviously, you dial 911 and on the other end of that call, ultimately, there’s an ambulance with an EMT and a paramedic in it. Then the other one are the private services. Their main role is to take people to and from appointments, so if you live in a nursing home, they’ll pick you up and take you to a doctor’s appointment or there are people who live at home that can’t sit up in a car or whatever and so they need an ambulance to take them there.
Obviously, without even having to be told, you know that that is not going to attract the prime talent, right. It’s either going to be people who are looking for the easiest possible job or people who wanted to be a 911 and either can’t because they don’t yet have the experience or got there, did not do a good job, and had to leave. It’s a very weird mix of people, a very strange crew, and the thing that happens is nursing homes oftentimes will use a non-emergency service, these private ambulance companies, to fudge their math.
Let’s just say your grandmother is living in a nursing home and she falls one night or she has a stroke or she chokes on a piece of chicken or she has a super-high fever because she has a urinary tract infection that they didn’t catch. If they dial 911, in her paperwork, it’s going to say we had to call 911, which immediately suggests to anyone reading it hey, there was an emergency. If they call this non-emergency service, they can say, “Oh, it wasn’t a big deal. It was something minor. We caught it early. It was so minor, in fact, that we didn’t even have to call 911. We called a non-emergency service.” Even though this woman may be having a stroke and this could be a life-threatening situation, they often do that.
Now, to this emergency, arrive someone who never wanted to be a 911 and his partner who is someone who tried to be a 911, but couldn’t handle it and got washed out. Now they’re arriving in this poorly equipped ambulance and doing a really terrible job. That happens quite often and I worked for one of those places. It was a shady place, to be perfectly frank. In my job interview, they never bothered to verify that I actually was an EMT. They took my word for it. In the interview, I was assured that, “Look, I know you’ve heard the rumors about possible Medicare fraud. We’ve been investigated and the government so far can’t find any evidence,” so for your potential employer to say, “We aren’t doing anything illegal as far as the government can prove,” in a job interview it’s not the sort of thing that immediately distills a lot of confidence.
That was the only thing I could get, so I took it. I had some weird partners. I had one who used to every night she would bring her girlfriend in and the 2 of them would play cards and drink beer. I had another who used to disappear at night in the ambulance to go pick up prostitutes. You had another who used to get homeless men to pay them a few bucks to clean out the ambulance. It was a strange crew of people that worked there and I was always looking around going, “I cannot believe that this is where I am right now. What weird world have I stumbled into?”
Brett McKay: After I read about the private emergency service, I started seeing them. Because it was on my radar, I started seeing them pop up in city streets. There’s one, the ambulance looked like the Ghostbusters car. I was like okay, that’s private service. That’s what that is. It’s not 911. That’s private. Thanks to your book, I’m aware of this thing.
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, you can spot them quickly.
Brett McKay: Right. Did you gain any experience there that would help you move on to what you were eventually wanting to do, which was do 911 ambulance or was it a lot of just taking old people who had strokes to the hospital and that was it?
Kevin Hazzard: In doing that, in taking those, because that’s what a lot of 911 is, is old people with a medical emergency and so the fact that these nursing homes so often would use these non-emergency services to cover for the fact that they hadn’t noticed that your granddad had had a stroke 4 hours ago, that gave me a lot of experience because it would be me and some other EMT, so both us are EMTs. There’s no paramedic involved. It’s just 2 EMTs. The person I was partnered with oftentimes did know what he was doing, maybe knew less than I did or maybe thought he knew what he was doing and was just really bad at his job.
It forced me very early to put me in control of a situation I was not prepared to be in control of. Of course, you learn from that. You gain experience in terms of dealing with an emergency and trying to be involved, which was funny because then I switched to a 911 service and now nobody would dream of putting me in the back with one of those patients. I had neither the training nor the experience to do that, so I went from this world where if anything went wrong, I just would be the one to take over because I knew my partner knew even less than I did to one in which I was considered nowhere near experienced or trained enough to handle it. I did learn some stuff, for sure.
Brett McKay: Right. After you went from private medical, private emergency service, after that, you went to the county, Fulton County, correct?
Kevin Hazzard: Mm-hmm (affirmative), I did.
Brett McKay: Is that when you first saw your first traumatic accident? You talked about in your training, your certification course, you would get lightheaded looking at the pictures. Did you encounter something like that while you were at Fulton?
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, that was a regular 911 service, so right away, that’s what you’re doing. I think my very first call working Fulton County EMS was a guy who was mowing his lawn. It was morning. It was a slight hill, a little slope in the backyard. He went down and then was backing up, which is the one thing you should never do on a lawnmower, especially in wet grass uphill. He slips and essentially just pulls the lawnmower over his foot and there go your toes in a hurry. That was the first call was for a guy who had cut his toes off with a lawnmower. There I am. It’s 8:15 in the morning. I am brand new and I’m kneeling in this guy’s grass looking for toes. I couldn’t have been happier than I was at that moment. It was my God, here I am. I’m doing it. I’m in the mix and something crazy has happened and I’m the one that was called.
That is an incredibly, especially in the beginning, it’s an incredibly heady, intoxicating feeling to know that whatever you’re doing, you might be sitting down eating lunch, you might be at work checking off that you have everything that you need, but to know that if anything goes wrong, I’m the person that they’re going to call to handle it. That’s really this incredible feeling that no matter what happens around me, I’m going to go and I’m going to be there and I’m going to witness it. I’m going to be part of it. If there’s a shooting or an explosion or a child is born or some massive car wreck or a plane crash, who knows, whatever happens, I’m going to be there. Once you get your head around that, it’s really a pretty wild experience.
Brett McKay: It’s going back to that sense of competency, right, that sense of I can handle whatever this situation. I’m curious, did that sense of mastery, we would say, like in your career as an EMT and paramedic, did that carry over to other aspects of your life or was it very domain-specific, like you felt great and confident when you were looking for toes and patching people up, but when you were out with your wife at home, did that carry over there?
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah. It’s funny. Initially, I didn’t have that feeling because 1, I was new, but 2, as an EMT, you are, essentially, you’re almost a glorified witness. Anyone who is an EMT, I’m not trying to knock anyone, but anyone who’s worked the job knows that ultimately, the decisions all come down to the paramedic, so it isn’t until you become an experienced paramedic and have to make those decisions by yourself and have to live with the consequences by yourself that you can really begin to feel that level of competence and like yeah, I’ve got this and I can handle it. Initially, of course, just as an EMT it wasn’t there. It was just I wanted to be a part of as many things as I could possibly be a part of so that when I came out of paramedic school, I’d be ready to roll.
When it did come and it did around the time I was finishing paramedic school. I’d been, at that point, in the job about a year and a half and I started to feel very confident because I’d done a bunch of things. Yeah, it comes into other aspects of your life because you begin to realize okay, 1, I can handle pressure. 2, I’m not the kind of person who panics. I can deal with multiple things at once. An EMS is a lot like trying to arm wrestle 3 different people at once. You just never have enough hands to get done everything that needs to get done and so you have to know how to work really quickly, how to multitask, how to go from one thing to another. You’re opening packages with your teeth and you’re moving things around with your feet. You’re grabbing and you’re dropping and you’re moving.
Meanwhile, of course, there’s this patient and you’re in an ambulance that’s moving 65 miles an hour down the highway. If you’ve ever stood up in a car or in any kind of vehicle, you realize every time it turns, you go flying and so to learn how to do all that and operate under that kind of pressure and in an austere environment like that, yeah, it does huge things to your confidence. You just realize okay, I can handle a lot more than I ever thought I was capable of. It’d be very hard, I think, for that not to translate to other areas of your life.
Brett McKay: In the book, you talk about there’s different types of EMTs or paramedics. You refer to one group as tourists and then there’s the true believers. What do you mean by … What made an EMT a tourist and can you give any notable examples from your career of tourists that you had worked with during your time?
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah. You see a lot with part-timers, but you see it with all sorts of people. Because EMS is such a strange thing, because you can do a few months of a night course and then go to work somewhere, it attracts people who were doing other things with their lives and so you might have a landscaper who just needs benefits and a full-time check because he doesn’t do any work in the winter. I had a friend who was a sommelier. He was trying to get a business off the ground and again, he needed money. There were people like me who medicine was not a natural calling for them, but they found the world of EMS to be very intriguing and exciting and fulfilling and they went to it.
One of my early partners was a bodybuilder. He was a good guy. He was a good medic. He’d been at it for a long time, but really what he was, how he identified himself, was not as a paramedic, even though he’d been doing it for 20 years. He identified himself as a bodybuilder. He was a strange character who he … I never worked with him when he was getting ready for a show, but he worked out all the time. He had all his protein shakes and all his muscle magazines and was always talking about some philosophy. It’s weird because there’s whole questions about which type of tan is better, a natural tan or a sunbed tan and which oils will accentuate your muscles the best?
He was this enormous guy who put away a ton of food. Of course, when he was getting ready for a show, he’d pare his diet down and tons of diuretics and all that kind of stuff, but on a normal basis, he would eat this ungodly amount of food because he was just so big. That’s why he was there. He needed the flexibility when he was getting ready to do a show to be able to work less and work out more. He was a perfect example of what a tourist was, someone who was doing the job, but it wasn’t their primary focus.
Brett McKay: Were you a tourist for a while? Would you describe yourself as a tourist?
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, I would because I was there for reasons that were totally about me in the beginning. I don’t say that with any great level of pride or embarrassment. It’s just the way it was. I went there seeking something about myself as opposed to going there to be one step in the healthcare ladder. I went there to seek all the things that young men seek out in life. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t about me, that there were people on the other end of that. On the other end of the ambulance, there was someone who’s life was theoretically hanging in the balance and I was there to take care of them. Once I focused less on myself and more and the patient, I found that I had this natural ability for the job, that, to my surprise, I was a very good medic and to my surprise, I was very patient. I surprised myself with how caring I could be. These aren’t things that in your early 20s you would normally characterize yourself as. It brought out a lot of great things in me that I never realized were there.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think you mentioned a part in your book where with your wife walking and you saw someone, a homeless person that you treated frequently and she even noticed that you had become kinder and more …
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah. I think there are a lot of things that are in us all the time, just like the ability to handle pressure. It’s not like I learned it through this job. It’s either in you or it isn’t. There are plenty of people who do the job who can’t handle pressure and you can see it. You see them break down and everybody knows it. There’s this black mark over their name or we all say, “Oh, boy, don’t work with him. He’s going to panic when it comes down to it.” Yeah, that compassion and that empathy was something that the job brought out.
That particular case you’re referring to is a woman that we ran all the time who essentially, there are a lot of people like this where she had massive substance abuse issues, but part of that was a long and untreated psychological history. She had some pretty serious mental issues and because she didn’t have any kind of support system, she wound up on the streets. Being on the streets is a place where people tend to get into prostitution and drugs and that’s really what she was. To the average person walking down the street, you would just say, “Well, this is just a crack whore.” That’s how she described herself, but she was a good person and we used to joke and laugh and I picked her up quite a bit. She got to know me. She got to know my wife or at least by name.
One day, we were tailgating at a football game and I see her picking through the trash. It was this weird moment. It wasn’t that often that my professional and personal lives collided like that. There was the prime example of it. There she was and so I stopped and I said, “Hey, what’s going on?” She came right over and gave me this hug. My friends, they know me at this point. They know. They’ve heard all the stories, so they’re staring trying to figure out who is this person? Which of the stories have we heard is she a part of? She sees my wife and instantly says, “Oh,” and starts talking to her and knows her by name and knows all these things about her. Then she takes my hand and says, “Come on. I want you to meet my boyfriend.” Sabrina looks at me. I was like, “Well, this probably not safe.”
A friend of mine was standing there who worked with me, a very big guy, and he was like, “Oh, I’ll walk with her.” They walk across a field and she introduces my wife to her boyfriend, which is, ultimately, just her pimp. The guy looks at my wife and smiles at her and says, “Holler at me if you ever want to make some money because with an ass like that, we can make things happen.”
It was an eye-opening experience for my wife, of course, but that was a day in the life for me. You spent so much time dealing with people like that and in really dangerous neighborhoods and bad areas. That was just one of your clientele, so to speak. She was just surprised by, I think, the degree to which I accepted those people without judgement. I think that’s part of the job. That’s part of what would make you a good medic.
Brett McKay: There’s this really poignant moment talk about in the book. You and your wife go to New York City, go the 9/11 Memorial and there was these discounts for police, firemen, military, first responders, but there weren’t any for paramedics or EMT, even though you point out during the 9/11 attacks, 43 EMTs and medics died trying to rescue people. I think it speaks to a larger why don’t EMTs or paramedics get the same respect as other first responders do? These are the people who, like I said earlier, when it’s 2:00 in the morning and grandma’s having a stroke, they’re the ones who get there first, oftentimes.
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, and ultimately, the ambulance is where a life is saved or not. Nobody goes to hospital by firetruck. It’s just not the way it works. Paramedics and EMTs are the ones who do that. I think there are several reasons for it. First is that the paramedic, the field, the title paramedic did not exist until the late ’60s and they didn’t exist in practice until about 1970. Since then, it’s been a strange road where people have been trying to figure out what the field is and how to use it best and so it’s new and it’s a bit misunderstood and not always properly used by the city.
Then there’s the fact that it’s medicine. People have a fear of doctors and would rather not even think about that. Of course, firefighters and police, even as much as trouble as police find themselves in today, they still occupy rarefied air in American society and firefighters, as well. Even though in commercials, you see them joke about firefighters rescuing a cat from a tree, there’s still nobody who a fire engine goes by in a parade and people wave and it’s implicit, immediately, and that interaction between the parade and all these things that we revere and the fire engine, you get it. That is a part of … These people are there to save us if our house burned.
That recognition doesn’t exist when you see an ambulance. It’s just this other thing. It’s never been portrayed, I don’t think, the correct way in popular culture. If you think about when you see an ambulance in a movie, it’s at the end, right? When Bruce Willis’ partner is badly burned and shot in the stomach and half dead, but Bruce has saved the day and these 2 faceless medics jump out in their little white cloaks and they load Bruce Willis’ partner into the back of the ambulance. Then, of course, Bruce has to double tap the doors to say, “Hey, guys, you can drive off now. I give you my blessing,” as if they’re too dumb to even know when to drive away. That’s the only way they’re really ever portrayed. It’s just generally speaking I think we have looked past it. We try not to focus on it for, I think, all those reasons.
Brett McKay: Has there been any popular television shows about just paramedics?
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, there was a show in the ’70s and frankly, this is what created a big boom in this field because you figure ’69, Jacksonville, Florida is the first city to really figure out how to use a paramedic. Then other cities start using that model through the early ’70s, but of course, you got to devote some budget to it, so it was slow happening. In the mid to late ’70s, this show called Emergency came on and it was about this pair of paramedics working in LA. You talk to people who are in their 40s and 50s about how they got into EMS, they will tell you it was that show.
It was, essentially, an EMS version of Dragnet. You have these 2 guys going out, working hard, doing everything they can to try to save lives and get things done. It perfectly fit that era, but it also, certainly, glorified the field, but that’s the only thing that’s ever existed. As the world has become more complicated and more accepting of complicated stories, yeah, EMS is the one thing that has never been given that treatment, the humor of it all, the darkness, the Cohen brothers side of our story has never been told. Of course, that was a big part of why I wanted to write the book.
Brett McKay: Right. As I was reading that, that’s what I thought, like this would be a great TV show, Law & Order: Special Victims …
Kevin Hazzard: It would be hard to disagree with that. You see that version of it all the time. You look at, essentially, what The Sopranos did to the mob story, they deglorified it. There’s The Godfather on the one end, which is impossible to even imagine ever existed in any way, but that’s how it was portrayed in a lot of cases. Then The Sopranos comes along. It gives you a much more flawed look at it. This mob boss is practically scared of his own shadow and has so many issues. I feel like the time is right for the EMS version of that to show what it is really like.
Brett McKay: Awesome. You did this job for 10 years, right?
Kevin Hazzard: I did, 10 years, yeah.
Brett McKay: The schedule is grueling. You saw carnage on a regular basis. The people you dealt with, you talk about in your book they’re often very difficult. You sometimes had to fight with people physically.
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah, a lot of times.
Brett McKay: Emotionally exhausting. What kept you going? Why did you stay so long because you talk about in the book a lot of people are in it for a little bit and they’re out, but why did you stay so long?
Kevin Hazzard: There are a couple factors, but I think they all boil down to the same thing. A lot of people leave and come back and they say, “Well, you know, I just missed it. I missed being part of medicine and I missed being here,” but you can work medicine anywhere else and any other brand of medicine and be paid a lot more for it than you do EMS. I think that there are a couple things that really keep people rooted in the field and one is a bond that you have between the person you work with.
I was actually emailing back and forth this morning with a guy that I haven’t seen in years who is an old partner of mine. The affection that we have for each other it would be difficult to understand for someone who’s never done it. You find yourself in a situation and this guy in particular is a perfect example. He and I get called out late at night, horrible part of town, for this girl who’s been injured. We get to the door and there’s 25, 30 people in a room and they are drunk and they are fired up. In come these 2 guys and they look at us. We don’t look like them. We don’t come from their world. They immediately get angry with us and the situation gets violent. Thankfully, he was a big enough guy to be able to stand up and calm them down with his physical presence.
We had multiple instances where we had to fight patients and we’re wrestling around with people. You have that moment where you get called out to someone and the guy gets violent. You are fighting with him and his family’s yelling at you and people are jumping in and then some neighbor is saying, “I’m going to go and call the police,” or, “I’m going to go and get a gun.” The cops are there and it’s this mad scene. All you want to do is help this guy get to the hospital, but you wound up in a full blown fistfight with him. You’ve got him on your stretcher and got him tied down. You are sweaty and your clothes are ripped and you’ve got scratch marks on your face. You’re exhausted and you just look at each other and smile. There’s this little moment of a smirk that passes, like I can’t believe that just happened and damn, we did it again.
Being in that situation over and over again, having to rely so heavily on somebody, it creates a strange bond. In the 40 minutes or so that it takes for a call, that other person is the only person in your universe. Your partner is the only other resource that you have. There are a lot of dangerous situations. There are a lot of difficult situations. There are a lot of times where you have the ability to save someone’s life, but you need your partner to help you and when they do and the 2 of you are able to work together to save somebody and they come through at that exact moment you need them to come through and do their end of the job perfectly, it just creates an incredible bond. That is really a big part of it. The friendships that we have and how tight we are with one another, even though how hard we are with one another, PC does not exist there. The things people say to each other, the humor is very dark and very aggressive, so that’s a huge, huge part of it.
Of course, the other thing is that working in that field and sitting out on a Friday night when the weather is nice and you’re in this bad part of town and you hear the distant pop-pop of a gun and there are people walking around and they’re … Drug dealers communicate with this almost like a cat call, bird call, whoop, whoop to each other. You’re parked in this vacant lot and you’re just watching all this go on around you and you know that whatever happens tonight, and you can just tell it’s going to be a crazy night, that you and your partner are going to be called out to it. It’s just a fun, it’s an exciting job. Those moments go a long way. Even in the boring times when it’s raining and you’re just running nothing but nothing, you remember those exciting moments. I think those things come together, the incredible bond and then the high that you have when the job is really good. I think you know that once you leave, you aren’t going to get those back.
Brett McKay: You did leave, eventually. Do you miss it?
Kevin Hazzard: Yeah. My career, I think, ran its course, so I don’t miss the job, but I do miss those 2 aspects. More than anything, I miss that close relationship that I had with those people, showing up at work and finding out that someone you really like, you get along with really well, is going to be your partner that night and knowing man, this is going to be a great night right away. Then getting in the ambulance and 2 of you just start talking and goofing around and especially, those exciting times, those great calls that you love to run where they’re really hard, but you get it done. It would be hard not to say you don’t miss that. It’s such a strange thing. Once you get out of it, you realize very quickly that I’m not at the level I … It’s like a fighter that stops training. You get out of fighting shape very quickly. It’s not like I could hop on an ambulance tonight and do that job. I’m no longer in that condition.
Brett McKay: Hey, Kevin, this has been a really fascinating discussion. Where can people learn more about you and your book?
Kevin Hazzard: There’s a website, kevinhazzard.com and there’s some things that didn’t make the book. There are some pictures we’ve used and links to places that you can buy the book.
Brett McKay: Kevin Hazzard, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Kevin Hazzard: Thank you. I really appreciate it.