Skip to main content

Making Someone’s Worst Day ‘a little less worse’

Mack Holt, a paramedic at Advanced Life Systems in Yakima, prepares to administer a small dose of medicine to a young child having seizures on the way to the hospital Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016

It was late at night when I found myself riding in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I didn’t need medical attention, but the silent 1-year-old infant on the gurney did.

The child had been having a seizure for almost 20 minutes. All I could think about was the worried look on the mother’s face as a team of firefighters and EMTs huddled around her baby and the panicked voice of the baby’s older sister as she told her mother that she was scared.

The ambulance rocked up and down as it sped down the road in West Valley. Mack Holt, a 22-year-old paramedic, was busy preparing a syringe with a small dose of medicine. He carefully administered the dose to the child. It took only a few seconds before the infant started to cry for the first time since we had arrived. The seizures had stopped.

“A crying baby is a good baby in this profession,” Mack said with a smile.

This is the type of daily routine for thousands of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and other emergency medical service (EMS) providers across the United States. They are the people who are in the business of saving lives. They are the people who show up when you call 911.

One of these people happens to be my uncle, Josh Redtfeldt.

I was always interested in what a day in the life of an EMT looked like, so when I was presented with the prospect of riding along with my uncle on one of his shifts, I was quick to hop on.

My two-day experience started early in the morning of Thursday, Aug. 25. I met up with Josh and his partner, Mack Holt, at their station on Tieton Drive.

They both work for Advanced Life Systems, an advanced life support agency that provides critical and noncritical care in the pre-hospital field. Mack, who lives in Ellensburg, has worked in the EMS field for 31/2 years. Josh, a Selah resident, has been an EMT for two years, but started his work in the EMS field in 2007 when he was a firefighter in the Marine Corps.

We sat at the station for a few hours and watched the hours tick by. After almost three hours of sitting around and watching Josh and Mack fill out paperwork, we got our first call.

We had to go to a nearby retirement facility in west Yakima and take the blood pressure of a few residents there. It wasn’t anything exciting, but Mack and Josh assured me that we’d get a more dramatic call by the end of the night.

A little later, we got another call. There was an older lady with Parkinson’s disease who had to be taken to the hospital. It wasn’t the energy-filled, high-stakes call I was hoping for, but it provided me with a great glimpse into one of the many things that an EMT does on a daily basis.

“It doesn’t really matter what the call is, my only goal now is to show up and make their day a little better,” Mack pointed out after we got back to the station. “That’s why I like doing this. It’s all about making someone’s (worst) day ever a little less worse. The day-to-day stuff is what keeps me going.”

Josh added that the adrenaline rush he gets from the job is another reason why he does it.

“One moment you’re sitting here and the next minute you’re on the side of a mountain waiting for a rope team to pull your patient up, or you’re going out on a call for a gunshot wound,” he explained. “It’s the uncertainty of not knowing what you’re going to walk into. There’s a lot of calls we get here in Yakima where it’s just us. No police or fire department.”

Mack chimed in: “You’re always five seconds away from going on a life-changing call.”

I was hoping to go on one of those life-changing calls. I wanted to see something intense. There was, however, the chance that I’d see a dead person and I didn’t know if I was ready for that. I shared my apprehension about this with Mack and Josh.

Mack said he feels everybody should see a dead body at some point in their life. Not just at an open-casket funeral, but a body out where they died. He feels it’s healthy to see what death is really like.

“Today people are so scared of the real death even though they’re so exposed to the fake Hollywood death. It’s nothing like the movies at all. I’ve never seen a movie death that’s close to what a real death is like. (In movies) people’s eyes kinda just close and they’re calm and relaxed. There’s no shaking back and forth or people peeing themselves in movies. Death is very violent.”

Josh added that this isn’t the only misconception that the general public has about death and the people in the EMS field:

“I think the biggest misconception that the public has is that we’re not affected by the stuff we see.”

A survey published in July 2015 by the American Ambulance Association of 4,022 EMS providers from around the United States showed that 37 percent of the providers had contemplated suicide, while 6.6 percent reported they had attempted to take their own life.

The Canadian Mental Health Association reported in 2013 that EMS providers were more than two times as likely as the rest of the general Canadian population to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a 2014 issue of EMS World, a magazine that covers EMS-related topics, Jeff Dill, a captain at the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Illinois, said that when EMS workers put on their uniform, they’re expected to appear strong and not show weakness. Then when things go wrong on the job or in their personal lives, those workers try to handle everything on their own, including stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

Dill is quoted in the article as saying: “We forget we’re human beings first, and it becomes quite overwhelming.”

As the time crept closer to midnight on Friday, Aug. 26, my hours with Mack and Josh came to an end. I was exhausted and I nearly fell asleep sitting on the couch while we waited for another call. I had only spent about six hours each day with them. I could only imagine how the EMS providers who stay up for two days straight feel after a shift.

It’s not an easy job by any means. The long hours, low pay and mental stress are all enough to keep many people away from the profession. After my two days with Mack and Josh, I have a newfound respect for EMS providers. People like them set everything aside and respond to calls day and night, whether it be helping an elderly lady with Parkinson’s disease or an infant with seizures.

“It can be tough sometimes,” Mack said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”