Lifesaving Advice From an Emergency Medical Technician

What riding in the back of an ambulance has taught me about living, dying, and all the dicey stuff in between.

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A dull thud outside the tent startled me from sleep. Then came my sister's screams for help. I raced into the driving rain toward a scene I feared through years of camping with my extended family: My 82-year-old father had stumbled on a tree root as he made his way to the outhouse in the early dawn. He was lying in the mud, in obvious agony.

We were four days into our annual camping trip on a tiny island in the middle of Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, without plumbing, electricity, or solid shelter from the miserable weather. Beyond dialing the ranger for help from my cell phone, we were utterly unequipped to aid my father. Gently, we tried helping him to his feet, but he collapsed into our arms. We had no choice but to lower him back to the ground, with only a plastic tarp to shield his fragile, shivering body from the storm, and wait for the water ambulance.

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Fifteen minutes later, three Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) emerged from the woods with a bright yellow backboard. I watched as they took Dad's vitals, checked his bare feet for sensation, and lobbed easy questions at him to screen for a head injury. In perfect coordination —all the while offering calming words to him and us — they strapped Dad onto the backboard, made their way back through the trees, and loaded him, along with my mom and brother, onto their boat.

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I stood on the rickety dock in the morning chill, watching the flashing red emergency lights grow fainter and fainter as the rescue rig made its way toward the southern shore. And I decided at that moment exactly how I wanted to volunteer my time.

That autumn, once we got Dad past surgery to repair the hip he had shattered, I enrolled in a course at a nearby hospital to become an EMT. It gave me something positive to focus on as I helped Mom care for my father; like countless elderly fall victims, he developed pneumonia after months of immobility and went downhill from there. Heartbreakingly, I couldn't save my father, but maybe I could pass forward to others what those EMTs had given my family that day when we were desperate for help.

Twelve intense weeks of training alongside cops, firefighters, and college premeds yanked me right out of my middle-aged comfort zone. I was a 49-year-old mom and writer who was more creative than capable; I couldn't even operate our TV remote. Suddenly, I had to master a daunting array of oxygen canisters, cardiac defibrillators, and traction devices. I practiced hoisting 200-pound volunteers onto stretchers and up into an ambulance; before that, the most I'd carried was a backpack. And I couldn't show any of the jangly nerves that had plagued me while raising two accident-prone sons.

The three years since I earned my certification and began riding with my local first aid squad in New Jersey have taught me far more than how to splint a leg or bandage a wound. I've learned how our health care system works (and doesn't), real-world reasons people call for help, and ways we can all be better prepared to handle the things we hope never happen — but sometimes do. What I want to share: a few hacks and lessons that could save the day, in an actual emergency or just a little life pickle.

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1. Make it easier for people to help you.

Imagine being unable to find a patient in deep respiratory trouble because the number on her house isn't visible from the street. Picture hauling an injured 250-pound guy through foot-deep snow because no one's plowed the driveway and you can't roll a stretcher in. Think about how tricky it is to treat a person or carry her out of her home when every inch of the place is clotted with clutter.

Those are just a few of the obstacles that people unknowingly put between themselves and help. My plea to everyone, including friends, is this: Take a look at your own or your parents' home; make sure it's well lit, identifiable, and accessible from outside. See that there's a clear path from the front door to each main room. And don't lock yourself in! Store an extra key in a lockbox outside, especially if you live alone. That way, if you're unable to come to the door, you can at least yell out the location of the lockbox and the code to the people who come to your rescue. Or you can do what my mom does: Write on the lockbox several cell phone numbers of people the EMT folks can call for the combination.

2. Simple tools work in a pinch.

Sure, antihistamines, aspirin, and antiseptics are vital. But other EMTs have clued me in to household items that work just as hard. A big plastic garbage bag laid out on the ground can provide a clean work surface when you're dressing a wound. With a hole made for the head, it becomes a heat-trapping poncho for someone who's shivering. I've found that a water bottle with a squeeze-top nozzle has just the right oomph to flush out wounds and help you avoid infection. Resealable plastic bags can serve as ice-filled cold packs or makeshift gloves, and can even hold a gauze-wrapped amputated finger. (Sorry for that visual, folks!) I keep all of those and more (see above) with the first aid kit in the trunk of my family's car, and tell friends to do the same.

3. Worry less about what isn't in your control; focus on what is.

When I walk into a smoker's apartment and find him gasping and hacking up green sputum from his COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), I am dumbfounded that anyone today still picks up the cigs. And every person who shrugs off a seat belt should see what an unbelted passenger looks like after he flies through a car's front windshield. Witnessing the consequences of careless habits on a regular basis has inspired me to take better care of myself. I eat healthier and get more exercise than I ever did before becoming an EMT. I don't text or make calls while I drive and would never ski or bike without a helmet. None of this, of course, inoculates me against illness and disaster — so much of life is out of our control. But at least I'm doing what I can to improve my odds.

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4. Get to know thy neighbors.

Before you pick a fight with that leaf-blowing guy next door or write off the hipsters who moved in across the street, shift perspective: These are the people who can keep a spare key to your home, check in on your elderly mom, ring the doorbell if they notice you haven't left the house for days, and wave down the ambulance if you're, say, doubled over with abdominal pains on the couch inside.

When my husband had a massive seizure about a decade ago and rescue vehicles lined up in front of my house, it was my neighbors who immediately came flying through the door — securing the dog, comforting my sons, and clearing a path for the EMTs so I could stick with Paul. Then they swept some of my clothes and toiletries into a bag and delivered it to the hospital while I kept vigil. Though we aren't intimate friends, I'm grateful to every one of them and at the ready to pay it back should they need anything — even if it's just to walk their dog or make sure they've turned off the coffeemaker.

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5. Mental health matters.

On any given shift, a significant portion of calls we get are related to mental illness. It might be an elderly "frequent flier" who rings every few weeks with vague symptoms but whose biggest problem is actually loneliness and depression. It could be a 40-year-old woman found by the roadside, distraught about a broken marriage and threatening to kill herself. It may be a 6-foot-tall teen with a mood disorder who brandished a desk chair at another kid at school. All of these people require our help, but they're not likely to get the care they really need at an often chaotic, impersonal ER — the only place we EMTs are allowed to take them.

Think about how much suffering could be avoided if psych treatment were more accessible. When you hit the voting booths this fall, get behind candidates who support making mental health services affordable for everyone.

6. We can all be heroes.

Not everyone is cut out for EMT work. (I'd be lying if I said I didn't get rattled or grossed out at times myself.) However, each of us can prep to become part of the rescue chain, when needed.

Case in point: Most people who survive cardiac emergencies are initially helped by nonmedical bystanders. Every second counts when a heart stops beating, and by the time we get there, it's often too late. While the American Red Cross encourages getting trained in CPR so you can give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to someone in need, even a kid can perform hands-only CPR (or what's called continuous-chest-compression CPR). And it may be lifesaving, helping to sustain vital organs until EMTs arrive. It's such a simple skill, you can learn it online. On your next lunch break, watch a video here.

7. When you show up, it matters.

Before becoming an EMT, I used to fret about what to say to a friend who'd been diagnosed with cancer or was otherwise struggling during dark times. Now, I just make it my business to show up. I'll give her a hug, make soup, watch stupid movies, or take her for a walk in the woods. In so many situations, the bravery it takes to just be there is plenty.

EMTs don't have magic words of comfort; we're not actually allowed to offer medical insights or advice out in the field. During life's scariest, most painful moments, we can't tell patients "Everything will be all right"; we have no clue if it will be. Instead, we're taught to offer reassuring phrases like "You're in good hands. We're going to take care of you." But I've found that often the most powerful communication is just being there to hold someone's hand, whether it's a homeless alcoholic who has little connection with anyone around him or an elderly diabetic who wants to tell me about her handsome grandson.

Every shift I complete is a reminder that, no matter how different we are, our needs as humans are universal. When we are scared, when we are hurting, when we are sick, when we suffer broken bones, like my dad did, we all want the same thing: help that comes with compassion and preserves our dignity. It's what I try to give every patient I encounter. And it's something everyone has the capacity to offer, without any certification at all.

Creative Helpers

For Peg, the oddest stuff comes in handy. Here, her personal, and surprising, toolbox.

  1. Tampons can plug a bloody nose
  2. Towels to apply pressures to a wound
  3. A garbage bag = makeshift poncho
  4. A squeeze-top H2O bottle flushes out a cut
  5. Duct tape can help secure a slinged arm

This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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