Five years ago Jane Stern was a walking encyclopedia of panic attacks, depression, and hypochondria. Her marriage of more than thirty years was suffering, and she was virtually immobilized by fear and anxiety. As the daughter of parents who both died before she was thirty, Stern was terrified of illness and death, and despite the fact that her acclaimed career as a food and travel writer required her to spend a great deal of time on airplanes, she suffered from a persistent fear of flying and severe claustrophobia. But a strange thing happened one day on a plane that was grounded at the Minneapolis airport for six horrible, foodless, airless hours. A young man on a trip with his classmates suddenly became dizzy and pale because he hadn't eaten in many hours, and there was no food left on the plane. Without thinking about it, Jane gave him the candy bar that she had in her purse. A short time later the color had returned to his cheeks, the boy was laughing again with his friends, and Jane realized that this one small act of kindness--helping another person who was suffering--had provided her with comfort and a sense of well-being.
It was shortly thereafter that this fifty-two-year-old writer decided to become an emergency medical technician, eventually coming to be known as Ambulance Girl. Stern tells her story with great humor and poignancy, creating a wonderful portrait of a middle-aged, Woody Allen-ish woman who was "deeply and neurotically terrified of sick and dead people," but who went out into the world to save other people's lives as a way of saving her own. Her story begins with the boot camp of EMT training: 140 hours at the hands of a dour ex-marine who took delight in presenting a veritable parade of amputations, hideous deformities, and gross disasters. Jane--overweight and badly out of shape--had to surmount physical challenges like carrying a 250-pound man seated in a chair down a dark flight of stairs. After class she did rounds in the emergency room of a local hospital, where she attended to a schizophrenic kickboxer who had tried to kill his mother that morning and a stockbroker who was taken off the commuter train to Manhattan with delirium tremens so bad it killed him.
Each call Stern describes is a vignette of human nature, often with a life in the balance. From an AIDS hospice to town drunks, yuppie wife beaters to psychopaths, Jane comes to see the true nature and underlying mysteries of a town she had called home for twenty years. Throughout the book we follow her as she gets her sea legs and finally bonds with the burly, handsome firefighters who become her colleagues. At the end, she is named the first woman officer of the department--a triumph we joyously share with her.
Ambulance Girl is an inspiring story by a woman who found, somewhat late in life, that "in helping others I learned to help myself." It is a book to be treasured and shared.
At 52, Stern, a well-known foodie-she and her husband, Michael, have coauthored some 20 books on American culture and food, including Roadfood-found herself profoundly depressed. Holed up in the couple's Connecticut home, she'd lost interest in doing much of anything. Phobias (bus riding, air travel, claustrophobia, etc.) made her isolation worse. One day, on a whim, she responded to the "volunteers wanted" notice at the local firehouse and signed up for EMT training. No one teaching "boot camp"-style classes would have tolerated a queasy (much less depressed or phobic) recruit, so she had to tough it out. Humor definitely helped. As Stern remarks, after a few classes covering major trauma, "I am no longer clinically depressed but instead am dying of everything simultaneously." Some of her class notes are funny, like her list of EMT no-nos: don't replace organs hanging from bodies, don't give CPR to a severed head, don't attempt to revive someone in a "state of advanced decomposition" and if "you have a patient whose leg or arm is partially amputated, do not pull it off to make things `neat.' " After training and certification, the real work started, and while initially it did the trick-"in helping others I learned to help myself"-the ultimate truth, that she couldn't save everyone, brought back her depression. Stern's memoir is a quirky mix of humor, self-doubt and courage. Agent, Michael I. Ruddell. (On sale June 24) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 26, 2004
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Excerpt from Ambulance Girl by Jane Stern
I am G-65.
That is the number I was given when I became an Emergency Medical Technician at the volunteer fire company in Georgetown, Connecticut. I live in Georgetown, a rural, blue-collar town whose main attraction is a sprawling defunct wire mill with broken windows.
If you live in Georgetown and press 911, the dispatcher will tone me out. I will get on the two-way police radio in my car and say, "G-65 EMT responding."
I have another name, too: Ambulance Girl . . . as in, "Honey, the ambulance girl is here." I hear this as I drag myself, my portable oxygen tank, my defibrillator, and a giant bag of medical supplies into the homes of sick strangers.
I wait for my tone twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It comes over any of my three police radios: upstairs and downstairs at home, and in my car. My tone goes like this: two long beeps (one higher than the other), followed by five short beeps. It pulls me out of deep sleep, out of showers, away from the dinner table, from my favorite TV shows, away from arguing with my husband, away from phone calls telling me I owe money to the department store, and away from long, slow, loving embraces. I could pretend I didn't hear the tone but I don't. I would have nightmares about the people I left alone and suffering.
I am an EMT-B. This places me smack in the middle of the emergency care hierarchy. The top EMTs are the paramedics. They are full-time professionals who can insert airways that will allow you to breathe, place syringes into your chest cavity if your lungs collapse, or start an IV in your arm filled with enough morphine to make the bone-jarring ride to the hospital feel like you are a baby in its mother's arms. Some paramedics wear paramilitary uniforms and people refer to them in awe as paragods because they appear to be a cross between emergency room physicians and Green Berets.
To become an EMT-B I had to take a difficult course, pass state and national boards, work hours in the hospital emergency room, and keep my skills polished enough to recertify every few years. Although I am a volunteer at my fire department, and receive no salary, my training is the same as the paid professionals'.
As an EMT-B I can help you administer your own nitroglycerin if you are having a heart attack, shoot you in the thigh with a syringe of epinephrine if you are in anaphylactic shock, and stick a plastic airway into your throat and pump air into your lungs if you stop breathing. I can zap you back to life with a defibrillator if your heart stops. I can help you give birth to your baby in the back of the ambulance.
On the job I don't look like much. My favorite uniform is a used blue gabardine jacket with a brown corduroy collar that says GEORGETOWN EMS across the back in light-reflective two-inch letters. By the time I got it, its previous owners had lost the thermal liner, and so it is as limp as a Kleenex from years of wear. In the winter the wind whips through it; in the summer it sags from humidity. There are bleach and disinfectant stains on it from EMTs who wore this jacket before me and who tried to remove the effluvium of various sick people, drunks, women in labor, and the nearly dead who regularly ride with us in the back of our ambulance.
Many EMTs at level B look sharp. But they don't work for my town. They work in the surrounding wealthier towns of Fairfield County, Connecticut--towns such as Westport and New Canaan. These EMTs work on assigned shifts and wear crisp uniforms and sport important-looking gold badges. Their ambulances are replaced every few years from their towns' big budgets. Our ambulance is old, its interior is avocado green Naugahyde, the shag rugs in the driver's compartment thin with age. Our ambulance sputters and lurches and drips green fluid from its underbelly. When we pull up to the hospital and park it alongside the fancy ambulances, the security staff knows us on sight. They look at us like we are the Beverly Hillbillies arriving in the rattle-ass truck with Granny sitting on top in her rocker.