1047 Vignettes from the front line
A Paramedic’s Tales: Hilarious, Horrible and Heartwarming True Stories
by Graeme Taylor
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2020
$24.95 / 9781550179026
Reviewed by May Q Wong
I can almost hear him say “Have I told you about the time…?” These are the kind of adventure stories one might hear around a campfire, a family dinner table, or at a bar. Told with compassion and a wry sense of humour, Graeme Taylor’s memoir recounts his twenty one years (1980-2001) as a paramedic in metro Vancouver, the British Columbia Interior, and Victoria. These vignettes are engaging without being over-dramatic, and while Taylor doesn’t shy away from the gore, he doesn’t dwell on it either. They are short reads – often just a few paragraphs, with some tales running to a couple of pages.
Paramedics see people in pain (psychological and/or physical), who are sick, injured, drunk and/or drugged, dying, or who are just lonely and want attention. Patients come from all walks of life, and Graeme Taylor reminds the reader not to make assumptions about people:
Not everyone sleeping on the street has mental health problems. Many people just can’t afford housing, given that it’s impossible for anyone earning minimum wage to rent an apartment in large Canadian cities. And many people who suffer from mental illness don’t live on the streets: a lot of depression and desperation is hidden behind the pleasant facades of comfortable high-rises and homes (p. 69).
Death and dying is unfortunately part of the job. Graeme Taylor found that being with the fatally injured or terminally ill was
…both fascinating and a privilege to be with people who are making that mysterious transition. Having responsibility for another’s life or death makes medical work an incredibly serious affair, but also changes its nature from routine to awesome. There are many times when one is overwhelmed by the pain and tragedy of a situation, but also frequent moments of wonderful spiritual depth (p. 178).
One of the most touching stories was of an elderly man who was terminally ill. He wasn’t afraid of dying and his only wish was to spend his last moments with his granddaughter, and when she came into the emergency room, the man’s face lit up with love and happiness. “I hope that when death comes to me, I will meet it with as much peace and as little fear as he did (p. 190).”
There are many ways to deal with workplace stress, including laughter. It usually happens when swapping stories with colleagues, but every so often, the pent up emotions just burst out at the scene. At a horrific suicide by shotgun scene, two paramedics succumbed to the tension, first with a giggle, then with helpless, tearful laughter, when one of them pointed to an upended eyeball, and said “I think we’re being watched.” A policeman, who had been busy keeping onlookers away from the scene, later saw their tears and said sympathetically “Pretty sad, eh?… You never really get used to these things, do you? (p. 209).”
At the time when Graeme Taylor was a paramedic, ambulances were dispatched in response to all 911 calls. No matter where the emergency was, they had to get there as quickly as possible. Whether weaving through downtown city traffic or scrambling up and sliding down ice-covered mountain roads, ambulance driving was/is difficult and dangerous:
We’re allowed to do just about anything we like while on an emergency run — drive in the wrong lane, make U-turns in rush-hour traffic, park in the middle of the road and so on. But there is a catch: if we have an accident, we are responsible. So the art of ambulance driving is balancing the need to be quick with the need to be safe (p. 36).
Driving before the availability of GPS and relying on faulty local knowledge, road maps, and directories, Taylor found that a treasure map of Pender Island just did not cut it on one particular call when based in Victoria! Then as now, “running red lights” was done with great caution, without exceeding 25 kph, and only when lights and sirens were on, for the most critical cases.
Graeme Taylor sustained numerous back injuries from this physically demanding job. He retired to pursue further education and received an M.A. in Conflict Resolution at Royal University in Victoria and a Ph.D. in Global Sustainability at Griffiths University, Australia. He now teaches at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, and is the Coordinator of Best Futures, an organization that supports “the emergence of a sustainable and just world through providing people and communities with new tools, perspectives, and knowledge. His first book, Evolution’s Edge: The Coming Collapse and Transformation of Our World (New Society Publishers, 2008), won the 2009 Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for the book “Most likely to save the planet.”
May Q. Wong researches and chronicles the extraordinary in ordinary people. She worked as a policy and planning analyst for the BC Ambulance Service from 1993-94. A graduate of McGill University, she holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Victoria and retired from the BC Public Service in 2004. Her first book, A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada (Brindle & Glass, 2012), concerns a Chinese couple separated for half of their 50 year marriage, and the impact of Canada’s discriminatory laws on their family. City in Colour: Rediscovered Stories of Victoria’s Multicultural Past (TouchWood, 2018) (reviewed by Tom Koppel) concerns the diverse range of immigrants and their contributions to Victoria. In addition to reading, writing, and speaking to groups about her books, May creates useful and beautiful things with knitting and sewing needles – the latest being hand-beaded face masks. Editor’s note: May Wong has also reviewed books by Dukesang Wong, Henry Yu, Mei-Li Lee, Catherine Clement, and John Price with Ningping Yu for The Ormsby Review.
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