Recently, policemen and firefighters have been thrust into the public spotlight and revered as heroes in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. But there's another job that deserves as much recognition. These public servants see the same kind of tragedies and, at times, go even farther to help. We're talking about paramedics.
These are men and women who we rarely hear about. You might call them the silent heroes. But without them, shooting victims, heart patients, people involved in accidents may never make it back home alive. In fact, all of us may one day need their help. We rode along with Montgomery paramedics to see just what they go through every night.
Almost immediately upon our arrival for our shift with the paramedics, the first call came in. "124 Code Blue" was the first call of their 12-hour shift. Wallace Culpepper works seven days on, seven days off. He never knows what's coming next. This time he was speeding through traffic to help a woman whose ambulance had broken down.
They're bringing in a patient complaining of chest pains. On the scene, paramedics get a quick grip on the situation. Then it's off to the emergency room. "Most of what we do is quick fix. We get them stabilized so the ER can do the definitive care," explains Culpepper. For this patient, that included a heart monitor, just one of many new options open to paramedics.
In recent years, they've been given the go-ahead to start I.Vs, administer powerful medication, even perform minor medical procedures right in the back of their truck.
But on the way to and from emergencies, ambulance drivers often run into problems and often, you and I are to blame. They say many motorists simply don't pull over and others go the wrong way when they see those flashing lights.
"They know they're supposed to pull to the right, I've seen them go across the yellow line into on-coming traffic thinking they're getting out of our way and they're making something worse fixing to happen."
Back at the hospital, Culpepper is filling out paperwork until he's interrupted for call number two. "Atlanta Highway fight in progress, want to go?"
This time, they find themselves outside a nightclub. The victim was hit with a tire iron, bleeding from his head. Culpepper remarks, "We're crazy for doing this job." But again, the patient is stabilized and again it's a successful run. There are no thank-you's, but Culpepper says that's just part of the job and he wouldn't do anything else. "This is my calling. This is what I was meant to do."
But fulfilling that calling can be traumatic. While some of what paramedics see is routine, they're also witness to the most horrific scenes - things you and I have only seen in the movies. And sometimes the story ends in death.
It's the dispatchers who are first to hear of an emergency, but since they don't have to go to the scene they take pride in watching over their co-workers who do find themselves in harm's way.
Cathy Darragh is a dispatcher with Haynes Ambulance, "If they've been there (on the scene) for an extended amount of time, then I like to check in with them to make sure they're ok." But it's not physical injury Wallace Culpepper worries about, it's the effect this job has emotionally. "You cry, sometimes you just have to," says Culpepper who has served as a paramedic for years. And images, like a man hurt in a traffic accident, stick in his mind, "Eighty percent of his body was 2nd and 3rd degree burns and he's alert walking around going 'help me!' and he's burned up that bad. "
People can sometimes get emotionally distant. Psychologist Allen Hess says emergency workers have tendencies to bottle up their memories because it's often hard to share them with their families. "What can you share? If you've seen some horrible things, you're not sure you want to bring that into the home," remarks Hess.
That's why there's such a strong camaraderie among paramedics and all emergency workers. They've learned to share their feelings with each other. "You sit down and go back and talk to your buddies about it and it helps. You can't let it just stay inside and eat at you, because some it does. People who have been on the front line with you, so to speak, are the ones who really understand and appreciate the risks one takes," says Culpepper.
And Dr. Hess says it's important for the rest of us to show our appreciation. Culpepper says he doesn't hear the words 'thank you' very often but when he does, it helps. "Knowing that I'm helping somebody, knowing that I may make a difference, you know," adds Cullpepper.
Psychologists say it's also important for emergency workers to maintain their physical fitness, to eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep even though that may be difficult with all the long hours.