After a Night as an EMT, Everyday Stress Is a Breeze

By Benjamin Opipari
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

There is nothing like relaxing after a hard day at work with a book, sitting on the deck with a cold beer or strolling through the neighborhood. But I've found my own way of managing stress: riding in the back of an ambulance assisting someone who needs urgent care.

I don't mean to make light of other people's suffering. I am 39 years old, and I work in the professional development office of a D.C. law firm. But for almost five years now, I've been a volunteer emergency medical technician. One night a week, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., I get to be Clark Kent: I come home in my business suit and emerge from the bedroom dressed in my ambulance blues. And the truth is, my volunteer work has allowed me to find my own kind of work-life balance.

My EMT career began when I was an academic, living in a rural community in Upstate New York. A colleague asked if I wanted to join the ambulance corps with him. I envisioned the two of us riding out to calls, strapping the patient in the stretcher, then sitting in the back after applying a few Band-Aids or a swath of gauze. On the off chance that I might see something stomach-turning, I searched out a few gory Web sites and forced myself to absorb the images; after all, an EMT who recoils at the sight of a compound fracture of the tibia will not inspire much confidence.

With these images in mind, I took the EMT course: four months of classes and practical training. About a week into my training, I suddenly realized I was volunteering to put myself in a situation where someone's survival was in my hands.

My days of Band-Aids and joy riding lasted as long as the ride to my first call: a man with emphysema on home oxygen who couldn't resist taking a puff on his cigarette. He pulled off his oxygen mask, took a drag, then inhaled the smoke and flames caused by the ignition of the pure oxygen. He died a day later. My second call was for an 18-year-old swimming in a lake with his friends. He dived to retrieve his glasses and never came up.

I discovered that serving as an EMT -- putting myself in tension-filled, little-room-for-error situations -- also filled a gap in my life. I need the adrenaline.

Growing up in Montgomery County, I had been involved in competitive sports, activities that fueled my need for excitement. I played sports in junior high and high school. I ran track in college and coached high school track for 10 years after college.

Once my wife and I moved from the D.C. area to Hamilton, N.Y., in 2002, all of this stopped. The adrenaline rush disappeared. In its place was the anti-adrenaline: dissertation writing. Anxiety-producing, yes, but crafting careful sentences about Tennessee Williams did not give me the rush that I craved -- and that I then found as an EMT. I carried a pager and lived a minute from the station. I felt a surge of energy attending to a trauma victim in a rollover, when just minutes earlier I had been deeply engrossed in literature. The juxtaposition between serenity and chaos was addictive. So when we came back home to the D.C. area in 2006, I joined the Glen Echo Fire Department in Bethesda.

Of course, there are different kinds of stress, and what attracts me to this work is that it's stress and anxiety over which I have a measure of control. This much I know: I want little to do with risk-taking. I have no desire to sky dive, for example, and no desire to drive the ambulance. Putting myself at the mercy of D.C. area drivers can be a life-endangering experience.

Being an EMT helps me manage stress. At work and at home, no situation rivals the pressure of emergency care. Not every call, of course, is a matter of life or death. However, preparing to move a patient who is lying on the ground, screaming with a broken femur, forces you to focus only on what is in front of you and block out all else. Workplace stress pales in comparison.

To many, it seems ironic that I use stress to manage stress. A friend of mine, a lawyer, rides horses in his spare time. Why not engage in an idyllic activity like that, he asks. Instead, my downtime is up, living for the "good" calls, those that allow me to make the widest use of my skills under the most trying circumstances.

I admit that I became an EMT because I needed excitement. But the patient contact also allows for a level of volunteerism that most people never get. Many of the calls I run do not involve death or grave injury. Instead, they involve comforting people, often the elderly, in times of distress. I calm them when I see the fear of death in their eyes as they wonder if I may be about to take them on their last trip to the hospital.

My most worthwhile moment came on a patient assist call, one that's common among the elderly. Arriving at the apartment, we tried the door, but it was bolted shut. We heard the faint cries of a man inside. With no choice, we pried open the door and followed his voice. He was lying on the floor in his office, surrounded by pictures of his wife, who had died a few years earlier. He explained that every night before bed, he would go to his office and kiss her good night. That night, he had fallen and could not get up. After helping him, we provided a temporary fix to his door and gathered our gear to leave.

I hesitated for a moment in the foyer, out of sight. As I waited, I heard him say, "Good night, sweetie. Good night, honey. I love you." Then he kissed her good night.

Benjamin Opipari is the writing instructor at the D.C. office of the law firm Howrey LLP.

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