EMS Stories


People always seem to want to read about EMS (emergency medical services) stories. I'm always getting requests. So here I will gradually tell some of the events I have experienced since I entered the EMS field in 1969. --John Hultgren


My "heart attack"

One day I responded (alone) to an overturned vehicle on the Interstate. One woman was trapped, and I crawled inside the upside-down car to assess her injuries. During the assessment I began to experience chest pain. The pain was exactly like what I had always heard about heart attacks: a burning sensation right over my heart. I denied it at first, but the burning eventually became severe and I began to get sweaty. Finally, I could bear it no longer and began to admit "I'm having the 'big one.'" I told the patient I was sick and could no longer care for her, and that the ambulance would be with her any minute. She begged me to stay, but at this point I was too scared.

I removed myself from the upside-down car and sat on the pavement. It soon started to dawn on me that I had been laying with my chest on her dome light (and by this time I had a nice burn on my chest) just as the ambulance arrived and the paramedic was asking his supervisor "What on earth are you doing sitting in the highway..."

Note: This is a "Stupid John Story." I have lots of them.


Something Mom should have taught me about when I was a kid:

When I worked in Florida, in the early days of EMS, it wasn't unusual for retirement centers to donate new medical equipment (I think the residents had a motive). Because of this, we were instructed to let the residents watch us work whenever possible.

So one afternoon I was dispatched to the community room of a retirement complex. There, on the floor, lay an elderly woman not breathing and pulseless, surrounded by a circle of metal chairs filled with seated bystanders.

Well, our first rule upon examining an unconscious patient is to "expose," but I was reluctant to do so because of the bystanders. So I ripped open her shirt but left her bra on.

Back then, defibrillator energy levels actually went up to 600 joules (they now use much less current). And even though we now select a very low current to begin with, back then our theory was "if a little is good, then a lot is better." So I prepared to defibrillate around the bra at the full 600 joules.

Now, I went to an all-boys prep school up in the Berkshire Mountains, and never had the opportunity to learn the finer details of women's undergarments. So I had never, ever dreamed that people would put metal into a bra. (And I still don't understand this concept, but since I don't wear them I just don't ask questions...)

Anyway, in case you haven't heard, there are things called "underwire bras." They are evil. I can't imagine that women actually like them, and paramedics would do well to fear them. Because, when defibrillating a patient wearing an underwire bra, a fire will most definitely occur.


My most famous compliment:

My most famous compliment came from the late Gene Siskel, of the movie critic team Siskel and Ebert. 

One evening Steve and I were dispatched to Louisville International Airport for an unconscious patient on a plane flying from Florida to Chicago that was making an emergency landing. 

We treated and transported Mr. Siskel to Jewish Hospital. After getting him situated in the emergency department, I was preparing to leave when Mr. Siskel called out and said: "Hey John, you did good!" while holding his two thumbs up.  (For those who don't remember, Siskel and Ebert both voted their opinion of movies by giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down -- two thumbs up was their ultimate review.)

No, we didn't get a raise.


Why I do this job:

One summer afternoon Susan and I got a helicopter flight to an adjoining county. A three-year-old girl had been involved in a motor vehicle crash where the car had run off the road and struck a picket fence.

A fence post had come through the windshield and crushed her chest, and a picket was sticking out of her forehead, embedded in her skull.

This obviously was a very difficult and emotionally traumatic flight. The most we could do was stabilize the piece of wood, intubate, insert chest tubes, and administer medication for the head trauma. I don't think we were really optimistic, even though we knew that children with head injuries usually recover very well. We flew her to Kosair Children's Hospital (which always does an excellent job).

I'm reluctant to give the above details, but I think they are vital to this story. I am always asked, "Why do you do this job?"

This is my answer.

About 17 months later, on Thanksgiving Day, Susan and I were working together and the patient, then age 4, wanted her family to bring her down to our helipad to meet us.

When we met, she was a normal little girl again who just happened to have a scar under her bangs.  And she gave us hugs.

That's why I do it. (And I keep her picture on my desk to remind me.)


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