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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.
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JANE STERN is a contributing editor and columnist at Gourmet. She is the author, with her husband, Michael, of more than twenty books, including Roadfood, and a winner of the James Beard Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Sterns are regular contributors to National Public Radio’s The Splendid Table. They live in West Redding, Connecticut.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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.
I took my EMT training in the posh town of New Canaan, where the ambulance cot blankets look like the monogrammed coverings of show horses. In short time I noted that our instructors had two ways of explaining how to remedy any situation. "In New Canaan we would use this stretcher strap or cravat, but for those of you who will be in service in other towns [glance toward me] you can always use duct tape instead." In my imagination, if our ambulance service had a heraldic crest, it would be a roll of duct tape on a field of spilled oil. Duct tape (which I confess I have never once seen used in my time as a Georgetown EMT) became the operative semantic symbol of the dividing line between Fairfield County snooty and Fairfield County down-to-earth.
When I became an EMT my friends were confounded. In fact, they thought it was ridiculous. They knew me to be a woman deeply and neurotically terrified of sick and dead people, a raging former urban Jewish hypochondriac on the order of Woody Allen, a sufferer from motion sickness in moving vehicles who always threatened to vomit if I was not allowed the front seat. I was someone who loved my sleep and privacy and tried never to go out in public without looking well-groomed.
But the closest I have ever felt to God is in the back of my ambulance. The most fully alive I have felt was when I held a dead man's head wedged between my knees and ventilated him back to life. One of the most precious moments of my life was the night I connected with a dying crack addict with AIDS who shared the same taste in gospel music as I do.
In my real life I am a writer for Gourmet magazine, but I am in bliss after a hard call when my coworkers and I pull the ambulance up to Dunkin' Donuts and share greasy crullers and a big cup of stomach-churning coffee and vent out all the stress to each other.
This is my story, about life and death, fear and joy, good and evil as seen from the back of an ambulance in a small town in Connecticut. Although it is my experience, it is also about all the rescue workers who will save your life if you call 911. None of us is unique. We are the people who know the secrets behind the closed doors on every street in town, and we are there to protect you from harm when you call.
What is different about my story is that in helping others I learned to help myself. Becoming part of a firehouse and working side by side with the men and women of the Georgetown Volunteer Fire Department saved me from a spiral into depression and middle-age angst. It was the hardest and the most rewarding task I ever set for myself. In doing so I found a family within the town I lived in, and learned that I could face what scared me in life. That is the story I will tell in this book.
My hometown has its own zip code and its own phone prefix, but it is not really a town in the normal scheme of things. Instead it is a patchwork quilt of a place. In addition to a small hunk of land called Georgetown it is made up of scraps and end pieces of the bigger and wealthier towns that surround it. It includes pieces of Redding and Wilton, a bit of Ridgefield and Weston, too. Georgetown is about an hour and twenty minutes from New York City but feels light-years away. One of our volunteer company fire trucks has THE HUB OF FAIRFIELD COUNTY painted on it, but Georgetown is only hublike in that people roar through it on the way to someplace else. Not much happens in Georgetown, at least for the casual observer to see.
The Georgetown Volunteer Fire Company is situated across the street from the defunct Gilbert and Bennett wire mill that remains the centerpiece of the town. Once a thriving seat of industry when it began producing wire insect screening in 1861, then went on to manufacture meat and cheese safes, coal screens, and ox muzzles, it is now a crumbling castle of neglect. The huge ghostly building has been unoccupied for years; its windows are mostly all smashed in.
There are always town plans to do something with the property, to turn it into a spiffy housing community, loft spaces for artists, or a block of boutiques; but despite the creative ideas and slews of potential investors, the factory still sits abandoned.
When my husband, Michael, and I moved to the Redding part of Georgetown in 1982, we came from Weston, a mere five miles away. It was like coming to another country. Weston was the classic rich man's commuting town. Movie stars and CEOs lived there. The town center was a modest island of upmarket stores. The drugstore sold scented French candles and coffee table books about sailing. The main street of Georgetown was remarkable for its utter lack of yuppie charms. When we moved here, the main street had many liquor stores, a TV repair store that threw the nonfixable sets out on the pavement, and an old-fashioned barbershop whose owner probably had never heard of Frederick Fekkai.
While the surrounding towns are a source of endless magazine and local newspaper articles about their well-protected wildlife, scenic roads, and artistic residents, news from Georgetown seems to revolve around public sewers that are always backing up into local businesses and the fate of the defunct wire factory that sits like a toad in the middle of town. Georgetown was the town that the commuter train to New York whizzed past, shaking the down-at-the-heels houses on both sides of the tracks.
Technically Michael and I live in West Redding, but we are so close to Georgetown, that is where our fire tax goes, and that is the fire department that comes if we call 911. We moved from Weston to West Redding because we wanted to be in a more rural area. Weston was too expensive for us to move to a bigger and nicer house, while the Georgetown end of West Redding was still affordable. Weston had become a commuter town while West Redding, ten minutes farther from New York City by Metro-North, the commuter train, still had a country air about it. Even though Georgetown center was a stone's th...
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