Chapter 1 - My Dad
My dad has saved lives.
For twenty years, my father has been a paramedic. He still rides on the truck from time to time, but I think he does it because he has a hard time letting go. (I can relate).
I was living in Boca Raton, and I remember I had this little wooden desk that I turned into a makeshift office. At the time, life was going pretty well for me. I was making some money, I was about 4 years sober, and I was finally gaining confidence in myself.
I would wake up in the morning and watch inspirational videos or read inspirational books. It was a way for me to stay connected to my spirituality and start my day with positive thinking.
I would watch a lot of Ted Talks, and I discovered a Ted Talk performed my Matthew O’Rielly.
Matthew is an EMT and he performed a Ted Talk about his experiences with dying patients. He decided that he was going to start telling patients the truth, and be honest with them about the fact that they were going to die.
I thought this was interesting and beautiful. It also scared me. Would I really want to know if I were going to die?
Like you, the thought of dying absolutely terrifies me so the idea that I could somehow find peace at the end of my days felt intriguing. I decided to send the video to my dad.
Do Your Job
I texted my dad the video and I was surprised to see that only a few minutes later, my dad was calling me.
I remember being slightly excited, like I was about to have this moment of connection with my father, where he would tell me that he also thought it was beautiful and that he too wonders about the best way to deal with death. That’s what what happened at all.
I picked up the phone and say “Hey Pop, did you watch that video.”
My Dad was mad, real mad. I thought something bad happened. He was talking fast and I could picture my dad talking with his mad face on. He says “that fucking guy has no idea what he’s talking about, who does he think he is?!”
“Pop, what are you talking about. He seems like a good guy” I replied.
My Dad goes back and forth for a minute, but finally he gets to his point. This is exactly what he says, and I’ll never forget it.
“First off, people don’t die in the back of my ambulance, so there’s that.”
“Second of all, if you’re a paramedic, you have one job to do. Your job is to get the patient to the hospital still breathing. You keep them alive and you get them to the hospital so the hospital can try to save the patients life. That’s you’re only job.”
“That guy shouldn’t be allowed to treat patients. That guy needs to do his fucking job.”
Whoah. I sat there in silence. The weight of his words hit me hard.
My dad went on to tell me more details about how he would handle the situation. He told me that when he has patients in the back of the ambulance who are on the verge of death, what you do is the opposite. The “peace” that they feel with acceptance is in many ways, giving them permission to die.
My dad does not give his patients permission to die.
He told me that he would talk to his patients. The conversation would go something like this ….
“Listen, you’re in a bit of trouble here. This is serious. I’m will do everything I can to save you. What I need you to do is keep your head in the game. Once we get you to the hospital, we will have better equipment and medicine to get you through this, but until we get there, you need to focus. Can you do that for me?”
The patient always agrees and my dad told me about the sort of mental clarity you see in people when they have decided that they aren’t ready to die. In many cases, the patients can quite literally cheat death by deciding that they want to live.
Instead of giving people permission to die, my dad gives people permission to save themselves.
A “Life Day”
The world needs people like my Dad. You probably go through your life without paying much attention to emergency medicine and emergency responders. You pass by them at the gas station and go about your day.
But these men and women do work that you can’t do. The emotional trauma emergency responders go through is unbearable. Believe me.
My Dad has gone to calls where young men have died of drug overdoses, and he showed up to the scene only to realize that it was a friend of mine. He’s seen people’s bodies ripped apart on the street.
But there is one call in particular, that sticks my with my father, and he brings it with him everywhere he goes.
In the city of Philadelphia, there is a bad heroin problem. My father has seen countless overdoses and he and his colleague have saved many lives.
In one case, my father responded to a heroin overdose, and when he gets there, there is a young man who is unresponsive on the floor.
In this particular case, the young man had fallen out (meaning went unconscious) with his leg trapped underneath him. This is complicated, because when you release the leg, the built up lactic acids floods the bloodstream and can within itself be life threatening.
My father saves this young man’s life.
As a result, the young man had to get his leg amputated, but he is alive and well. More than that, he’s grateful.
Every year, my father gets a letter from this young man and his mother. They call it his “life day.” The day when he was given a gift of life. The young man has been sober ever since and now shares his story in the community that so badly needs the help and support of other people who have dealt with addiction and can share the message of recovery in a community that has been ripped apart my heroin and fentanyl.
This young man was dead. There was no hope for him. His life has been taken away from him, tragically and without remorse. Yet, because of my father, he lives.
It would have been much easier to let the kid go in peace.
But my dad had a job to do. He showed up, and he did his fucking job.
What my dad was teaching me was more meaningful than being a hard worker, or “doing the best you can.”
He was teaching me about responsibility.
The way my father sees it, he is responsible for his patients. It’s his job in the sense that it’s his duty. It’s his job in the sense that he is responsible for treating every patient with the same type of urgency and care.
Responsibility is a word that has lost its power in our modern day. We think of it as a chore and a burden. We all have “responsibilities” we must endure, like cleaning our rooms or paying our taxes.
But that’s not how it should be interpreted.
Responsibility is the fulfillment of your highest self. It is the silent agreement you make with your higher power to show up for life, and to show up with your commitment to fulfil your duty, regardless of the external circumstances.
I am responsible for raising my kids, for providing for my employees, and for pushing myself to be my absolute best. I don’t get to decide which moments are more convenient for me and which moments give me permission to act outside the boundaries of my commitment.
I am responsible.
As a paramedic, my dad has one job. His job is to keep his patients breathing until they get to the hospital. That’s it. My dad does his job, no matter what.
It’s possibly the most powerful lesson I’ve ever been taught and I think about it almost every day.