5 Things I Learned in EMS I Wish I’d Learned in Medical School

Hello world. Mr. TeamLouka here.

I hear my wife started a blog… and in typical Steph fashion, three days later she has hundreds of viewers in 10+ countries?! Well, I can’t let her have all the fun, and its TEAMlouka afterall. So here’s my take on…

5 Things I Learned in EMS I Wish I’d Learned in Medical School

1. ABCs

Airway. Breathing. Circulation. Often boiled down to the ever-popular “air goes in and out, blood goes round and round, and any variation of either is bad.” Seems simple enough. You might even think such a simple, crucial concept would be covered on day one of medical school, just like it was in EMT class.


I distinctly remember sitting in the auditorium at EVMS back in August 2010 and thinking to myself, “OK. Let’s do this. Doctor training, go!” The lecture topic? Intro to medical molecular cellular biology, of course! Because when that critical patient rolls in, all attention should be directed towards the golgi apparatus and endoplasmic reticulum first. Funnily enough, I didn’t leave that class feeling any more clever.

Now in all fairness, ABCs were covered in medical school. The problem is that the single most important concept in the assessment of an undifferentiated patient was sandwiched somewhere between memorizing The Krebs Cycle and the chapter on brain eating amoebas.

So out of four long, expensive years, just half a day was smushed in there for a shoddy BLS/CPR course. By that point, most of my compatriots had drunk the Kool-Aid – BLS was a boring day off for some and an unwelcome eviction from the library for others.

The effect? Time after time, I have watched medical students, residents, and even some attendings rack their brains for a diagnosis, visibly straining to remember what medicine or scan should be ordered next, when called to the bedside of someone going downhill. THE PATIENT ISN’T BREATHING. But is it multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 or 2? THE PATIENT ISN’T BREATHING. Did she say her great-great-grandmother had psoriasis? I DON’T FEEL A PULSE. Did you do a rectal exam? MAYBE WHEN I FINISH THESE CHEST COMPRESSIONS.

(OK all you sticklers for AHA guidelines out there. I know it’s CAB now. But no one says that. It’s ABC. Forever).

2.  Acuity is just a number

In every ED there is some kind of triage coding system. Usually it’s a numerical assignment, 1-6 in ours, given to patients when they arrive, which roughly translate as:

  1. “We need a doc in here!”
  2. “Doc, my chest hurts since this morning.”
  3. “Doc, my belly hurts since yesterday.”
  4. “Doc, my toe hurts for the past 18 years.”
  5. “Need a med refill, Doc.”
  6. “He’s dead, Doc.”

We’ll that’s great when it works. But one EMS call in particular taught me to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism with those low acuity patients.

It was early in the morning. My partner and I had just signed on were still fueling up on coffee and pancakes. So when the call crackled over the radio for a priority 3 injury, “patient stubbed his toe,” we understandably finished our coffee and waited for the check. We drove to a house about 10 minutes away in no rush at all. Why the hell would someone call 911 at 6am for a stubbed toe?!

The question was partially answered when we walked into the house to find a pale, diaphoretic man sitting in his kitchen… holding a slightly bruised toe.

Turns out this guy walked outside to pick up his newspaper and collapsed down by the mailbox. He spent half an hour crawling back up the driveway, and at some point along the way managed to stub his big toe, much to his dismay. He also just happened to be having a massive heart attack.

Moral of the story: Lay eyes on the patient, then finish your coffee. Just in case.

3. Where Patients Come From

Well when diabetes and high blood pressure love each other very much…

No, that’s not what I mean. I mean physically, socially, emotionally. You see, most patients arrive to me looking more or less the same – propped up on a stretcher or in a wheelchair, clutching some form of puke receptacle, and flanked by a pair of overworked, underpaid EMTs and/or an overworked, underpaid nurse. They’ve usually been cleaned up a bit to meet some unwritten, undefined minimal standard and bare few traces from whence they came. By the time they get admitted upstairs, patients are in a standardized gown, on a standardized bed, eating a standardized turkey sandwich.

This creates a poorly recognized issue for us as doctors. We fail to see the idiosyncrasies of a patient’s life outside of the hospital and tend to place them into one of three broad categories: homed, homeless, or living in some kind of facility (nursing home, rehab, assisted living, jail – take your pick). Each of these then receives the ultimate American qualifier – insured or uninsured. That assignment basically dictates more about a patient’s care and treatment than their actual medical diagnosis. And it is horribly flawed.

Only through EMS did I have a first hand, and a first nose, perspective of just how different life can be for a fellow human being. I have clambered over mountains of hoarded garbage in what looked like a upper-middle class home from the street, been in nursing homes which would put North Korean labor camps to shame, and even pulled a young woman out of the bottom of a port-a-potty where she spent the night sleeping in a tub of chlorine and human waste. There is a spectrum to everything, and the circumstances of a person’s life leading up to his or her encounter with me can tell me as much or more about their condition, and what I can do about it, than the symptoms they describe.

I distinctly remember a call to assist a man complaining of some ambiguous pain complaint. He had just been discharged from the hospital that morning. But at well over 600lbs, he was entirely unable to care for himself at home. Never before, and never since, have my nostrils known such misery. He couldn’t fill his prescriptions, get a glass of water, or even get out of the bed to use the toilet. He was, literally, a mess.

The medics bringing me patients now have my full attention. I want to know what they know. They also have my respect – I know what their noses have been through.

4.  It’s their emergency, not mine.

This one is simple. Every person arriving in the ER is there because they feel that their condition – be it crushing, unbearable chest pain or thirty minutes of life-shattering hiccups – just cannot wait another moment to be addressed. But as a newbie EMT recruit, doing my EVOC and driver training, I was taught, on multiple occasions, a memorable and poignant philosophical lesson:

“Dude. It’s their emergency, not ours. Slow. The Fuck. Down.”

-Socrates, Field Training Officer

Now that might have had something to do with the pedestrians diving into the bushes every time we responded to a call, but it sticks with me. On a busy scene, with lights flashing, sirens of approaching units blaring, family and bystanders screaming in my ear, multiple patients and limited resources, the public looks to the collective “us” that is Police, Fire and EMS to take control of situation. In the ED that role shifts to the doctors.

Approaching even a critically ill patient, with nurses, medics and techs racing around grabbing equipment and medicines, my job is to remain calm, cool and collected. Allowing my own tumblr_ls44cgafCl1qaa241level of anxiety to meet that of my patient won’t get anything done more quickly and certainly won’t hasten the cure.

Unfortunately medical school does a terrible job of teaching this. Learning about the management of truly sick patients takes place more in the classroom than at the bedside. There is infinite time to think, weigh the options, and look up the answers. The student is usually sent to see the less acute patients, or tags along to observe when things get dicey. Then, day one, intern year, with that long white coat tickling the calves of someone who has never ordered morphine or a blood transfusion or called a surgeon in the middle of the night to say I need you down here now, many struggle when it comes to taking a step back. Looking. Listening. Thinking. Acting.

So when grandpa rolls in clutching his chest, don’t be alarmed if I’m not barking out orders like you’ve seen on TV. I’ll be at the bedside, taking his pulse, followed quickly by taking my own.

5.  Scene safe, BSI

If you had asked me five years ago for my thoughts about the pervasive mantra of EMT recruits everywhere, “Scene safe, BSI,” my response would have been an incomprehensible tirade of expletive filled muttering. I’ll wear gloves. I get it. STOP MAKING ME SAY IT. Every skills station, every practical exam, every day. As if the mannequin we were pretending to bandage had actually just escaped some Liberian Ebola quarantine zone and standing in the doorway with jazz-hands to show I remembered to put on my imaginary gloves would somehow protect me. F&*%#$#!


For those of you who don’t know, BSI stands for “body substance isolation.” The idiom is a reminder to EMT students to look for potential danger first, to protect themselves and their partner before even attempting to help anyone else, and to wear gloves. One thing is certain – no one gets extra points for getting hurt on scene and doubling the number of patients, and if you get hepatitis, you lose.

While this definitely remains true in the hospital (i.e. Steph’s “nonverbal” psych patient who wasn’t talking because of the razor blade hidden in his mouth), it goes further than that. It’s a reminder to take care of ourselves, and each other, through the emotional and physical demands of our work. Believe it or not, watching people in pain and dying every day can be rather taxing on the psyche.

Medical school spends a lot of time teaching us how to help others through the process of aging, illness and, ultimately, death. We learn every aspect of disease, how various ailments ravage the body, each in their unique way. But little time is spent learning to carry the weight of our responsibility or dealing with the death of a patient.

In that respect, EMS excels. CISM (critical incident stress management) is a program which helps medics through the worst of calls. The team, staffed by members with specialized training, provides everything from one on one counseling to group debriefings. All hospitals should have such a system.

And for God’s sake put some gloves on when you go in the room. C diff is a terrible, terrible thing.

So that’s that. 5 things which make me a better doctor, all learned at the bottom of the medical totem pole. From the basics of taking care of someone else, to the more complicated task of watching out for myself, EMS has played a huge role in my training. Even as a doctor, I continue to learn on every shift, and that is what keeps me coming back for more.


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3 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned in EMS I Wish I’d Learned in Medical School”

  1. Words to live by. “Not my emergency”. Been a nurse for a while now and if I let the chaotic energy of others get to me, I cannot do my job properly. (Former 10 yr medic!)


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