Everything lies on a spectrum, especially in the world of medicine, and a medic’s choice of personal kit is no different. From Mr. “I don’t care if it’s a rectal bleed, gloves are for rookies,” to your favorite Rescue Rambo, who would use a Medivac unit as his daily commuter if he could, we each choose a few (possibly) useful things to keep within arm’s reach while on duty. While Steph and I may work at the busiest Level 1 in the state, and have any and all imaginable technology at our disposal while there, being outside the hospital is a different story entirely. So here’s a look at what I choose to bring along and what I feel can make a difference when the tones go off.
1. My very own pulse ox
A few years ago these things could set you back a few hundred dollars, but now you can pick one up on Amazon for about $20 with free shipping. Beyond the general appearance of a patient (Again, a spectrum: from “Ugh, why 3am?” to “Oh… that can’t be good.”) few things can give you as much information about the person in front of you as this tiny device. Patient looks like he’s working to breath? Maybe it has something to do with that O2 sat of 65% – better call back the engine you just cancelled.
It’s part of my approach to almost every patient I encounter – I introduce myself while lowering myself to their level (standing over a patient is imposing and dominant, even if you’re not 6’5” like me, and not generally comforting to little old ladies). I slip on a pulse ox while taking his/her hand and wrist to feel a pulse. As well as instantly assessing perfusion, motor and sensory function, that simple, brief human contact goes a long way in gaining trust and establishing rapport. Fun fact: the servers at Hooters do exactly the same thing.
2. A radio
We take them for granted, but this thing is your ticket to unlimited resources on-scene and your lifeline when SHTF (like this day in Virginia Beach in April 2012). Need manpower? Engine’s en route. Leave something in the truck? Someone can grab it on the way in. When my partner had a seizure on duty and wasn’t breathing, I hit that little orange button and said a few words… You’d have thought WWIII had broken out. When every unit in a five mile radius was headed my way in seconds, I realized that motorola is more than a faceless voice that tells you where to go. I keep mine in a reflective shoulder strap for added safety, to which I also attach the pulse ox for quick and easy access.
3. A knife/multitool/trauma shears
I carry one of the above, depending which I can find while getting ready for duty at 4am. I don’t carry all of them. I don’t carry multiples of any of them. No boot knives or ninja stars, no Ka-Bar combat bayonets. It’s volunteer EMS, not Vietnam. I use it to cut stuff.
4. A mini maglite
One of the things I love about getting outside the hospital are the places we go. We often see another side of society we otherwise never would – dark alleys, abandoned buildings, and deep ditches in the dead of night. I’ve had a mini maglite since day one, and it’s never let me down. If I have a funny feeling about a place, I might bring along one of the big D cells we keep in the truck, but 99% of the time the mini gets the job done.
5. Steel toed boots and well made pants
Steph regularly wears shorts and sneakers on duty. I just don’t get it. Even if it’s 100F in the shade, you’ll find me sweating in my 5.11s. Who knows where you’ll find yourself, or what you’ll find yourself in, on the next call. Safety first.
6. My brain
Forget everything I’ve said up to this point. Brainpower is the only thing you NEED to bring along. This is how you’ll navigate tough problems, assess complex patients and choose the right interventions. Without it, you’re no good to anyone. With it, you’re a real-life hero. Signing up to take care of people in need is also a commitment to lifelong learning. You owe it to your patients to practice, stay up to date, to learn new things and continually improve. If you’re reading this, you’re probably on the right track. And keep in mind, your partner probably has one too, complete with its own experience, training and know-how. Use ‘em.
Honorable Mention: A stethoscope
You might have noticed the most ubiquitous piece of medical equipment missing from the list above. Truth be told, these things are living dinosaurs. This year happens to be the 200th anniversary of the stethoscope’s invention, but contrary to what Mr. Littman would have you believe, they have barely changed in all that time. Too often, the scene is just too noisy and chaotic get an accurate exam, and in most circumstances requiring immediate intervention you can get the same information in other ways. Breathing difficulty with a history of both CHF and COPD? Try a neb while looking for other signs like JVD and pitting edema. It’s rarely exclusively one or the other. Tube placement? If you’re not using end-tidal you’re behind the times. Trauma and hypotension? Prepare to dart the chest and get moving.
In my experience, the rubber necklace acts more like a police officers badge or firefighter’s helmet than a diagnostic instrument in the field, clearly identifying you as medical personnel. That’s a perfectly good reason to keep one with you though, so feel free. But if you’re like me, it usually stays in the truck.
All that said, the day they come out with a pocket defibrillator, I’ll be first in line.