W e see people die literally almost every day; car accidents, suicides, heart attacks, and some folks that make it to almost triple digits and they peacefully go in their sleep. It's part of the gig. We know that going into work every shift that today, I might see some horrific shit that is going to haunt my dreams until I join the choir invisible myself. And it might happen again tomorrow. Or maybe Tuesday. Who knows? It's going to happen, it's just a question of when, how bad is it, and have I had a chance to eat that day yet. But I digress... What I am trying to say is that I know the risks. I'm at work and it's my job. It's not my emergency. It's not my family member or coworker or friend. I can maintain my composure, my professionalism, and my competence because of the emotional distance I have from the situation. I know where all the pieces fit: I'm the medic, I have my EMT, and the fire crew, and there is my patient over there, whom I will get to know just well enough to be able to do my job effectively. It's not personal, its professional... most of the time. Sometimes life likes to flip the board on you and send those pieces flying all over the place.
J une 1st of 2017 was a Thursday. I was off that day watching my daughter as my wife was at work and we keep opposite work schedules because daycare in the Bay Area is basically like a 2nd rent payment every month. She had just gone down for much deserved (for me) nap and I was laying next to her, cruising around on Facebook on my phone (like ya do when you need to stay put but don't just want to stare at the ceiling trying to pick images out of the knock-down like some Bob Vila cloud-watching-thing.) As I scrolled through my news feed, I saw a post from my employee union page from the 911 ambulance provider I work for. Apparently, a paramedic (who was currently unnamed) and his partner had been killed on duty. They both worked for the same company I did, but they were in Jupiter, Florida, which is the town where I grew up.
N aturally, my first thought was, I hope it wasn't anyone I know. I clicked the link, and it was a quick blurb from the Palm Beach Post. I read that article and then googled, "Jupiter, paramedic, killed, crash," and saw the same information that the article in Facebook had: the image of an AMR ambulance on its side, with the crew compartment cut apart for extrication. Still no names, but info that the driver of the vehicle at fault was drunk. I went back onto Facebook and scrolled along, wondering if I'd see any more about it. Before I could even finish that thought, I saw a post from an old high school friend of mine named Frank. Frank was a great guy, who married his high school girlfriend, had a couple of kids, worked at Home Depot; the literal cliche of, "the dude that went home after college." Frank was no dummy; he graduated from FSU, which is more than I could pull off when I was just out of high school. Anyhow, Frank posted that he was devastated to find out that his best friend from high school was killed at work in a head-on collision in his ambulance.
I met Paul when we were 11 years old. We were both sixth graders at Watson B Duncan Middle School, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and stayed in the same classes until we graduated. We were in band class together. Paul was the kind of kid that other kids made fun of: he wore hand-me-down clothes that rarely matched. He had no-name or off-brand sneakers. Everything he owned, from his lunch-box to his backpack to what would eventually be his first car looked like it had been through the proverbial mill. Paul's folks weren't swimming in cash like so many of the families that lived in the northern end of Palm Beach County. It never seemed to affect Paul, though. He was always nice. He always tried to make people laugh. He dated a girl named Julie, who broke up with Paul after three years and wound up marrying his best friend. But Paul was a big enough man to see that they were happy and was happy for them. I would've probably burned down the church with them in it, but that's just me. We can't all be saints, right? Paul and I butted heads a few times, but what kids don't when they go to school together for 7 years? The one thing that always stood out most about Paul was that he always wanted to be a paramedic. There was never any wavering from that thought for him. Both his parents were EMS workers. When his father retired from the ambulance, he went to work in an ED. This was all Paul knew; he had to be a paramedic, and so it was.
I hadn't spoken to Paul for many years prior to his untimely demise, but it hit me harder than I thought. Paul was at work, riding in the ambulance after clearing a call and now he's gone. That could've been me. That could've been my little girl standing on the side of US1 watching the procession of vehicles bringing me to where I'd be laid to rest. That could've been my wife raising our daughter alone. The thoughts were simultaneously sobering and saddening. I spoke to another friend from high school who is a Lieutenant with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue who actually ran on the call and filled me in on the details. In retrospect, I wish he hadn't. I've seen countless accidents with countless injuries and countless deaths, but now, picturing my friend, and then myself in that situation... well, that's more than I care to dwell upon.
T he next few weeks at work were tough. The whole company knew a medic that worked for us was killed, but I kept it to myself that we were friends. I didn't want to think about it, let alone talk about it. The second day, my partner brought it up and made reference to the fact that one crew members were ejected from the vehicle and how stupid they were because the only way you get ejected is if you don't wear a seatbelt, etc. I finally chimed in that I knew the medic and we grew up together. She stopped talking and pretty much stayed quiet the rest of the shift. Every call that we ran code 3 on with lights and sirens made me nervous. Are we going to get in an accident? Is everyone paying attention? Does everyone see us? Are any of these drivers hammered drunk even though it's 8 am on Monday? Slowly those thoughts faded and things went back to normal. Well, normal is a relative term when you work on a 911 ambulance.
I chugged along through the next month and things were okay. And then August 18th happened. I was just logging in for an early AM shift I heard an off-going crew talking about an Oakland firefighter that was killed. Again, I naturally thought, Man, I hope it's not anyone I know, and then my heart sunk as I remembered thinking that exact same thing when Paul died. About two hours later, as I was clearing a call on a hot stroke, one of my cohorts from paramedic school, Brynner Banks, texted me and said, “Did you hear about Jake?” I instantly knew that my friend, Jake Walter, who we went to medic school with, and was now and Oakland Firefighter Paramedic, was dead.
J ake was the best of us. Most of the guys in the class were firefighter wannabes, getting their P-cards to make themselves more employable to fire departments. They bagged on the other guys who'd struggle with things in class, relishing the next guys' failures. Not Jake. He genuinely wanted everyone to succeed. He never said a bad word about anyone in our program. He was a solid student and a solid medic who always treated his patients with respect. Jake was an Oakland native who wanted nothing more than to be an Oakland Firefighter. He wanted to be OFD so badly I don't think he even applied at other departments, and if he did, he'd have shut it all down for OFD at the drop of a hat. I ran a call with him the day before on the 17th, and now, the morning of the 18th, he's dead.
J ake was off duty and hanging out in downtown San Jose with some of his OFD academy mates. They had finished their class in April, done their station rotations, and were now waiting to find out which firehouse would be their new homes. They were out celebrating, and I believe they were at some sort of event where a block was shut down for vendors, music, and whatnot, when a man that none of them knew approached them. From what I've pieced together, this guy, Oliver Juinio, walked directly up to Jake, pulled out a gun and pointed it at him. Jake then asked him, “Is that a real gun?” right before the son-of-a-bitch shot Jake, once in the chest, and once in the stomach. As the crowd suddenly dispersed from the gunfire, Juinio shot another off-duty OFD probie in the back as he fled. Fortunately, he survived. The first medic on scene was actually one of our instructors from medic school, so I know Jake got the best possible care, but it wasn't enough. Jake was 30. I'm glad I wasn't the responding medic for that, because I would've been a deer in the goddamn headlights.
J ust when I had gotten my head screwed back on after Paul died, Jake was taken from us. I thought about taking some time off, but I don't know if it would've done me any good. I just worked more, and tried to keep my mind off of it. I went to the funeral, which was amazing, and I tip my hat to the city of Oakland. Afterward, we did what you do when you lose one of your boys; drank too much, put one on the bar for him everywhere we went, and sang/shouted/cried Irish folk/rock songs to send him off.
H onestly, I'm not even sure where this article is heading right now. I just started typing. I guess I'm kind of going around in my head thinking about all the people I've seen dead or dying over the years while doing this job and how it affects me versus how losing two people in the brotherhood had me all twisted up for months. I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't walk away from a call and think, OK, we're all good here, smoke 'em if you got 'em, or something. Shitty calls stick with you whether you like it or not, but eventually, the names and faces fade and you only remember the call itself. You don't forget losing your friends. And you certainly don't forget losing them to the job. It gives you perspective. I mean, when we are out on a call, you're the guy that someone called to come and handle what is often the worst day of their life. We show up and appear strong, confident, and that we have things well in hand. We have machines. We have answers. We tell you that we are going to do everything we can to help you and that things will be alright because you called us. Who do we call?