The Greatest Generation

A Guest Post By: Matthew Bergland

Matthew is a street paramedic from Colorado Springs, Colorado. I first met Matt well over a decade ago when he was an EMT for Pridemark Paramedic Services. Today he is a flight medic for Memorial Star Helicopter and also works with American Medical Response. I think Matt’s story deserves a place in “The Big Get It” category here at the spot.

In this piece Matt expresses the frustrations that many of us working in EMS feel each day, as well as an insightful revelation about the value of human beings and the meaning of service.


The Greatest Generation

I have been in EMS for fifteen years. I say this not to evoke in the reader some undeserved sense of awe in my longevity, rather to illustrate the depth of my ability to be exceedingly grumpy and “burned out” when it comes to the more routine aspects of pre-hospital EMS. To expand on this sentiment I’ll provide you with what is, most likely, a common thread throughout our industry.

I work long hours and I am expected to stay past my off time should the EMS system be busy. The pay is less than glamorous and I am routinely forced to sacrifice time with my family to spend time at work to make ends meet. Many times it is very difficult to even eat because we are so busy. To add insult to injury the lion’s shares of my “emergency” patients are drunks, psychs, sore throats and headaches. That being said, I also routinely stand witness to people that have been devastated by illness or injury and the impact that it has on their families.

Many people take advantage of the fact that we provide the care we do. They have no room in their criticisms for the understanding of our sacrifices and the constant training and hardship that we endure to bring our skill to their side. The expectation of those that we serve is, many times, far too high. When you fall short of those unreasonable expectations people tend to take it out on you in a personal manner. We all endure these high prices for our commitment to humanity.

It is easy to become cynical by these long hours and lack of sleep, food, family contact and human suffering. The sound of ambulance tones indicating another call no longer excites me. It merely means more work, less sleep and the potential to take on more of other people’s problems or misery. Many times it means another assault or traffic accident. Often it’s another gang banger that has been shot or stabbed. But more often it is a nursing home patient. It is with this patient population that I have found myself becoming very frustrated at the prospect of another sick, elderly person and have struggled, at times, shore up my compassion so as not to inadvertently treat these patients from the context of that frustration.

It wasn’t until one night that I was dispatched to yet another nursing home for an 88 year old male with flu-like symptoms that I really took stock in these octogenarians. As we set out to the nursing home I caught myself becoming very frustrated. Why, at three in the morning, was I travelling emergent to a nursing home to transport a patient who has a “routine” complaint? The patient was very embarrassed and repeatedly apologized for bothering us. He proved to be a very difficult IV stick and calmly accepted the repeated attempts. He apologized for not being able to move himself to our cot. It struck me that this man was so accepting of our repeated assaults on his body!

Once in the ambulance I asked all the standard questions and then I asked one more. I asked the question that truly opened my eyes to the sacrifices of this gentleman and those of his generation, the generation that has been coined “the Greatest Generation”. The question I asked was what he did before he retired. Truly, I was just making conversation so as not to have to deal with the uncomfortable and awkward silence that tends to accompany two people separated by so many years.

He told me that he had been a bomber pilot. He would have left it at that if I had not been curious enough to ask the follow-up question. “Did you see any action?” It is at this point that I must inform the reader that I have taken some literary license with the forthcoming description! What he told me was that he’d been shot down over Germany. He was the only survivor of his crew and had parachuted from the burning wreckage of the aircraft. Upon landing he broke his leg and then spent two days avoiding the German’s. When he was finally caught he was placed in a cell and left for weeks with minimal food and water.

He had been away from his family at that point for three years and he told me that he wondered if he would ever lay eyes on his wife again. I quickly realized that my frustration and complaining about my job was nothing in comparison to this mans sacrifice to our country. Moreover, his generations sacrifice to this country. For it was not only the sacrifice of the men that shipped off to war, it was, in fact, the sacrifice of their wives and families as well. They kept this country active and solvent in the face of nearly the entire workforce going to war. They gave up their loved ones for years, many gave them up forever. As a whole they, quite literally, held this country together for later generations.

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend that you watch the series ‘Band of Brothers’. This remarkable series should, in my opinion, be required material for all young Americans so that we may understand the great and noble sacrifices that the “Greatest Generation” made. We run on these frail and elderly people everyday not realizing that, while their generation is passing, their impact on our lives will not. It can not be allowed to pass.

Most of them will silently sit in your ambulance and make no attempt to educate you to their history. I will tell you that I routinely ask these patients about their past and their service to our country and I have heard some remarkable stories. I always end my conversation with these patients with this, “Yours is truly the Greatest Generation, thank you for your sacrifices and thank you for my freedom.”  Without exception the response I get is the same. They always humbly say that they were just doing what they had to do for their country.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said, “I think that as life is passion and action, it is required of a man that he should share in the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.” This is definitely the culture in which they lived and they should absolutely be heralded as heroic and be respected by us. These people have, most assuredly, gone above and beyond to earn the right to be compassionately cared for by us. I have developed a profound sense of honor in relation to being able to care for these people. I have found much humility in being given the opportunity to be with these people as they pass on. Next time you go on that nursing home call or elderly fall victim, before walking into the scene take a moment and reflect on their sacrifices and what they did, selflessly, for you.

Matthew Bergland


  1. David Tobeck says:

    Wow, well said!

  2. Charles Butler says:

    I believe it is our duty to honor these people and educate our young gung ho EMT’s to the things these people have given us. I try to remember these men as the giants they were rather than the frail old men they are now.
    Try to remember that 60 years ago these old men were ass kickers in a world gone crazy. I can only hope that I would be so brave.

  3. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Charles I agree Charles. The men and women of that era deserve our unconditional respect.

  4. Matthew;

    Thank you for reminiscing over a conversation I frequently have with patients. It is also a discussion that is rapidly declining in frequency as that generation progressively dies. I had a discussion with a Holocaust survivor early in my EMS career as there is a large Jewish population in our area that had many such survivors. The first time I saw one of the tattoos that identified those people to their captors, was one of those moments not easily forgotten.

    The patient was stable and I saw the tattoo when taking her pulse. After finishing the assessment and routine questions, I succumbed to my curiosity and asked if it was alright to ask about it. She let go a sign and replied that it was. She then told me the story of how her twenty-something self was subjected to most of the inhumanities we have heard about that were unduly visited upon the Holocaust victims and her survival. I heard much less than the “Reader’s Digest” version and it was still a lot to take in.

    The discussions to “pass the time” enroute, have ranged from the boring to interesting, ordinary to bizarre.

    Please link to the original of this Picture and next time respect the creative commons. THX


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