It happened again a few days ago. This time it was on shift. There we were driving up Parker Rd. when the EMT student rider leaned forward from the back seat and asked the quintessential rookie / lay-person question, “So what’s the worst thing you guys have ever seen?”
If you’ve been in EMS for more than a few months, you’ve undoubtedly been asked this question by now, probably more than once. The question comes in many forms and in countless forums but the intention is usually the same. The hidden request behind the question is, “entertain me.”
Sometimes the questions comes in the form of a subtle prompt, “So…have you had any good calls lately?” or a more direct request for the morbid and graphic like, “Have you seen any really bad trauma?” Often the inquirer will be subtle. “Boy, working in EMS…I bet you see some stuff!” But they can also be very specific, “Have you ever seen a gunshot wound to the head?”
If you make it public that you work on an ambulance, there is no question that you will be taped for the occasional morbid story. The only real question is – how will you choose to respond?
Over my career, I’ve developed a multitude of strategies for fielding the inappropriate request for a gratuitous gory tale. Some are quick and to the point, others can sting a little.
For a long time, my favorite technique was the witty reply.
“What’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen? It’s got to be Star Trek Five: The Final Frontier. Horrible, absolutely horrible.”
“Have I seen a gunshot wound to the head? Of course. Didn’t you ever see Saving Private Ryan? There were heads exploding everywhere. You can even rewind on the good ones and watch again.”
“Have I had any good calls? I did have one pretty good stomach churner. The Republican National Convention folks called and wanted to talk about the benefits of supply side economics. It was pretty nauseating.” (Please insert preferred political ideology to suit your tastes.)
The witty reply is a conversational dodge and parry. It side-steps the question gracefully and leaves the questioner completely unsatisfied. It can also be used repeatedly to exhaust even the most persistent gore hunter. “No…I’m serious too. The fifth Star Trek installment was the absolute worst thing I have ever seen. How they could get away with charging money for that stink-bomb is beyond me.”
Sometimes, if I feel that there is more to the request than the simple seeking of entertainment, I’ll probe a little further into the questioner’s intentions. I’ll simple look them in the eye and say, “Interesting question, why do you want to know?” If the individual posing the question has a good enough answer, I’ll tell them a story.
Another technique is to turn the tables on the individual and make them really think about their own intentions. I do this by asking them what kind of story they were looking for from me. “You want a story about one of my calls? Well, sure. I have lots of stories. What kind of story were you looking for? Would you like a sad story? If you’d like, I can make you feel sad. Or perhaps you wanted a gross story? If you want to feel nauseous I’m certain I can make you not want to finish your hamburger.”
The question, “What kind of story do you want?” often makes the asker feel a little uncomfortable. It’s a very direct way of asking their honest intentions. Some folks will hedge their bets and say they were looking for something funny or interesting. Nobody ever really comes clean and says they wanted to be entertained by a true story of someone else’s grief, pain and tragedy.
In the world of reality TV it seems that no grief is too great to become entertainment fodder and no tragedy is too private for a bar-side story. Us folks who go to work in the EMS industry are known for our stories. We make people laugh and amaze them with how truly strange and often absurd the reality of EMS really can be.
You’ll have to decide for yourself how far you’re willing to go to entertain the crowds when they come looking for a story.
Now it’s your turn. What do you do when people ask the question, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”