“What’s The Worst Thing You’ve Ever Seen?”

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?”


  1. A question that has always left me a little clueless – do I go in to gory detail of a big trauma call, or ‘disappoint them’ by telling them about the executive family man in his mid forties, a flawless citizen, with end stage cancer? I do like your approach of avoidance though, will work in some situations.

    Another question often encountered is “I couldn’t do your job!”
    Blog post on my behalf in the pipeline…

  2. I just use avoidance. When someone asks me “what’s the worse thing you’ve ever seen?” I just say “my paycheck” they usually move on to the next forbidden question, “so how long have you been doing this?” that’s another discussion for another day. Thanks for the article.

  3. LOL, wow! great post. I never thought of reacting that way, and I never thought the question to be inappropriate. You have posed excellent points to think about, for sure.

    I always gear my answer to the type of person who asks. It could be gruesome imagery like the decapitation, or the sliced up family, or I give them the immoral shiz like the brother who raped his sister, or the Mother who killed her two little boys.

    In my eyes, it is a legitimate question, and so I give a legitimate answer. Although, I have had my nieces, and nephews ask, or some young kid, and then I play the avoidance game, or give something that lacks the gruesome visual.

    It’s entertaining to me to see their reaction. But now that you present another point of view, I may just try, “the worst thing I have ever seen is the first two movies in the Twilight series, I have no idea why I even watched them.” LOL

  4. Sean Fontaine says:

    Flobach, I love the “I couldn’t do your job” statement, because I’m usually thinking the same thing about their job.
    As far as my response to the worst thing I’ve seen, I generally defer, because what comes to mind is something that has no place being discussed outside of either talking w/co-workers or students. Those calls I’m willing to put into that classification carry baggage, I don’t need to give others that baggage.
    One of my friends was being begged by a hoard of 12 yr old boys one night while we were working as partners w/this question and he kept deferring, but the boys were relentless. Finally he spoke and only said do you know about 9/11, a few said they did and he left it at that. A shift trade landed him there that day and we’ve barely ever spoken about it, but I respect him for not war storying about or pumping his chest about it, his humility speaks to how this question should be handled.

  5. @ Gube: Why is it a forbidden question to ask how long someone has been in paramedicine? It’s a question pretty much all my colleagues are asked during shift, along with the obligatory “why”. Much more than small talk, it is interesting the variety of motivations people have, plus you get to know and understand your colleagues better.

    @ Sean: Well written. I can appreciate the humility of silence as an answer. I have a pool of jobs that do not affect me, and they can be shared as answers to those questions. The (small) pool of jobs that affect me will not be shared – especially not with Joe Public.
    Check out my blog in about 16hrs time for my answer to “I couldn’t do your job”: http://flobach.com/2012/04/26/i-couldnt-do-yours-either

  6. I just say “War how about you?”

  7. Rolling up Parker Rd! Nice to know you’re not too far from me (when I’m home).

    I don’t get this question a bunch since I’m not a medic. But I do often get the statement of I could never do your job, how do you put up with what you see?

    Sometimes from new probys, others are ride alongs and sometimes they are students. One thing I’ve about at times was why not turn this into a teaching moment. If they are a medic student here is a chance to run through a call and ask the “What would you do?”, even if it’s a fire or an MVA if they are interested in the field as their career see what ideas they have for action plans and how they react to the changes. That says a lot about a person right there.

  8. “Pain and grief. Everything else is just meat.”

  9. Lima beans on a pizza.

  10. Chrispatch says:

    My answers.

    1. The day Mike Taigman left Denver.
    2. when I came to work and the rigs had AMR on the side of them.
    3. your right, star trek 5.
    4. The article about Rural Metro buying Pridemark.
    5. the 1988 CU/Nebraska game.
    6. Any video by Lady Ga Ga.
    7. All the Nut Shots on Youtube
    8. Rob Dyrdek
    9. The Rest Room at the 72nd and Hwy 2 7-Eleven.
    10. one work…..Yanee.

  11. Omally mel says:

    I used to look at my friend who was a cop with disdain because he was always telling gruesome stories, goading me to “one-up” his story. I also hated my colleagues who were constantly on an avoidance game, often mistakenly perceived by others as smug, disturbed or having a superiority complex. Regardless of their reasons (all of which I intimately understand) they did not represent our profession well.

    I never wish to capitalize on someone else’s tragedy for entertainment, but I tried to answer those questions and the stories were always dependent on the asker. Then i went back to university where I wrote a research paper on how societies treats death. I learned that in Western World we shield ourselves, tuck away and minimize death. Everything from quick removal of the body from a home to postmortem cosmetology, the reality of death is often sanitized. Tragedy can teach us, even if to just not do what a victim did, but often far more. I have found, through the death of my family members, that tragedy and death, and our natural curiosity for the same, is a tool that’s taught us something valuable for millions of years. I found it interesting that death, often in the form of public hangings, always increased birthrate. I find that generally the cultures who hide death has trouble dealing with death. Death can be an emotional trigger and motivate us to do the right things while we are alive – say things we should to our loved ones, do things we’ve always wanted to do, change things we should, etc.

    I am no longer an EMT, but I try to connect the tragedy in my stories about what it really means to people. For example, I now try to add the sadness of what that girl who found her father who hanged himself would’ve experienced, not just focus on the gore. I find that people generally find the extension of the story in this way to be sobering for them. I had a couple of friends who were once suicidal swallow a lump with that story. I am, maybe naively, hopeful that people will learn something out of someone else’s tragedy and am trying to help them get there.

  12. I usually answer “we don’t really see that much bad stuff”. And then I try to explain what it is we mostly do. This is purely for my own benefit: I’d like people to know what the job is like, so we get the right kind of people who, when they start training, know what they are training for. Makes better partners for me.