“Ah summer, what power you have to make us suffer, and like it.” – Russel Baker
July and August have come and gone like the wind, and September is almost over! What happened?!
The leaves here in Fairbanks are almost at the end of their fluttering lives, and the hills have gone from green to yellow, orange, and red, and now take on shades of brown as the cold weather sets in. A few nights ago, we had our first frost, and the last of the vegetable gardens are now withering into the winter season. There is a crispness to the air that gets into your bones, and is my reminder that it’s time to dig out my winter jackets (all of them!) and locate my wool hat collection. Skirts and tank tops get packed away, and the last glimpses of any skin above the ankle or wrist are fleeting and few on campus. Personally, it’s perhaps my favorite time of year. Not too cold just yet, but still chilly enough to snuggle up with a hot beverage nightly, and revel in the fashion statement of wool socks. Welcome, autumn!
With the fall, however, also comes school, and I’m enjoying my first semester as a graduate student. My interdisciplinary degree is a masters of science in environmental ethnography, and I’m privileged to study under the mentoring of Dr. Philip A. Loring, and Dr. S. Craig Gerlach. Both are exceptional gentlemen and scholars here at UAF, and their learning and teaching styles fit mine to a T. Graduate school is unique in that instead of taking a whole host of classes (going for breadth, as they say), you take a selected few (that I got to pick out!) that delve deeply into the various aspects of my degree’s focus. In this case, I’m focusing ethnography within the environment – the study of human dimensions and interactions within the context of environmental science. Specifically, I’m studying the barriers that keep locally, sustainably caught seafood (specifically salmon) out of local markets that are accessible to local consumers (both by price, cultural food preference, and availability). I love the program so far, and the little bit of research I did over the summer was awesome! Essentially, I’ve found a degree program that’s entirely relevant to my own interests, lets me fight a good, intellectually based fight for salmon and the fishing way of life, and gets me free trips down to Homer and the Kenai Peninsula throughout the year! It’s a rough life, I’ll tell you…
My experiences at the fire station have also continued to grow and be rewarding. I’m now an EMT IA, which means I can start an advanced airway for someone who can’t breathe on their own (called a CombiTube), I can take a blood sugar (a very simple skill, but it involves a ‘sharp’), and can administer a few more drugs. I can also clear someone’s spine after they’re in an accident, but this is a risky skill. If I deem someone’s cervical spine to be without injury and I’m wrong, letting the patient walk around and potentially injure themselves further is no laughing matter. I think it’s probably a skill I’ll leave to someone with X-ray vision, or a machine.
The more time I spend at the fire station, the more I feel at home. I’ve been around long enough now that I’m helping to train up new recruits, and introduce them to the nuances of volunteering. I am also now able to drive the ambulance, and the other night went on my first call where I was required to drive with lights and sirens blazing.
The adrenaline rush I feel when the tones drop (fire speak for alarms going off in the station) is unbelievable. My heart races, my hands shake, and my mind takes off running through all the possible treatments I can administer to a patient. If it’s a fire, I first have to get into all my turnouts (the bunker gear we wear to protect us from debris, heat, cold, etc. on fire and vehicle collision calls). Then, I run to my apparatus (in my case, the ambulance) and either get behind the wheel or jump into the back (the “box”). Then, we’re off, lights flashing in the nights, engine gunning to get to the address blaring across the speaker system. These days, we have GPS in all of our trucks – a really great tool when street signs have been stolen or are covered in snow.
Once we arrive at a call, we survey the scene for safety, don our protective gear (gloves, masks, etc.), and enter the premises. I don’t make entry on fires as I am not a firefighter, but on a medical call, it’s a different story. We run in the front door, dodging dogs, piles of shoes, and whatever else people keep in their homes. It can sometimes be horrific the state that people live/are forced to live in, but we do our best not to judge, and instead address the patient’s problems. It can be hard, it can be sad, and it can make you sick to your stomach, but in the end when we’ve delivered the patient to the hospital or treated them the best we can, it’s always rewarding to know you did at least something to help.
I think what gets to me the most is the intimacy of the moments you have with a patient. Being an EMT (or nurse, or really most other medical professionals), even on a volunteer, basic level, allows you this instant access into incredibly private and sensitive information. When people are hurting, when their bodies have betrayed or failed them in incomprehensible ways, they turn to someone – anyone – who might know why and help them through that moment of bewilderment and fear. And sometimes, as life may have it, I am that person. When people call 9-1-1, they make a transition in their minds, a generally unconscious decision to do whatever it necessary to preserve their lives. Maybe it’s a survival instinct, maybe it’s inherent trust in the American EMS system. Whatever the reason, when I come through their door, I can ask almost anything and generally get an honest response. It is empowering, and terrifying.
I personally feel that American society, particularly here in Alaska where we value privacy and space above most all other things, is a very separation oriented, individualistic society. We live in giant houses by ourselves, we drive giant cars alone, and we seek out space – as much as possible. We build fences, put up walls, all under the auspices of keeping others out; but do we really just keep ourselves in? Regardless of the reason, we (myself especially) are not used to trusting strangers with private information, with our safety and health. And yet, in a moment of personal crisis, suddenly we are asked and at times required to divulge everything. And we do it. Willingly. Being an EMT, I get these snapshots into people’s lives; the existences they lead behind all those fences and closed doors and high walls. To look into someone’s life as you walk through their front door, and then into their body as you listen to their hearts’ beat, their lungs gasp for air, their eyes as they search yours for answers and reassurance. What a rush, and what a moment of intense closeness. And then, we deliver them through the ER doors, quite possibly to never see them again. I leave each call with a sense of pride in a job done as best as I can, but also a sense of loss. That moment, that closeness – gone. To be replaced by the next patient perhaps, but still artificial in its nature.
But I’m rambling.
Other than my adventures in EMS, I’m really getting back into music. I make an effort to go out at least once a week to hear something live, and am back to hosting a semi-regular radio show on the public station here in the Interior (KUAC, 89.9 FM, if you care to stream online). Instead of getting to choose my own genres, I’m asked to fill in for regular shows when the host is absent. It’s a great opportunity to push myself musically and check out new genres, especially in bluegrass! I’m hooked all over again on any sweet banjo sound, and am feeling fortunate to be living in a community with such a vibrant bluegrass undertone. I’m spending more time listening to new alternative releases, new bluegrass and jazz, and of course, going back to my rock roots. I find myself totally addicted to hearing new things that I love, so the search is ongoing.
Anyway, thanks for reading (as usual), and please feel free to comment with questions or comments. I love to read them!