Be well. Practice big medicine.

Newman | The Positive Paramedic Project #43 Learn the art of caring

Yes, that’s me and Beth Mejia on Commencement Day in 1985. Bethany WV

A nugget of EMS organizational wisdom every day. #43 Learn the art of caring.

Have you ever been to Bethany, West Virginia? Probably not–it’s not a corner of the world that is found on many frequent flier lists. Bethany is in Brooke County, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Not far from the aging steel mills of Weirton and Wellsburg, the glass factories of Steubenville, and a twisty road away from “Little Washington,” Pennsylvania.

Bethany is home to a thousand souls including the staff, students, and faculty of Bethany College; a liberal arts institution founded in 1814 by a Scottish ex-patriot Disciple of Christ named Alexander Campbell. The College is a collection of beautiful old and new buildings on a campus best seen during the spectacular crimson and gold days of autumn.

Bethany, West Virginia is where I first learned the art of caring. Not in any college sociology or health sciences course, but from Raymond Mitchell. Raymond volunteered with the Bethany Fire & Rescue Department when he wasn’t tending to his family. Raymond shared his wisdom and experience with me in a way that was neither condescending nor cross-cultural. It was just matter-of-fact; human to human. Demystifying things I didn’t understand. Elaborating on things that I did. Raymond gathered me under his wing and helped ensure I survived my days in the Bethany Fire & Rescue Department.

I was a cocky upstart from Canada who was going to show those tobacco-chewing backwoods boys a thing or two about emergency medical services. My rough-and-tumble days on Montréal’s neon urban range hadn’t taught me a thing about actually reaching out to my patients and understanding them as they lived and died in the community. That all changed when I got to Bethany. Bethany Rescue was asking the questions that weren’t asked in the five-minute patient histories we amassed in the city. Bethany Rescue was hour-long ambulance rides to the hospital in Wheeling, leaving me with plenty of time to find out how my patient’s grandkids were doing in Middle School. The hard alternative was sixty minutes of silence broken only by clinical questions that wouldn’t reveal anything essential about my patient’s real life experience.

I remember rolling to a call for a woman who had injured her shoulder out on her farm. The drive out seemed to take forever–about forty-five minutes. Raymond explained these folks were down on their luck and trying their best but the place was still pretty run down and for me to put on my best poker face in order not to appear shocked by their level of existence. We arrived on a farm without running water. Without electricity. With a goat in the house. With a middle-aged woman who looked twenty years older with an obviously dislocated shoulder. I was shell-shocked. I don’t think I breathed for the first few minutes.

Raymond didn’t skip a beat. He shoeed the goat out into the yard, pushed a chair up next to the woman and began caring for her. All the while asking questions about the farm, taxes, and were they getting enough food on the table. He never asked how she hurt herself–told me later it was because she was out cutting wood for the stove and slipped and fell. Raymond just talked with her and listened to what she and her husband had to say. We spent about an hour out there–Raymond had me gather some firewood and help clean things up a bit–before we loaded her into the ambulance for the ride back to Wheeling. I never forgot that approach to patient care. Our patient was at ease when we arrived at the hospital. Raymond’s gentle art of caring had seen to that.

My next mentor in the art of  caring was Mrs. Sylvia Hamlin, then of Baltimore, Maryland–now of Cavalry, Virginia. Mrs. Hamlin is the mother of Robert Hamlin II; EMT/fire officer and one of my colleagues during my days with the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company. Mrs. Hamlin ensured I was always welcome in her home, in her church, and in her neighbourhood–and always found the time to sit with me and ask how I was getting on with my life.

Mrs. Hamlin is incredible–she even managed to get me involved at Huber Memorial United Church on the Alameda in central Baltimore. We are not talking about a natural connection between Huber Memorial and me–I am Jewish, white, and Canadian. And yet she ensured I was welcome in her church, that the pastor spent a moment with me getting acquainted, that I learned the significance of Kwanza and watched as the congregation celebrated the academic achievements of its youngest members. I became another son of Sylvia Hamlin. Robert and I became twin sons of different mothers: ages and worlds apart and yet essentially the same when it matters most. Mrs. Hamlin personifies the art of caring–taking time to teach me things important to her–things that eventually became important to my perception of what it means to be a prehospital care provider.

The art of caring knows no boundaries. My former Urgences Santé (Montréal EMS) partner François Vincent introduced me to his mother Therese and his late grandmother Aurore–who both emphasized how important it was to be accepting of others and to never be a bystander along the road of life. Always act on the feelings in your heart and hold a hand to soothe the emotional pain or provide a shoulder for someone to weep upon. They taught me that working on an ambulance was more about providing support and solace than it was about saving the world. Aurore told me that my career wasn’t going to be measured in terms of lives saved but in terms of people cared for…crucial life lessons from two woman who ran an apple orchard in Mont Saint Gregoire in the Richelieu River Valley.

The art of caring is big medicine.

Big Medicine is my nod of respect to a First Nations expression that, roughly translated, means the right people working together at the right time will be Big Medicine. I’ve been saying ‘Be well. Practice big medicine’ for as long as I can remember. It is my own very personal version of ‘Sawu Bona’, the Zulu greeting which means ‘I see you’…

I see all of you, I see your good works, I see the difference you are making in the world.

Be well. Practice big medicine.



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