I threw open the door of the school nurse's office and Miss Soloway sprung out of her chair like an Olympic runner bolting out of the starting gate. She looked at me as if she saw a monster. Who could blame her? My face was covered in white hives the size of marbles.
"Take a seat," she ordered, not looking at me as she fumbled through the medicine cabinet.
"My neck and face are very itchy. I can't stop scratching them," I complained.
"Is your throat tight?" she asked, again not looking at me.
"A little bit."
All of a sudden, my heart stopped. Everything was blurry and she screamed in the hallway for help. She snatched a green oxygen tank, placed the mask over my face and grabbed the phone. I cried as I heard sirens in the distance growing closer. The next thing I knew, the uniformed emergency medical technicians stood over me with stethoscopes draped around their necks. Everyone seemed to know what was happening except me. EMT strangers carried me into an ambulance. Inside, one EMT swabbed my leg while another jabbed a long needle into my thigh. I asked questions but it seemed as though I spoke a different language. No one answered. They ignored me, yet they were all focused on me as the sirens wailed all the way to the hospital.
Six years later, I am a high school junior sitting in the ready room of the first aid squad in West Orange, the neighboring town where I now serve as the crew's youngest EMT. Everyone laughs at the story of my allergic reaction to the Granny Smith apple I ate at lunch in the fifth grade.
"At the time, I didn't know why they stuck me with an EpiPen or why my mouth was itchy," I told them with a huge smile on my face. After 150 hours of training, every EMT knows the purpose of an EpiPen.
An alarm interrupts the story.
I put on my stethoscope to prepare for my first call ever as a certified emergency medical technician. Within a few seconds, the sirens blare and the rig rolls down the street to Mount Pleasant Avenue. I sit in the back looking at the traffic we are free to pass. We slow to a stop. Kids from the nearby park gather around the fence to see what was happening. Police and firefighters surround the middle-aged man who suffered a seizure. My hands tremble. My face and my purple gloves are now filled with sweat. My mind goes blank. I am frozen. I feel sorry and helpless and the rigorous training fails me in this moment. I rely solely on the other EMTs to assess and transport the patient. My first call turns out to be disappointing.
The next day is miserable. My mind replays the call and I want to lie in bed all day. But I get up as I realize a new found respect for experience. A good EMT not only has the classroom training but practical and on-the-job experience as well. Experience is powerful enough to overwhelm the nervousness that comes with inexperience. I aspire to be a doctor but as an EMT, I volunteer with electricians, retired military men, teachers, and carpenters. They know how to comfort people in times of distress. They analyze situations quickly. Only experience, not self-pity, can make me a better EMT now. I return to the squad more humble and more confident with each call.
The journey continues two nights a week. As an EMT volunteer, I meet strangers who become memorable implants in my mind. There is the 90-year-old woman who stopped talking in the middle of a dinner with her son after a stroke. There is the kid trying to jump out of his bathroom window because his mother forbade him to see his grandparents. We convinced him not to kill himself. There is the 97-year-old man who lived by himself and fell down the stairs. He refused to go to the hospital, so we helped him to his bed and made sure he did not suffer major injuries, while he gave us good advice on how to be the best looking 97-year-old on the planet. Yet, the big moment arrives two months after the first call. An alarm rings and a surprise command comes from Chris, my tour chief: "Jordan, you are running the call tonight."
I gathered the equipment and debriefed the other crew members on exactly what to do when we arrived on the scene of two cars destroyed after a head-on collision. I secured the scene, which means making sure my crew and I are safe to provide medical care to an elderly woman trapped in her car. She screamed for help and I helped her onto a backboard to avoid spinal damage. I assigned an EMT to examine her for head injuries and supervised as we carried her to the nearest hospital. She would not stop asking questions and yelling almost as loud as the sirens. Her cries were even louder than my cries had been in the ambulance after my allergic reaction to the Granny Smith apple, but they did not distract me from caring for her.
At the end of the call, Chris came over to me as I put the equipment back into the ambulance: "Great job today. How does it feel to be on the care-providing side of the calls?"
Jordan Lassiter, a 2012 graduate of Millburn High School, will graduate from University of Virginia next month.