Lessons from a Fire Station

One of my favorite aspects of attending the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville (USCSOMG) consists of riding with medics on ambulances once a month, a required part of our preclinical curriculum. As I plan on pursuing an Emergency Medicine residency, this unique part of our training affords me the unique opportunity to visit patients in their home environment, a facet of their lives that most physicians, and healthcare providers, are never made privy to.

What’s more, seeing patients in this setting provides us students a unique window into the public health, social justice and economic issues that face many patients in the Greenville community. At our institution, we are taught to refer to these extra-clinical aspects of care delivery as socioeconomic determinants of health. I like to think of them as: “What’s this person’s life actually like?”

Starting this academic year, as part of the Emergency Technician Program, we students are now allowed to complete EMT shifts with the fire department. Given the opportunity, I immediately grabbed it: seriously, who hasn’t dreamed of riding on a fire truck as a child, sliding down a fire station pole – yes, those are real, I saw them with my own eyes – and controlling the fire hydrant?

Though I didn’t get to do the latter two of these three, working with firemen far exceeded all my expectations. As soon as I got to my assigned fire station at 7 AM, two of the young firemen in training asked if I would help them clean up the place, one of the tasks entrusted to young firemen recruits. I didn’t think twice and immediately said yes: in my previous career working in the movie business, specifically when on movie sets, I learned very quickly that to gain respect and climb the ranks, you can never deem a task too small or beneath your position. Likewise, when my mother, when I was still a toddler, decided to follow her passion and become a floral designer, her first boss handed her a broom and said to her: “This is your first tool. Embrace it.”

I mention this seemingly anodyne task from my day spent at the fire station because it exemplifies the admiration, respect and esteem that these young firemen had for their elders: certain tasks are to be completed by the younger firemen, because the older firemen have earned their keep and paid their dues, so to speak. Yet, this sense of hierarchy was equally pervaded by one of incredible camaraderie that all the firemen shared: whether when sharing stories of times spent together on previous shifts or the reasons that brought each one of them to choose this particular profession, a deep-seated sense of prideful ownership of their work permeated every word and action that the firemen shared with me.

I was lucky enough to share in this sense of brotherhood in that one of the firemen was, like me, a dual American-Canadian citizen, a commonality that allowed us to bond through our shared love of this country. Most importantly, what brought all these men together was a real sense of gratitude, shared by all the servicemen I met on that day, to have the opportunity to help people for a living, and in many cases, follow in a long family line of firemen.

It’s not that the firemen said they were grateful; it’s that their actions showed they were. From the way they described some of the individuals they met on previous shifts, to being privileged, as we were on that day, to being told numerous times by people we met on the job, “Thank you for all that you do,” to saying grace and sharing a home-cooked, barbecued meal, which if you ever want the most delicious and best-grilled corn, baked potatoes and steak, befriend your local firemen. I promise you will not be disappointed. At the end of the day, I left the station positively transformed and with a renewed sense of thankfulness for my own personal circumstances.

That day brought back to my mind words that one of our faculty said to our Clinical Reasoning group earlier this year when describing the work of an attending physician: “You may be in charge, but you’re never above anyone. You just had a different path and you got really, really lucky.” I hope I can always remember this truth and, just like the firemen I shared the work with on that day, live by these words: to be mindful that to serve and to service those less privileged than us is not a burden, but instead is a privilege that must be earned every day.

 

Alexis del Vecchio is a graduate of Yale where he majored in Theater Studies. He was a professional voice-over actor before college. Since graduation, he has produced television movies, acted in national commercials, seen his original plays performed on both coasts, and founded two companies in the educational field. He has lived in Florida, Maryland, Connecticut and California, and now calls Greenville home. He never wants to leave South Carolina – why would anyone want to live anywhere else? – and is thrilled and grateful to attend USCSOMG.

 

 

*The header photo is from an EMT Training Day; no one is this photo is in danger. All injuries are simulated.

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