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EMS Portrait: There is Always More to the Patient's Story

Jill lived pretty close to me in a town where I used to volunteer as a first responder. Most of her 911 calls were for things like “patient with MS needs lift assist” or “patient with MS has urinary tract infection” or “patient with MS has dislodged catheter” or even “patient with MS needs help getting from wheelchair and into bed.” These are the kind of calls  that will drive some  EMS professionals mad especially when Jill’s calls are coming in about once a week.

Since I lived close to Jill and almost all of her 911 requests were non-emergent I always had a few minutes with her before the ambulance arrived. Visit after visit gave me time to get to know Jill. While waiting for other personnel to arrive Jill and I would just chat. Before her MS diagnosis Jill was very active as a skier, runner, and cyclist. I even learned she had been a member of the National Ski Patrol. As I go know her I began taking a better look around her small apartment at the mementos of an active outdoor life. I found pictures, training certificates, and race awards. She and I had a lot of common and we even figured out that we had some mutual friends, even though neither of us was originally from this area.

At the time I was an EMT Basic and she had been a long-time ski patrol member. We essentially had the same level of training.  She used to work on steep downhill ski runs, in all sorts of conditions, assess and treat patients, and then package them for descent to the patrol room or waiting ambulance. Now she was helpless to move herself from her living room floor and back into her chair. I am not sure how quickly her disease worsened, but I can only imagine how difficult it was to say goodbye to the friends, places, and activities she once used to enjoy so much.

Jill had a regular home care provider. Invariably Jill fell or needed help with her urinary catheter just after the home care provider started her regular job. She didn’t have anyone else to call so she called us.

I suppose I could have made sure that Jill understood she was keeping us out of service and potentially responding to other emergencies that might happen in our service area. I also could have told her that she needed to find more reliable and regular in-home care. I could have even given her a few brochures or names of assisted living facilities in our area. What was she thinking living by herself, barely being able to move, and cobbling together healthcare that regularly involved calling the ambulance and first responders for lift assists and urinary tract infections.

Instead I chose to just spend my time talking to Jill, learning about her life, talking about old times and things we were both interested in. I treasure every opportunity I have with a patient to talk about the things that are never part of the SAMPLE history, OPQRST, or billing sheet.

This is just one EMS patient portrait. Picking just one was not easy. I am proud and sometimes haunted by the patient portraits I carry with me.

Author note: this is my submission to the January 2010 edition of the Handover Blog carnival hosted by Buckman at This month’s theme was “An EMS Portrait”. Buck will be compiling all submissions into blog post. Thanks to Buck for hosting and I am looking forward to reading the other submissions.

By Greg Friese

Greg Friese, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, is an author, educator, paramedic, and marathon runner.

Greg was the co-host of the award winning EMSEduCast podcast, the only podcast by and for EMS educators. Greg has written for,, Wilderness Medical Associates, JEMS Magazine, and EMS World Magazine, and the NAEMSE Educator Newsletter.