Despite the fact that XX chromosomal arrangement makes up just over half of the world’s population, we ladies represent a mere 27.1% of EMS field personnel, according to data collected in 2007 by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Services’ think-tank. This doesn’t come as a shock to most folks whose idea of a typical day at the office includes lights, sirens, blood, and guts. While gender equality has been growing with remarkable speed over the last half century, in the big, bad, primarily testosterone based world of EMS, owning ovaries can certainly bring its own sets of challenges, advantages, and moments of hilarity.
It is not uncommon for me to be the only female present on a scene. I primarily work with a male partner, and it would appear as if the city fire department that typically responds with us has an even wider male to female ratio. There are obvious benefits to this scenario. As the only female, I’m usually the smallest and most flexible in the group, which means that I am typically the likely choice to crawl into a busted up vehicle or climb through an open window to get to a patient, all of which I love to do.
On the flipside, as the only female on a scene, I’m usually the one designated to take a peek when childbirth is deemed imminent and pretty much every other scenario involving “lady parts.” While I am trained to assist in childbirth and various problems that may arise, I am not well versed in other people’s vaginas. I think a friend of mine summed up my feelings on this phenomenon when she was the only female on a scene in which she was elected to check a pregnant patient for crowning. She forged ahead boldly, viewing the only vagina she had ever seen that she wasn’t born with. The patient asked her what she saw, and she said, “I don’t see a baby, but it doesn’t look anything like mine.”
I have one dog and zero offspring. At the age of 27, this suits me just fine (although my mom is showing definite signs of an attempt to plant seeds she hopes to flower into a desire for motherhood. She recently told me, “You know how I always said the best thing about pregnancy was getting to go wherever I wanted at a Black Sabbath concert? I take it back. It ended with me having you, and you turned out pretty cool.”). The best advocate for birth control I’ve ever encountered was my clinical rotations through Labor and Delivery as a mere paramecium during paramedic school.
I’ll save you the ridiculously gory details, but just know I left positive that whoever coined childbirth as “a miracle” is a sadistic asshole with a sick sense of humor. I have a very strong stomach; I studied human decomposition in college and consider a day in which I see someone’s brain awesome. Watching and participating in the birth of a human being was the only time I ever got queasy at the sight of something…right up until I went into the surgical area to see a cesarean section, where I nearly passed out. The Labor and Delivery department of a hospital cleverly disguises the gruesome nature of their trade by covering it in stuffed animals, balloons, and happy, gender appropriate colors. I’m onto their secret. When I show up on a scene, no one knows that even thinking about my previous experience gives me shudders, and everyone automatically looks directly at me as if to say, “You there, with the vagina! You’ve got the owner’s manual on this equipment and getting a parasite out, right?” It kind of makes it unfair that testicular examinations are so rarely called for in my field.
Playing well with others can be particularly challenging from the perspective of the only female on scene. Shockingly often, I get automatically passed over to receive a report from first responders, and female coworkers have told me they frequently encounter the same phenomenon. One of my friends likes to use this opportunity to ask her male partner in a sweet, soft “girl voice” what he’d like “little ole me to do” to save the patient suffering from a critical condition, just to get to see the priceless looks on the faces of her EMT-Basic partner and first responders.
Often times, I encounter reluctance from my male constituents when presented with a female doing manual labor. I’ve been asked enough times to be relieved of carrying equipment to have a standard response on hand when they are persistent: “Well, I have something kind of heavy on each side, so if you take one of those away, I’ll probably fall over. It would really help me out if you could carry my stethoscope, though.” Luckily, I work with enough folks with great senses of humor to go along with it and keep from getting offended. I actually was once pulled aside and thanked by a Fire Captain for lifting my own stretcher, which led me to wonder what other women on the job are doing that made me worthy of gratitude for doing my job.
On the bright side of being assumed weak, feeble, powerless, and incompetent, there’s really only room for improvement when the bar is set that low. That stated, I can’t help but feel my girl power pride swell when I’m on the scene with a female firefighter or partner and we’re the ones getting stuff done. I can only imagine how much harder female firefighters and policewomen have had to work to prove they are capable; I can’t help but think of them as superheroines.
Not being taken seriously can be a drain on the soul of a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world, which I doubt is something limited to the ladies of EMS. One woman who has worked in my agency pretty much since it was formed considers her breast reduction surgery a life altering change from a career standpoint. While not all male coworkers treated her poorly prior, she noticed an obvious shift in which people started to look her in her big, brown…eyes.
Which brings us to romance. EMS is an incestuous subset of society; we have long shifts and unconventional hours that most people have difficulty understanding. It can be quite the challenge for a lady crazy enough to do a job like this to find someone willing to put up with her, so it’s no surprise that we often turn to our own kind. I’m guilty of it. Twice. While my forays into the extracurricular studies weren’t what most would see as successful, plenty of relationships in EMS work. The problem with searching for that end goal in such an exclusive community is the concept that one must kiss a few frogs before finding a prince still applies, but instead of being a frog kisser, you’re deemed a “Medic Mattress.” Obviously, we ladies love being given such esteemed titles; feel free to call each other by such designations. Of course women with high stress, low pay employment that qualifies them as adrenaline junkies would never karate chop someone in the neck for referring to them by such a crass moniker. We’re sugar and spice and everything nice.
While dating within your field has the obvious benefits of understanding each other’s stress and hours, there are plenty of disadvantages. A policewoman recently told me that she dated one of her coworkers for a while, until he began showing up on her calls and being overly protective. She was once insulted by a civilian, and nearly immediately the offender was viciously attacked by gravity and a flight of stairs, with some assistance from her boyfriend at the time. When men are told their whole lives to be knights in shining armor, it must be a bit of a challenge for them to separate themselves from that mindset on the job, despite the fact that the woman they are dating may be able to handle herself accordingly. Let us not forget the men in our field are adrenaline seekers with God complexes, too.
We ladies have a tendency to be tougher on each other than the guys are on us. Girl on girl crime is pretty rampant in EMS; chances are decent that a girl whose actions may be misconstrued to give the ladies a bad reputation will get blackballed. Personally, I’m no exception. If you work with me and you find yourself letting men do your share of the manual labor, you will either get better, or I will make your life miserable on general principle. For instance, after a long shift, I was teaching a new, female trainee to change out the big oxygen tank on the ambulance. The M tank on an ambulance is about 40 or so pounds of awkward metal and compressed air, and replacing it is feasible as a one person job. When I told the new girl that we had to remove the old tank and lift the new one into the ambulance, her eyes grew wide and she said, “Maybe we should get one of these big, strong men to do it.” Aw, hell naw. My partner, who is responsible for actually training her, knew immediately to retreat as I do not take kindly to such attitudes. He slunk away just in time to escape me yelling at her, “You have a VAGINA, not a DISABILITY!” Despite my frustration, we changed the oxygen cylinder and she eventually grew into a functioning female EMT, lifting stretchers, equipment, and oxygen tanks.
As a female responder, some awkward situations will come up on rare occasions. I was once in a patient’s home in which she had hit an emergency button, prompting the entire cavalry of police, fire, and medic staff to respond to this unknown emergency. Basically, she had fallen and couldn’t get up due to morbid obesity, and was stranded on the ground like a turtle on its back. We cancelled any further response, but one police officer did not get that memo. He came in, saw we didn’t need his assistance, and began to leave after a brief chat with my male partner. On his way out, apparently, he saw me for the first time and said, “OOOOOOOOOOOOH! Look at the pretty medic!” Like I’m an exhibit in a zoo. And here on our tour of the homo sapiens exhibit, you can see the female medicus blondinus in action. Please observe how she attends to her patient while wearing the least flattering uniform of the twenty-first century. What a fascinating creature! I’m not sure of the proper protocol in handling such a bizarre remark with grace, so I elbowed a trainee, a tall, masculine African American EMT, and told him he should thank the officer for complimenting him. The officer was not amused, but I guess you can’t win ‘em all.
A friend of mine has quite possibly the most impressive story to tell concerning being a female in EMS. This woman looks like a Barbie doll and is both brilliant and tough as nails. She ran a 911 call in a strip club where the female dancers were dressed in costumes intended to imitate uniforms. As she was carrying equipment into the club, a very intoxicated patron who apparently was unaware of any present emergency, mistook her for an exotic dancer and stuffed a $20 bill into her shirt while slurring his request for a lap dance. The manager of the club was embarrassed and incredibly apologetic. He asked her if he could do anything to alleviate the incident and she told him with a deadpan facial expression, “Well, you could collect all my dollars for me.”
The strange isn’t limited to heterosexual paramedics and EMTs, either. Another friend of mine, who would doubtfully ever be mistaken for someone who dates the opposite sex recently had a routine transfer of an old man, afflicted with dementia and useless, contracted T-Rex arms. He asked her if she was, “one of them bull-daggers.” Completely taken aback and slightly amused at the situation, she answered, “Yes, sir, I am.” The man suddenly found enough strength and flexibility in a T-Rex arm to open-palm slap her in the face. What do you do when an old, bed bound man who is not mentally coherent slaps you in the face? According to my friend, you sit there with your mouth open in shock and call your friends later to laugh about it.
In my research to discover any present articles on women in EMS, I found something that took me completely aback. A quick Google search brought me to a 2008 Women of EMS calendar, depicting paramedics and EMTs scantily clad in bathing suits or bras with bunker pants.
My initial, kneejerk response to this was something along the lines of outrage. Then I began to think of the double standard in using sex as a fundraising tool in public safety; I find it perfectly acceptable for men to be depicted in sexually explicit ways to raise money for the benevolent funds of fire and police systems. Why should women be any different? Despite my quest for equality, I couldn’t manage to bring myself to think of these images as anything other than a setback for women in public safety. I’ve come up with an alternate solution: perhaps there should be a calendar showing women of EMS directly after they run demanding calls. I imagine a centerfold showing a female paramedic with her messy helmet hair matted to her head with sweat following the extraction of a patient from a vehicle, blood on her shirt, standing in front of the open doors of an ambulance with equipment and blood everywhere, and a quote of “Aw, man! I got brain on my pants again!”
Female fire fighters and policewomen shouldn’t feel left out. I found skanky calendars for you guys, too. I actually found one fundraiser calendar depicting female police from Spain posing as criminals, which I found much more entertaining and artistic than minimally dressed women being suggestive while lying on a disgusting ambulance floor.
I also found this douche-canoe’s website if anybody feels up to writing some hate mail. I couldn’t bring myself to take him seriously enough to actually be angry, personally.