A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back
By Kevin Hazzard
261 pages, $25
By Lee Coppola
Did you hear the one about the guy who attached his arm with a nail gun to the bedroom wall when his common-law wife told him to leave? You better get him off that wall, the woman told first responders, or else he’s going to have to watch me making love to my boyfriend.
Or the one about the frantic call to 911 that a 2-year-old was choking, a particular concern for first responders when children need help. The 2-year-old turned out to be a pit bull that swallowed a bone.
A man nailed to a wall, a choking child that turned out to be a dog, all in a day’s work for emergency responders. At least that’s what Kevin Hazzard found during the 10 years he spent prowling the streets of Atlanta in a truck with a red cross on the side, a siren and red lights that flashed often.
It’s his insight into life’s foibles and his skill as a writer that allow the reader to share his experiences and marvel at what often greets emergency medical technicians when they answer a call. And, as Hazzard writes, “It’s life and (hopefully) death, and unlike the general public, I’m invited and allowed to wander freely amid the debris.”
Debris he finds aplenty – drug overdoses, shooting victims, heart and stroke attacks, dismembered body parts, and suicide threateners, just to name a few.
There’s gore, the time he reached into a crumpled car to help the driver and pulled out the man’s brain.
There’s empathy, for the young crack addict whose father only cares about the cigarettes in his son’s pocket as the addict gets lifted into the ambulance.
There’s even humor, the woman found naked on her bed after throwing out her back while, shall we say, pleasuring herself.
Hazzard was a newspaper reporter when he felt he was just going through the motions of life. He wanted something different, something more meaningful, something to get his adrenaline flowing.
So he went to school to learn how to respond to human calamities. “Naked” not only takes the reader through his daily encounters, it also reveals the war within him as he answers call after call of people in trouble.
He defines this struggle as being either a Tourist, one along only for the ride, or a True Believer, one dedicated to the job, eager to help and perform professionally. And in exposing his innermost thoughts, he admits he was often scared, often worried he’d be responsible for someone dying.
And that’s what also invigorates the reader – his honesty in admitting that things can go wrong, that the suffering can die if the first responder muffs his or her duties.
Much of “Hard” defines the author as a True Believer, although Hazzard as a Tourist sandwiched that role.
“An ambulance is a conveyor belt,” he writes, “emergency medicine a factory. Hearts, kidneys, lungs, legs – the raw materials of a functioning human – pass down the assembly line. Each is broken and will be fixed. Quickly, though. More are coming.”
Hazzard’s dedication to his work, it seems, relies heavily on the partner riding with him. Some were nonchalant, some incompetent. The one he worked best with was fired for selling T- shirts imprinted with a fire department logo he did not have permission to use.
Hazzard almost was fired. Seems he was bored one night parked near an Atlanta prison waiting for a dispatch call. So he used the ambulance’s public address system to announce in the wee hours of the morning that a prison break was taking place. One resident, startled out of bed, complained.
In the end, Hazzard quit when he found little fulfillment in his work, what he said many veteran first responders feel eventually. He explains:
“Whatever I thought way back in the beginning, whatever it was that got me hooked, those plans, those hopes, those romantic ideals, didn’t survive.”
Oh yes, the man nailed to the wall and the dog with the bone stuck in his throat did survive. Firefighters cut the man’s arm off the wall, and he was transported to the hospital with a section of sheetrock attached to him. As for the dog, Hazzard and his partner managed to dislodge the bone and told his owner to take him to a veterinarian.
Lee Coppola is a former print and TV journalist, federal prosecutor and the former dean of St. Bonatventure University’s journalism school.