In EMS, we cannot help but be shaped by our earliest partners. They are the ones who show us the way. I was lucky in that regard.
Kevin Andrews was one of my first partners. This was back in 1989. I was a spanking new EMT — so fresh I didn’t even have my certification yet. Due to an EMT shortage I was working on a waiver that let EMT class graduates work pending the outcome of their state exams. I even wore a “whop kit” – one of those pouches that attach to your belt and hold your tools of the trade. Mine was small and conservative by some standards. I had a penlight, trauma shears, bandage scissors, and a window-punch.
We worked for Eastern Ambulance, a mom and pop ambulance company in Springfield Mass that had the 911 contracts for three suburban towns in addition to backing up calls in the city and doing transfers. On a good day we only had five ambulances on the road. On most we had three. Some of the ambulances had brown bondo on the sides and in one, you could see the road through a hole in the floorboards. On Fridays, we use to all race down to the bank to try to cash our checks. The last to get there often found theirs would bounce. We didn’t have paramedics, just basics and intermediates. We didn’t even have defibrillators then. But we were a close-knit group, and there was more to the job than money.
Kevin was an EMT, but he was respected as any of the intermediates. He’d tried to take the EMT-I exam a couple times, but kept just missing it. He was very street smart, but had trouble overthinking the tests. I, on the other hand was book-smart, but had no clue about the street. With the wrong partner, my life at work could have been made miserable. I was always glad to find myself working with Kevin.
We were both thirty then, but our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in a large family in Springfield in a neighborhood where the drug trade flourished. I was from an upper middle class suburban family and my most recent job was working for a United States Senator until his loss had send me on this personal quest to learn how to help people in person rather than from behind a policy desk.
Kevin was a big strong man with a shaved head who a instructor and black belt in karate. Still he was gentle and soft-spoken, with a ready smile. I never saw him raise his voice or become excited on a scene. He had that calm about him that for all the occupations I have worked in, I have only ever really seen in certain EMS responders — an unperturbed always in control manner that seemed to deescalate any panic around him from patients, bystanders or partner. He always knew what to do, and if he didn’t, he never let that on.
Sometimes we used to stop at his mother’s house where she always made sandwiches for us and we would visit with his youngest brothers and sisters before heading back on the road. He was their clear pride. Out on the street, Kevin would point out to me the drug houses and dealers. What I might have thought was an innocent boy of twelve on a bike, was instead a drug-dealer’s lookout. It was a new world for me.
My clearest recollection of a call with Kevin was on a cold sleety morning in winter when we responded for a woman who had slipped on the ice on the top steps of a church. I could tell right away her arm was broken. I palpated it through her coat and it felt almost as if it were in two separate pieces. I had my trauma shears out in a jiffy, but before I could make my first cut, Kevin had a soft but strong grip on my arm. “This might be the only coat she owns,” he said quietly. “Let’s see if we can ease her arm out of it.” Which is what he did, taking his time not to cause any pain. The woman’s winter coat was preserved and her arm was carefully splinted and he talked to her in a reassuring way that caused me to feel only awe at what I was witnessing. It made me see that EMS wasn’t really about blood and guts and bad car wrecks and doing CPR. It was about taking care of people.
The company went bankrupt a couple years later. By that time I was only working one overnight shift a week. I was back behind the policy desk as the ex-Senator after a year in exile had run for Governor and won. Despite the full-time government job I was not only hooked on EMS and had to get my weekly fix, but I felt like I was a part of a family at Eastern Ambulance and I didn’t want to lose that connection. I hated to see Eastern close. Kevin and most of the others we worked with went to work for another ambulance company in Springfield while I joined a volunteer service in Connecticut.
I saw Kevin periodically over the years. We had a few Eastern get-togethers. Another time he and his girlfriend brought their kids down for a picnic at the condo in Connecticut I shared with my own girlfriend at the time. I visited him in the hospital when he got a bad infection and had to get IV antibiotics. We’d talk on the phone sometimes and get caught up on how all the people we worked with at Eastern were doing. He told me he was honored when I mentioned him in my first book. I was honored to be able to write about him. Whenever he’d call, even if we hadn’t talked to each other for a couple years I’d say “Kevin” recognizing him at the first sound of his voice.
The last time I talked to him was three years ago right around the birth of my daughter. He’d mentioned there was going to be a new get together of some of the old people we knew. I wrote his number down, but in the confusion of the time, misplaced it. I have always been somewhat of a recluse. I work all the time and I’m not the best about keeping in touch.
A month ago I talked to a woman who’d also worked ambulance up in Springfield, starting shortly after I had left the area. When I mentioned I had worked for Eastern, Kevin’s name came up. She said she knew him and that he was helping teach basic EMTs at the college where she also taught. I said to say hello. Later in a New Year’s Day phone call, she told me she had talked to him and that he had been excited to hear she had spoken with me. He told her about the good times we’d had as partners. She’d given him my cell phone number and he’d said he was going to call me. She wanted to know if he had ever gotten a hold of me. He hadn’t. And now he won’t be. The reason for the call was to tell me he had passed away suddenly. She didn’t know the details. The rest of the conversation was a fog. I kept thinking. What do you mean? He passed away?
I have always found it hard to believe people I have known are gone. I have to see the obituary in the paper. I found it and there is was in print. Kevin Andrews, 52.
I am not one who believes in heaven or an afterlife. I believe when you are dead, you are dead. There is no place where you go to sit with others or wander among the clouds. Your conciousness is no more.
But what I do believe in is memory. I can close my eyes and see Kevin sitting right next to me in the ambulance, telling me a story. I can see him standing there in his mother’s house smiling watching his brothers and sisters play, and then years later, sitting on the back deck watching his own children play in my yard. I can see the true friendship in his eyes and feel his warm handshake when he says “Keep in touch.”
And I can still see him taking care of that old woman on the church steps as clear as if I were still there. I watch his hands and I want my hands to be able to soothe someone as his do.
Kevin shaped me as a caregiver and as a person. He helped make me the paramedic I am today. If I am gentle toward a patient, than Kevin’s spirit is in me, Kevin’s touch is in my hands. If watching the way those of us who were influenced by Kevin treat their patients, others are now gentler with the sick and injured, then Kevin’s hands and heart are also in them. His breadth widens. This is what becomes of him. This is how Kevin is passed on, from one caregiver to the next. Let this be how he is remembered.
The great church doors open to the icy weather. Outside on the cold steps, an EMT caring for a patient.