“Look now how mortals are blaming the gods” – Homer

Thursday, February 10 2005

Magic, or “magick”, is a big subject, but parts of it can be defined as Ritual for Effect. The whole premise is that certain rituals will result in certain outcomes. Recipes. Say the secret word and win $100.

“If Ye Practikal ParaMedick bee desirous of an Call and wouldst maek Tones Drop, or if an comely ER nurse wouldst forsaek all Rest, then spaek thus: “Wow, it sure is slow around here. Things are so quiet. I think I’ll take a nap.”

Whether medicine in general, and EMS in particular, is rife with Magic or simply the belief in magic is debatable, but a large percentage of docs, nurses, medics, EMTs and fire fighters believe in certain rituals. In our society, belief this fervent is called Faith when it involves God. If it does not involve God, or involves the “wrong” gods, it is Superstition. Most people are of the opinion that we, puny mortals, are not very effective at pushing around and controlling the behavior of the One True Creator of the Universe, and so let us defend their sensibilities and place Medical Magic in the “superstition” category.

The superstitions in EMS are many, and vary from region to region, I understand. Certain beliefs are pernicious and wide-encompassing, however, and fall into two categories: Conjuration (causing something to appear) and Dissipation (keeping something from happening).

Rituals concerning these two abound in medicine, but if we further narrow our attention to prehospital and ER staff, then of these Conjuration is by far the most developed. There are things we can do to Make Calls Happen, but avoiding these rituals does not guarantee fewer casualties. For instance, anyone in their kitchen can perform the Ritual of Brownies – follow the recipe, voila, you have brownies. Not baking brownies does not guarantee you won’t have any – someone might bring some to you. Our EMS Spigot can be turned on “Full” but we don’t know how (or have no rituals) to turn it completely “Off”.

Conjuration itself can be broken down into two categories: Verbal (spoken word) and Somatic (actions). I’ve seen evidence that beliefs are pretty evenly divided between these two, but the Verbal components, especially by ER staff, are the most strongly held – and the most efficacious. Certain words in the ER are Big JuJu, and strictly forbidden.

Now, this power is not ours by any means. We don’t get the power to make “slow quiet” work when we’re EMT, and it gets stronger as we rise through the ranks of EMT-I, Paramedic, Nurse, PA, etc. until Doctor Kildare can read a Robert Frost poem and cause a mass casualty. It’s not like Nun powers. Anyone can say “Slow” or “Quiet” and cause chaos. Redhats and ridealongs are cautioned at the outset – and some even say their naive utterances are the most powerful.

It is rather the use of these words which bring the attention of the EMS gods to you, and cause you trouble. This by the way is not a new concept. Homer used it circa 750 BCE:

Ulysses: “Hey, look, there’s Ithaca! Sure looks quiet. Slow the oars and we’ll sail right in!”
Aeolus (God of the Winds): “Wassat? Slow? Quiet? Oh, hey. *PUFF*. There ya go, li’l fellers – safe and sound again in the wine-dark sea.”
Ulysses: “shit.”

Everyone in EMS agrees on the Slow Quiet Curse. The somatic components are much more varied. Every field has its somatic superstitions. Sports, for instance – the quarterback who doesn’t wash his jockstrap, thus keeping his mojo while at the same time lending new, brown meaning to “winning streak”. EMS somatic superstitions are largely less disgusting.

To Conjure a Call, we must simply:

  • try to sleep;
  • cook an elaborate meal in the station kitchen, tones guaranteed at the critical burn-everything stage;
  • enjoy a really good episode of [insert TV show];
  • study for tomorrow’s Big Test;
  • walk to the corner store two blocks away;
  • get in the shower;
  • sit on the can and mean business;
  • take off our boots…

… etc.

Or, when performing an innocent task, doing it the wrong way will cause the tones to drop. For instance, in getting ready for bed, if the EMT doesn’t align his shoes properly (which according to various sources can be one of Toes Facing Door, Toes Under Bed, Unlaced, Laced, Upside Down, or Still On Feet) then the tones drop. Not leaving the doors open on the ambulance, for quick entry, will make tones. Not refilling the fuel tank when it reaches the 3/4 mark is a guarantee of tone-out and a call which lasts several hours. Not peeing when you have the chance. Not…

Folks, I am here to tell you: none of that stuff works. I tried it. Total calls for last duty: Zero. At this rate, people in my first due will begin spontaneously healing when I have duty. It’s enough to test one’s faith.

Good golly, if we can’t believe in the stuff we ourselves make up, what can we believe in?

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