On a recent cross-country flight, I feigned sleep and overheard the following conversation between my seatmates: a radiation oncologist (I’ll call her “Dr. M”), and a former firefighter/paramedic called, “Captain.” Thought you’d like to listen in.
DR. M: You guys have been my heroes for a long time, the way you constantly put your lives on the line.
CAPTAIN: We’re in serious danger 10% of the time, at most. Moderate danger another 10%, for a grand total of 20% or so.
DR. M: Interesting, and how odd, the 20%. About 20% of my patients are Stage IV with poor prognosis. Most of the rest get better.
CAPTAIN: Are you bothered by the fact that everyone you treat has cancer? And who do you worry about most?
DR. M: Truthfully, I worry about everyone. My field allows me to know them like family. I guess it’s not the same for you.
CAPTAIN: You’re right. Our circumstances are almost always extreme, and we rarely see patients more than once.
DR. M: So you patch ‘em up and pass ‘em on? Doesn’t that bother you?
CAPTAIN: Sometimes, but we get used to it — the job’s easier that way. What’s it like to lose a patient you’ve known for weeks, or months?
DR. M: Horrible. I’ve never gotten used to it. I was up most of the night last night — does it show?
CAPTAIN: Just a little. What kept you up?
DR.M: We lost a patient I tried hard to save, someone I cared for very deeply. Nothing worked in the end. I couldn’t stop crying …
CAPTAIN: Really? Somehow all these years, I thought doctors were above that kind of thing.
DR. M: You mean super-human? You’d be surprised how human we are.
CAPTAIN: How do you do it day after day? And you say you’ve done this for forty years? That’s two fire service careers.
DR. M: Honestly, I don’t know. My waiting room is chock-full of ghostly faces I’ve known and loved. It may be time to retire.
CAPTAIN: Sounds right, Doctor. I had to retire when I couldn’t stop thinking about Brian, an 8-year-old boy, and his dog.
DR. M: Who are they? Fire victims?
CAPTAIN: Yep, found them under a bed very early in my career. They followed me for twenty years.
DR. M: I guess we might say we’re semi-tough, you and I. Hero wannabes, too soft for the job.
CAPTAIN: I doubt I’ll ever say that about you. It takes a ton of courage to walk into that waiting room every day.
DR. M: And it takes another ton to look under the bed.
Rob Burnside is a retired firefighter and paramedic.