At the age of 17, like so many others, I learnt to drive a car. Actually, that's not exactly accurate.
At the age of 17, like so many others, I learnt to pass my driving test.
I learnt about Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre.
I learnt about road signs.
I learnt to parallel park.
I learnt to drive on slow roads and fast roads.
I learnt to reverse around the corner.
At 17 and a little bit, on a Monday lunchtime, I walked into the staffroom at the school where my mum used to teach, with a dozen pairs of eyes staring at me and my glum-faced expression, none brave enough to ask if I'd passed the test or not. My mum, standing the other end of the room and obviously knowing me better than anyone else there, saw straight through the fake sadness, spotted the glint in the eyes, and without a word spoken, threw her car key across the room to a round of applause.
That was the day I started to learn to drive.
At the age of 26, I learnt to be a paramedic. Actually, that's not exactly accurate.
At the age of 26, I learnt to pass the first of many tests to be a paramedic. Yesterday, a patient reminded me of it just by asking a simple question.
"Do you get taught how to stay calm through everything you see, or is it something you naturally have to have before you can join the Ambulance Service?"
To me, that hid an altogether different question: where do you learn how to become a paramedic?
Is it all the sitting in classrooms, bored to death by endless powerpoint presentations?
Is it by spending time in the operating theatres, practising cannulas and intubations?
Is it by listening to lectures on how to treat everybody the same?
Is it by reading through the book about drugs, their actions, their contra-indications and being able to recite them all off by heart?
The answer to all of these are easy. Yes. That's where you learn how to be a paramedic. Or at least, that's where you learn how to pass all the assessments that qualify you as a paramedic.
For me, that's not enough. I don't just want to be able to pass my driving test, I want to learn to be a good driver.
By the same token, I don't just want to be able to say that I have a certificate that says I'm a paramedic, pay my annual dues, and finished. That's the easy bit.
I want to be a good paramedic.
That's what you learn after you get your certificate.
That's when you learn how to use all the skills you've just been handed.
You learn to use common sense, you learn empathy, you learn sympathy.
You learn that the technique with which you cannulated your patient in theatre, where all is calm and controlled, won't be the same when you're cannulating a patient in cardiac arrest on his home floor with several family members watching your every move.
You learn that the worst case scenarios which always seem to occur in assessments, are really few and far between. But in the meantime you see cases of domestic violence that you were neither trained nor prepared for.
You learn all about how a heart attack patient might look and feel, you'll know how to treat and transport them, but how do you keep them calm and reassured?
You realise that you're an expert at CPR, yet you were never taught how to tell someone that their loved one has died.
You find that you were given a stab vest to wear, but are never quite ready for the time that a patient or their relative suddenly turns into a threat.
You discover that when you're treating a young child and their asthma attack, when your knowledge of the right drugs is important, that the way you are treating their parents is equally critical.
You find that even if you know theoretically how to treat every patient you see, sometimes you need to treat yourself. The trick you aren't taught is to know when that sometimes is.
Oh, and you learn to reverse around the corner again. This time in a truck.
The list is jumbled, just like the real world of the paramedic. A shift can, and often does, range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the mundane to the life-threatening.
Despite every lecture to the contrary, you find that you can't treat everyone the same, because everyone is different. What you can do, is treat everyone to get the same result.
Most importantly, you learn that you cannot learn it all. Certainly not at once.
It takes time, patience, an open mind and a willingness to learn in order to perfect those driving skills.