In Case of Emergency, out now from McSweeney’s Books, follows rookie EMT Piper Gallagher through her first months on the job, during which “she works hard, learns the ropes, stands witness to death, deals with her eccentric family, and eventually breaks down from the constant stress of quick decisions that fail to save strangers in need” (Kirkus). Below, Erin Minnick, an ER nurse at California Hospital Medical Center, talks with Courtney about their experiences on the job (the two worked together as EMTs in Los Angeles) and what it was like portraying the realities of the work in fiction.
ERIN: One thing about your book I really appreciated was that you addressed how hard it is to be exposed to trauma so often in EMS, how so often people working in this field try to just shrug it off. I know I went through a period where I started to become a really angry person from trapping everything, and, especially working as an EMT, there’s no access to debriefing or counselors or anything like that.
COURTNEY: Right, you’re supposed to be able to just deal with everything.
ERIN: Yes, and if you can’t, then you’re the problem. My favorite part of the book is when Piper has a breakdown because I thought, wow, Moreno is not dancing around this issue at all. She’s not trying to sugarcoat it whatsoever. Was it hard to write about that?
COURTNEY: Well, I think you remember when I wrote those nonfiction stories that came out in the LA Weekly Those stories were basically about that—the kinds of calls that stay with you, the ones that get under your skin for whatever reason. Some EMTs we worked with were really excited about the stories, really related to them, but then there were other EMTs who thought there was something the matter with me. One person even started a rumor that I was having a nervous breakdown. And I was really stunned by that because I thought, why shouldn’t I be allowed to have an emotional reaction to some of the things I’ve seen? And then later, when I was working on the book, I came back around to that idea, about a breakdown. I wanted to create a main character who, in some ways, couldn’t quite handle the job. It seemed like a way to explore what EMTs are so afraid of—being vulnerable.
ERIN: Because it should be okay to not be okay with everything we see.
ERIN: Another thing I noticed was how you didn’t try to exaggerate the work at all. People so often assume that when you do this work, you’re living some glamorous, exciting, exhilarating life, like, twenty-four hours a day. Like, oh look, I just saved a life, I just saved another life… Did you ever watch that show Trauma?
COURTNEY: [Laughing] Every episode there was a boat sinking or a helicopter landing on the Golden Gate Bridge.
ERIN: Exactly. And you’re thinking, actually, the heroic thing I did today was hold my pee for five hours.
COURTNEY: Oh god, yes. Or, I just scarfed an entire burrito in less than two minutes so I could be available for calls.
ERIN: Or I didn’t shower for three days.
COURTNEY: You’re on your own there.
ERIN: There’s also this misperception people have around how you’re treated by the people you’re caring for that is so often not the case. The other day we had a guy come into the ER who, for no reason we know of, punched one of the nurses in the face.
COURTNEY: I know what you mean. There was a patient I had once who was treating everyone on scene so badly—he even threatened to piss on the gurney so I would have to clean it up. And he acted like it was some kind of huge favor that he was not pissing on the gurney. Like I should be thanking him.
ERIN: Well, and we’ve talked before about what a thankless job it is—how as an EMT especially, you’re the lowest of the low. But I noticed you didn’t put too much of that in the book.
COURTNEY: True, I left a lot of the politics out. Especially the way firefighters and ER staff will treat you so badly sometimes, because as an EMT, you’re the lowest rung in the hierarchy and therefore the easiest target.
ERIN: Why didn’t you want to put that in?
COURTNEY: Well, I think I really wanted to write a book about EMTs. You know, firefighters make decent money. They’re in parades; they get called heroes. And with ER nurses and doctors—I’m not saying it’s not a hard job. But EMTs get paid minimum wage, no one thanks them, there are so few tributes of any kind to what they do. I left a lot of the politics out so that I could focus on the EMT experience instead. I wanted them to be the stars for once. [Laughs]
ERIN: I notice you put some real calls in the book.
COURTNEY: I put a ton of real calls in the book.
ERIN: That woman who kept saying, “There’s something inside of me! There’s something inside of me!”
COURTNEY: She told us she had a penis stuck inside her for something like six years.
ERIN: Some stuff you can’t make up.
Pick up your copy of
In Case of Emergency
from the McSweeney’s store.