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Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself By Becoming an EMT
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Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself By Becoming an EMT

4.4 18
by Jane Stern

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The basis for the movie starring Kathy Bates, Ambulance Girl is an inspiring story by a woman who found, somewhat late in life, that “in helping others I learned to help myself.”

Jane Stern was a walking encyclopedia of panic attacks, depression, and hypochondria. Her marriage of more than thirty years was suffering, and she was virtually


The basis for the movie starring Kathy Bates, Ambulance Girl is an inspiring story by a woman who found, somewhat late in life, that “in helping others I learned to help myself.”

Jane Stern was a walking encyclopedia of panic attacks, depression, and hypochondria. Her marriage of more than thirty years was suffering, and she was virtually immobilized by fear and anxiety. As the daughter of parents who both died before she was thirty, Stern was terrified of illness and death, and despite the fact that her acclaimed career as a food and travel writer required her to spend a great deal of time on airplanes, she suffered from a persistent fear of flying and severe claustrophobia. Yet, this fifty-two-year-old writer decided to become an emergency medical technician.

Stern tells her story with great humor and poignancy, creating a wonderful portrait of a middle-aged, Woody Allen–ish woman who was “deeply and neurotically terrified of sick and dead people,” but who went out into the world to save other people’s lives as a way of saving her own. Her story begins with the boot camp of EMT training: 140 hours at the hands of a dour ex-marine who took delight in presenting a veritable parade of amputations, hideous deformities, and gross disasters. Jane—overweight and badly out of shape—had to surmount physical challenges like carrying a 250-pound man seated in a chair down a dark flight of stairs. After class she did rounds in the emergency room of a local hospital.

Each call Stern describes is a vignette of human nature, often with a life in the balance. From an AIDS hospice to town drunks, yuppie wife beaters to psychopaths, Jane comes to see the true nature and underlying mysteries of a town she had called home for twenty years. Throughout the book we follow her as she gets her sea legs, bonds with the firefighters who become her colleagues, and eventually, comes to be known as Ambulance Girl.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Gourmet magazine columnist and roving foodie Jane Stern serves up a delightful account of how she transformed herself from "a raging former urban Jewish hypochondriac on the order of Woody Allen" into a functioning human being, by becoming an emergency medical technician (EMT) in her blue-collar Connecticut hometown.

A lifelong neurotic, Stern was blindsided at age 52 by crippling depression and phobias too numerous to count. Her epiphany occurred one day during a session with her beloved shrink, when she suddenly realized that the only times she was able to forget her excruciating fears were times when she was helping people. Immediately, she signed up to join her local ambulance squad and embarked on a rigorous course of training that would literally change her life.

In her wry and witty memoir, Stern regales us with unforgettable tales from the EMT trenches: stories of roller-coaster rides in the big rig, surreal encounters in the ER, and late-night stops at Dunkin' Donuts with the fellow volunteers who have become her surrogate family. She also describes how the death of a close friend sent her spiraling back into a depression that threatened to unravel her marriage of 32 years; and how the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11 irrevocably cast some much-needed perspective on her problems, real and imagined.

Hilarious, moving, and altogether engaging, Ambulance Girl tells the inspiring and life-affirming story of a fearful middle-aged woman who learned -- late in life, but not too late -- that the best way to help yourself is to help others. Anne Markowski

Publishers Weekly
At 52, Stern, a well-known foodie-she and her husband, Michael, have coauthored some 20 books on American culture and food, including Roadfood-found herself profoundly depressed. Holed up in the couple's Connecticut home, she'd lost interest in doing much of anything. Phobias (bus riding, air travel, claustrophobia, etc.) made her isolation worse. One day, on a whim, she responded to the "volunteers wanted" notice at the local firehouse and signed up for EMT training. No one teaching "boot camp"-style classes would have tolerated a queasy (much less depressed or phobic) recruit, so she had to tough it out. Humor definitely helped. As Stern remarks, after a few classes covering major trauma, "I am no longer clinically depressed but instead am dying of everything simultaneously." Some of her class notes are funny, like her list of EMT no-nos: don't replace organs hanging from bodies, don't give CPR to a severed head, don't attempt to revive someone in a "state of advanced decomposition" and if "you have a patient whose leg or arm is partially amputated, do not pull it off to make things `neat.' " After training and certification, the real work started, and while initially it did the trick-"in helping others I learned to help myself"-the ultimate truth, that she couldn't save everyone, brought back her depression. Stern's memoir is a quirky mix of humor, self-doubt and courage. Agent, Michael I. Ruddell. (On sale June 24) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this revealing, often wryly humorous memoir, Stern, coauthor (with husband Michael Stern) of 30 books on American food and culture and the monthly "Roadfood" columnist for Gourmet magazine, shares the life-changing experience of becoming an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). When she found herself clinically depressed at age 53, Stern responded by signing up for an EMT class in her Connecticut hometown, driven by childhood memories of performing repetitive head transplants on her stuffed toy bears. She sweeps readers along with stories about her first EMT calls, establishing camaraderie with the mostly male fire department and EMT team, encountering her first dead patient, dealing with the emotional difficulty of handling dead children, and forging a poignant personal connection with a terminally ill AIDS patient. She also reveals how the stress of responding to calls and of constantly being on call eventually began to disrupt her marriage and caused a relapse into depression, all to vanish suddenly when she and her fellow EMTs and firefighters struggled with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and waited for the call that never came. Throughout, readers will be captivated by the author's lively writing, which genuinely conveys the significance of finding, as she helped others, the means to heal herself. Highly recommended for academic libraries supporting an emergency training curriculum and for public libraries, especially in communities with emergency services and critical incident stress management teams.-Dale Farris, Groves, TX Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A witty, self-deprecating account of how becoming a volunteer emergency medical technician transformed a reclusive, depressed hypochondriac into a vibrant whole woman. Co-author with husband Michael of numerous books on food and pop culture (Dog Eat Dog, 1997, etc.), a columnist for Gourmet magazine, and a contributor to NPR’s The Splendid Table, Stern at age 52 appeared to be a woman of accomplishment. She describes herself, though, as clinically depressed, claustrophobic, and floored by panic attacks. Her decision to become an EMT was, she says, a spur-of-the-moment act, taken after a couple of months of psychotherapy and treatment with antidepressants. It also seems driven by the desire of this urbane, well-traveled outsider to become an accepted part of her largely blue-collar New England community. During months of thrice-a-week classes, mostly with fit young firemen and police trainees, overweight, overage, and overeducated Stern struggled hard to fit in, at times losing her dignity, but not her sense of humor. Once certified as an EMT, she faces some real-life tests. The claustrophobic writer dreads riding in the back of the ambulance, but of course she must, and with a couple of drunken, bleeding motorcyclists to care for she doesn’t have time to be afraid. Her fear of dead people is challenged when she is confronted with her first corpse: fat, naked, blue, and covered with Cheerios. And on it goes, through fires, accidents, and domestic crises, until the day Stern sees someone she knows become a virtual vegetable after an EMT rescue. Questioning the value of heroic saves, she begins again to sink into depression, coming out of her funk only after the events of 9/11 make her seerescue workers as a noble brotherhood. In the end, she achieves her goal and closes her account of self-transformation with the joyous announcement: "I am a part of something at last." Funny yet moving, a midlife crisis tale with all the elements of a TV movie of the week. Agent: Michael Rudell/Franklin Weinrib Rudell & Vassallo

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Crown Publishing Group
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5.21(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt


I am G-65.

That is the number I was given when I became an Emergency Medical Technician at the volunteer fire company in Georgetown, Connecticut. I live in Georgetown, a rural, blue-collar town whose main attraction is a sprawling defunct wire mill with broken windows.

If you live in Georgetown and press 911, the dispatcher will tone me out. I will get on the two-way police radio in my car and say, "G-65 EMT responding."

I have another name, too: Ambulance Girl . . . as in, "Honey, the ambulance girl is here." I hear this as I drag myself, my portable oxygen tank, my defibrillator, and a giant bag of medical supplies into the homes of sick strangers.

I wait for my tone twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It comes over any of my three police radios: upstairs and downstairs at home, and in my car. My tone goes like this: two long beeps (one higher than the other), followed by five short beeps. It pulls me out of deep sleep, out of showers, away from the dinner table, from my favorite TV shows, away from arguing with my husband, away from phone calls telling me I owe money to the department store, and away from long, slow, loving embraces. I could pretend I didn't hear the tone but I don't. I would have nightmares about the people I left alone and suffering.

I am an EMT-B. This places me smack in the middle of the emergency care hierarchy. The top EMTs are the paramedics. They are full-time professionals who can insert airways that will allow you to breathe, place syringes into your chest cavity if your lungs collapse, or start an IV in your arm filled with enough morphine to make the bone-jarring ride to the hospital feel like you are a baby in its mother's arms. Some paramedics wear paramilitary uniforms and people refer to them in awe as paragods because they appear to be a cross between emergency room physicians and Green Berets.

To become an EMT-B I had to take a difficult course, pass state and national boards, work hours in the hospital emergency room, and keep my skills polished enough to recertify every few years. Although I am a volunteer at my fire department, and receive no salary, my training is the same as the paid professionals'.

As an EMT-B I can help you administer your own nitroglycerin if you are having a heart attack, shoot you in the thigh with a syringe of epinephrine if you are in anaphylactic shock, and stick a plastic airway into your throat and pump air into your lungs if you stop breathing. I can zap you back to life with a defibrillator if your heart stops. I can help you give birth to your baby in the back of the ambulance.

On the job I don't look like much. My favorite uniform is a used blue gabardine jacket with a brown corduroy collar that says GEORGETOWN EMS across the back in light-reflective two-inch letters. By the time I got it, its previous owners had lost the thermal liner, and so it is as limp as a Kleenex from years of wear. In the winter the wind whips through it; in the summer it sags from humidity. There are bleach and disinfectant stains on it from EMTs who wore this jacket before me and who tried to remove the effluvium of various sick people, drunks, women in labor, and the nearly dead who regularly ride with us in the back of our ambulance.

Many EMTs at level B look sharp. But they don't work for my town. They work in the surrounding wealthier towns of Fairfield County, Connecticut--towns such as Westport and New Canaan. These EMTs work on assigned shifts and wear crisp uniforms and sport important-looking gold badges. Their ambulances are replaced every few years from their towns' big budgets. Our ambulance is old, its interior is avocado green Naugahyde, the shag rugs in the driver's compartment thin with age. Our ambulance sputters and lurches and drips green fluid from its underbelly. When we pull up to the hospital and park it alongside the fancy ambulances, the security staff knows us on sight. They look at us like we are the Beverly Hillbillies arriving in the rattle-ass truck with Granny sitting on top in her rocker.

I took my EMT training in the posh town of New Canaan, where the ambulance cot blankets look like the monogrammed coverings of show horses. In short time I noted that our instructors had two ways of explaining how to remedy any situation. "In New Canaan we would use this stretcher strap or cravat, but for those of you who will be in service in other towns [glance toward me] you can always use duct tape instead." In my imagination, if our ambulance service had a heraldic crest, it would be a roll of duct tape on a field of spilled oil. Duct tape (which I confess I have never once seen used in my time as a Georgetown EMT) became the operative semantic symbol of the dividing line between Fairfield County snooty and Fairfield County down-to-earth.

When I became an EMT my friends were confounded. In fact, they thought it was ridiculous. They knew me to be a woman deeply and neurotically terrified of sick and dead people, a raging former urban Jewish hypochondriac on the order of Woody Allen, a sufferer from motion sickness in moving vehicles who always threatened to vomit if I was not allowed the front seat. I was someone who loved my sleep and privacy and tried never to go out in public without looking well-groomed.

But the closest I have ever felt to God is in the back of my ambulance. The most fully alive I have felt was when I held a dead man's head wedged between my knees and ventilated him back to life. One of the most precious moments of my life was the night I connected with a dying crack addict with AIDS who shared the same taste in gospel music as I do.

In my real life I am a writer for Gourmet magazine, but I am in bliss after a hard call when my coworkers and I pull the ambulance up to Dunkin' Donuts and share greasy crullers and a big cup of stomach-churning coffee and vent out all the stress to each other.

This is my story, about life and death, fear and joy, good and evil as seen from the back of an ambulance in a small town in Connecticut. Although it is my experience, it is also about all the rescue workers who will save your life if you call 911. None of us is unique. We are the people who know the secrets behind the closed doors on every street in town, and we are there to protect you from harm when you call.

What is different about my story is that in helping others I learned to help myself. Becoming part of a firehouse and working side by side with the men and women of the Georgetown Volunteer Fire Department saved me from a spiral into depression and middle-age angst. It was the hardest and the most rewarding task I ever set for myself. In doing so I found a family within the town I lived in, and learned that I could face what scared me in life. That is the story I will tell in this book.


My hometown has its own zip code and its own phone prefix, but it is not really a town in the normal scheme of things. Instead it is a patchwork quilt of a place. In addition to a small hunk of land called Georgetown it is made up of scraps and end pieces of the bigger and wealthier towns that surround it. It includes pieces of Redding and Wilton, a bit of Ridgefield and Weston, too. Georgetown is about an hour and twenty minutes from New York City but feels light-years away. One of our volunteer company fire trucks has THE HUB OF FAIRFIELD COUNTY painted on it, but Georgetown is only hublike in that people roar through it on the way to someplace else. Not much happens in Georgetown, at least for the casual observer to see.

The Georgetown Volunteer Fire Company is situated across the street from the defunct Gilbert and Bennett wire mill that remains the centerpiece of the town. Once a thriving seat of industry when it began producing wire insect screening in 1861, then went on to manufacture meat and cheese safes, coal screens, and ox muzzles, it is now a crumbling castle of neglect. The huge ghostly building has been unoccupied for years; its windows are mostly all smashed in.

There are always town plans to do something with the property, to turn it into a spiffy housing community, loft spaces for artists, or a block of boutiques; but despite the creative ideas and slews of potential investors, the factory still sits abandoned.

When my husband, Michael, and I moved to the Redding part of Georgetown in 1982, we came from Weston, a mere five miles away. It was like coming to another country. Weston was the classic rich man's commuting town. Movie stars and CEOs lived there. The town center was a modest island of upmarket stores. The drugstore sold scented French candles and coffee table books about sailing. The main street of Georgetown was remarkable for its utter lack of yuppie charms. When we moved here, the main street had many liquor stores, a TV repair store that threw the nonfixable sets out on the pavement, and an old-fashioned barbershop whose owner probably had never heard of Frederick Fekkai.

While the surrounding towns are a source of endless magazine and local newspaper articles about their well-protected wildlife, scenic roads, and artistic residents, news from Georgetown seems to revolve around public sewers that are always backing up into local businesses and the fate of the defunct wire factory that sits like a toad in the middle of town. Georgetown was the town that the commuter train to New York whizzed past, shaking the down-at-the-heels houses on both sides of the tracks.

Technically Michael and I live in West Redding, but we are so close to Georgetown, that is where our fire tax goes, and that is the fire department that comes if we call 911. We moved from Weston to West Redding because we wanted to be in a more rural area. Weston was too expensive for us to move to a bigger and nicer house, while the Georgetown end of West Redding was still affordable. Weston had become a commuter town while West Redding, ten minutes farther from New York City by Metro-North, the commuter train, still had a country air about it. Even though Georgetown center was a stone's throw from our house, we disengaged ourselves from it emotionally when we bought a cheerful yellow colonial house high on a hill in West Redding. We hoped that when friends came to visit they would not notice the ugly old mill and the dreary main street of Georgetown, but would spring back to consciousness when, a mile up the road, where we lived on Wayside Lane, everything became leafy and bucolic again.

For years I passed the Georgetown Volunteer Fire Company on the way to the post office or the bank. I knew it was there but it never intrigued me. It had no sense of mystery about it the way the old wire mill did or the houses by the railroad tracks. The firehouse is a mundane redbrick building with a flagpole that flies an American flag and a second flag commemorating POWs and MIAs. Occasionally I would see the fire trucks lined up outside or see the ambulance zooming out of its parking bay. I never paid much attention; it was just part of the local landscape.

I had called 911 only one time since moving to Georgetown. I called to rat out a neighbor whose property borders mine, who liked to burn huge amounts of brush in bonfires so large that they threatened to leap across the property line and set my house on fire. I hid when I heard the fire trucks coming, to make sure the man didn't know I had turned him in, and I peeked out from the second-floor window to see the firemen extinguishing the blaze and watch the pantomime of the men lecturing my neighbor not to do it again. I was never a fan of emergencies of any nature. If there was an accident on the highway, I tucked my head in my hands and didn't look. I feared death and disfigurement. I did not want to see pain or blood or broken glass.

Outside the Georgetown Volunteer Fire Company was placed the kind of sign that you stick magnetic letters on, like a deli or a church has. The sign was always there. It said:

vols. wanted . . . FIRE EMS

Sometimes, if the wind had blown off a few letters it read VO S WANT D. It too was just part of the scenery. I was fifty-two years old. I was not going to be a fireman. But there was something about the EMS part of the sign that stuck in my mind. It pointed me to everything cowardly I knew about myself, about my fear of death and disease, my claustrophobia about being in moving vehicles that I am not driving. I was so suggestible about illness that I never watched the popular hospital shows like ER. I was not an EMT groupie, but something about the sign would not leave my mind.

Looking back, to do something that went against the way I defined myself should not have seemed so surprising. I was having a midlife "event," if not a full-blown crisis. This event entailed trying to think about ways I could make my life less miserable.

I was miserable. In fact, I was clinically depressed. I had spent my whole life paralyzed by my fears. Fearfulness and general nutty behavior was a family legacy. I had a grandmother who was so agoraphobic that she did not leave her house for thirty years; I had a father who had a dozen tics and suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as from the consequences of having a steel plate surgically implanted in his skull from a horrendous head-trauma accident he suffered as a child. He flew into fits and rages at the slightest provocation. Just about everyone in my family was odd in some way. Despite becoming successful professionals, my aunts, uncles, and cousins wouldn't fly, wouldn't take boats, wouldn't use public phones, wouldn't eat in restaurants for fear of being poisoned. My most notorious relative (about whom I know very little) was apparently one of the original celebrity stalkers. Even though it was spoken about only in hushed tones when I was a kid, it was clear that a second cousin on my mother's side lived out his days at Pilgrim State Hospital for the Insane after being removed from a White House bedroom where he was caught looking for Harry Truman's daughter while wearing a woman's mink coat.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

JANE STERN was a contributing editor and columnist at Gourmet. She is the author, with Michael Stern, of more than twenty books, including Roadfood, and a winner of the James Beard Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Sterns are regular contributors to National Public Radio’s The Splendid Table. She lives in West Redding, Connecticut.

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Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself By Becoming an EMT 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Humorous and at times sad, but a wonderful read. Kudos to her for forcing herself to do something and get off her couch.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After seeing Jane on the Today show and listening to her interview, she inspired me to go into the field. Though I've always wanted to do service work for the Lord I never knew exactly what or how. Hating my job and looking for something better, Jane was a God send. Especially when I heard her saying the closest she ever felt to God was in the back of an ambulance, that said it all for me. Thank you Jane and God Bless You for all you do. I am now taking the courses for EMT-B and hope to someday become EMT-P.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
It is sad to say that I have not read a book completely in a while. I got this book and read it in less than a day and was laughing on the bus, train and at home outloud. I felt i lived the stories with her and am proud she 'done good'. I am embarking on my EMT-B to become EMT-P and also in connecticut and i think someone mentioned in the book will be my instructor. Exiciting. Thanks for the lively story
Guest More than 1 year ago
i dont read any book from front to back but let me tell u this, i did with this book and was it great. i loveed it so much she is a awsome writer and very fun to read
Guest More than 1 year ago
Stern is a gifted writer. She pulls you right into the story. There is a grand sense of enjoyment and adventure through out the book. It was terrible to turn the last page and realize the read was over.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read many of Jane and Michael Stern's food-related books but this is special. Jane writes so honestly about her depression and phobias and her marriage. She shows us that the way out of the darkness is to take your mind off of yourself and focus on others! You will laugh and cry in the same chapter.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just read an exerpt in this month's AARP magazine. I can't wait til the book comes out. Jane Stern writes a very funny and interesting story about her experiences after becoming an EMT at age 52. If the whole book is as well written as the exerpt suggests, this will be a #1 book for Ms. Stern