A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard *****

AthousandnakedstrangersTake a former journalist; make him a paramedic in a high-poverty, high-danger area for a decade; then turn him loose again to write about it, and he will play his readers like violins and make us like it. A Thousand Naked Strangers is a high octane, gloriously visceral ride in an ambulance and out of one, through Southeast Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you to Net Galley and to Scribner for the DRC. Since I read multiple galleys at a time and I loved this one best, I tried to feed it to myself in small nibbles, like Mary Ingalls hoarding her Christmas candy, but it was just too riveting and I could not stay away.

At the memoir’s beginning, our guy is just looking for work. With just a few months of training, he can become an EMT. His journalistic career wasn’t working out as he had expected, and he found himself working as a paperboy instead, delivering the newspaper for which he had written. That’s about as rock bottom as it gets.

He becomes an EMT; then he sets out to discover whether he wants to commit to the extra year and a half of schooling required become a medic. Once in, he’s hooked, not so much in spite of the risk and unpredictability of the job, but because of it.

And when you think about it, what other job pays so very little, involves so much danger, and gets so little respect? Teaching comes to mind, but being a rescue worker trumps even that, particularly for the low pay and insane hours–holidays missed–to do it, a person needs to be young, and to be an adrenaline junkie. And for a decade, Hazzard fits that description.

When he starts out, he is callous, as youth often are, speculating with his partner about what constitutes the perfect call. The perfect call, to their way of thinking, has requirements that are measured in the number of dead and wounded, the amount of danger. Does the patient have to survive in order for it to be a perfect call? Nah.

Over the years he matures, and he becomes more respectful of the patients with whom he deals. He talks to addicts, hookers, and children in a way that is forthright and kind. The job takes a lot out of him, but it also gives him a lot. He grows up. He deals with the dead; the nearly dead; those that are feigning death; and those that are just looking for a free ride somewhere. He delivers babies in record numbers, and he transports a guy on a roof down to the ambulance. He sees just about everything, from suicides to homicides, from the domestically abused, to the kid with a roach in her ear. He plays the wildest imaginable pranks, and once in awhile he gets called on the carpet for it.

Some of the incidents described in this memoir are just drop-dead funny, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I laughed out loud more than once. Some are incredibly dark. Some just left me with a feeling of awe. But although the tone changes many times, the pacing is absolutely consistent. Hazzard’s journalistic background shows; every single word is there for a reason. It is tight, taut, and urgently compelling, all the way through.

So it’s entertaining, but it’s also educational. I didn’t know the distinction between an EMT and a paramedic before I read this memoir. I also didn’t know that not a holiday goes by without someone having a heart attack. I didn’t know that just about everyone, regardless of their level of intoxication, says they’ve had two drinks. And I didn’t know about the tension between paramedics and firefighters, between paramedics and cops.

There’s more, but you can’t have it all in this nifty review; I’ve given you enough to move forward. If you want your own job to look easier, get this memoir. If you’re retired and have a little more time to read now, get this memoir. If you are staying home with little kids and wonder when you should call an ambulance and when you should deal with your own mess, get this memoir. And if you are considering going into the field yourself? Get this memoir!

It’s for sale January 5, 2016, but you can order it right this minute.

Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas*****

concussionYou don’t have to enjoy football to appreciate Concussion, the riveting new biography of Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian neurological pathologist that discovered CTE, a type of permanent brain damage caused by repetitive concussions, such as that experienced by football players. Not only the content, but the engaging voice with which it is told, make it worth everyone’s while. I was fortunate enough to read it free, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, but when it comes out Tuesday, November 24, I recommend you get a copy for yourself. It’s information everyone really ought to have, especially those that play American football, or have family members that do.

As for me, several years ago the middle school where I taught was rocked by the news that a young man we had taught had been killed on the football field while playing for the high school next door to us. DeShawn had died in a way the Seattle Times assured its readers was unheard of, a terrible tragedy with little explanation other than that of the coroner, who said he died of a traumatic brain injury. Our in-house football coach, whose frustrated students were stuck playing the “dumb”, safe version known as flag football, opined that maybe DeShawn hadn’t burped his helmet. One of DeShawn’s team members, a friend of my son’s and a frequent guest at our home, considered that DeShawn hadn’t “kept his head down like Coach said”. But the fact is, he was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. Dead at 16.

So I was interested indeed to read about the discovery made by Omalu, the pathologist that by coincidence was in charge of the autopsy of Iron Mike Webster, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But I was equally interested in Omalu’s own story, a man of great enthusiasm and character, a faithful Catholic who used “Gee!” and “Gosh!” with youthful vigor as he uncovered one discovery after another, certain, so very certain that the NFL would want his discovery announced right away so that they could modify the game and make it safer. That poor man.

Omalu left Nigeria, which some Boomers will remember as having once been Biafra, home of genocide and terrible corruption, and he could not wait to live the American dream. The USA was free and open; there were no checkpoints at any of the highways; it was the home of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Oh yes, he could shake the dust of Africa off the soles of his shoes and never look back. He had a full scholarship to the University of Washington, so although he had no idea where Seattle was, he had a ticket through the gates, and he would never live anywhere else.

Laskas uses Omalu’s own narrative in places, a wonderful thing given his buoyancy and eloquence:

Having seen this game [football] played on satellite TV on a few occasions in Africa, all I knew was the players ran into one another a whole lot and banged their heads repeatedly like guinea pigs running around…What an odd and inelegant game…If it hurts so much that you have to bubble-wrap your body, maybe you should play something different.”

But until he examined the brain of Iron Mike, the local hero who had lost his sanity following retirement, tasering himself in the hope he would be able to sleep, trying to fix his rotting teeth back into his own mouth with crazy glue, this was a side issue. His interest was in pathology, in the stories the dead had to tell.

But to Bennet, it seemed obvious enough, when the topic arose, because

“Anybody who knew anything about the anatomy of the head knew…It was a simple matter of physics. The brain floats, is suspended in a kind of thick jelly inside the skull. If you hit the head hard enough, that brain is going to move, no matter what kind of protection you put around the skull. A helmet protects the skull. A helmet can’t keep the brain from sloshing around in that skull. If you hit your head hard enough, the brain goes bashing against the walls of the skull.”

The helmet, it turns out, is more a weapon than protection for the brain.

Huh. No wonder Europe didn’t rush to join us in playing this sport.

Omalu’s story, from beginning to old age, is vividly told, and he is such a fascinating individual that you won’t want to put this story down once you’re into it. I could tell you more, but why ruin it? You really just have to read it. Order it now, or go out next week and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry!

Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War, by Christine E Hallett ****

veiled warriorsKudos to Hallett for a comprehensive yet concise history of the heroes who remain misty and unseen at the edges of the battlefields, military nurses of the first world war. She has tried to interview or access material about nurses from every single nation that participated on the Allied side, and it turns out that is a lot more countries than I had realized. Though she was limited by the fact that she does not speak many different languages and could not always get interpreters, she has done a remarkably solid job. Thank you to Oxford University Press and Net Galley for the chance to read it prior to its mid-October publication.

Hallett traces the evolution of the military nursing protocol, from hauling endless wounded from the faraway fields (prior to the development of the trench system) and treating those who survived the ungentle trip across rough roads in wagons, then later trains; to the mobile systems that went closer to the battlefield—different systems used in Western Europe than those used by Russia and much of Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and North America—and she notes the awareness of germs and need to flush the wounds before the development of penicillin. My back ached for the heroic nurses—both those professionally trained, known as “sisters” though they were not nuns—to the women from elite classes who decided it was time to man up and leave their gentrified hothouse environments and travel to places where they could do some good, to the military interns that later joined some of them. Initially they were treating patients who lay on the floor. In one situation, there were 8 nurses for 600 patients. Some nurses had to run when the enemy advanced, and others were captured.
She speaks about the term “shell shock” catching on, but how suspicious the British public seemed to be of soldiers who were sick, especially mentally ill, as opposed to those who came away without limbs or other visible injuries.
She described frostbitten toes actually falling off in trenches! I knew amputations often had to happen, but falling off? This was news to me. A shudder ran through me. And it happened again when she described the arcing of the Tetanus-ridden soldier’s body as every muscle seized. The horror!

I was outraged to hear that hospital trains and ships were fired upon by the enemy. In one such case, when the Turks fired across the bow, it was commented by someone in command that the enemy could have sunk the ship, but just wanted to remind the hospital ship to act like a hospital ship. This made me wonder whether any of the Allied forces were so unrestrained as to use hospital conveyance as a means to smuggle armaments, as was the case during the second world war when cruise ships and merchant marines smuggled armaments in their hold; but this is a digression and so of course, Hallett does not go there. But the fact that I read all this information and came away with new questions speaks to how informative and engaging Hallett’s work is.

If you have an interest in nursing history, military history, or a combination of the two, this is sure to answer your questions. I confess I would have liked more of a story-like quality to the prose, like a narrative nonfiction, but that is just a picky detail. Hallett’s research is meticulous—check the endnotes that comprise about 25% of the text; everything she gives us is fastidiously documented, and she has gone to so many sources that the ordinary reader could never access, the hallmark of worthwhile historical research.

Both the researcher and the humble blogger greatly appreciate the summaries included at the end of each chapter, which largely relieved me of the need to flag pages. This is especially useful given the lack of filler in this work. Every page was essential, and so I was flagging almost everything till I came to the summaries.

Strong work and well done, in short.
Every one of the Allied nations of World War I should award Hallett a medal of her own.