Mental Quickness – Do Smart Alecks Make Better EMTs?

Alright, I admit it. Driving to work this morning was a bit of a challenge. We had two inches of fresh snow and the tires in my car are in desperate need of replacement. Yes, I drive a Subaru and usually it’s all-wheel drive does awesome in the snow… but I cheaped out on the tires, and they’re honestly a bit mismatched size-wise. Therefore driving it in conditions even remotely slick is hard as heck. I would have driven the SUV and had no problems at all but the wife had to drive the kid to school and then had to drive into the city afterwards and I wanted her to have the safe vehicle. Who cares if I go into the ditch? Work can do without me if they have to, but I need my family to be safe.

Since I think of things to write about when I drive, this morning brought my thoughts to how hard I had to concentrate on the road and the minute adjustments of the steering wheel and the accelerator needed in order to keep the car safely on track. Like everyone who knows about driving in slick conditions, I kept my eyes on the road ahead of me in order to “read” the changes in the road surface before I got to them in order to be ready to quickly make the adjustments needed to keep the car heading in the right direction. See a dark shiny patch? Foot off the gas, be ready to steer slightly away from it when the car slides in that direction. See a pile of snow with a frozen rut running through it? Minutely avoid it if possible and steer into the slide with just enough change in the gas to power through the slide. I made it to work, but I had to call in a favor to have a guy stay over for me for ten minutes. I let him know the night before that he might have to, and I did leave early… but I’m not wrecking the car just so I can save a few moments.

I consider myself a pretty good driver in the snow. In a vehicle with good tires I wouldn’t even worry about anything less than 6 inches this far into the winter season, but today was hard. I’m not patting myself on the back here, because if I would have put good tires on the car in the first place I wouldn’t have been in this position, but isn’t that most of what we do in EMS? We end up using our mental prowess to clean up other people’s messes caused by their lack of planning all the time. Today wasn’t much different. The amount of mental power and concentration needed to keep a car moving forward safely in snow-covered conditions is actually quite staggering when you think of it. You have to make quick observations of rapidly evolving conditions, surmise what you think the presentation of the road surface means to vehicle’s path of travel using your limited observations paired with your past experience and knowledge, and come up with a near simultaneous decision on how to handle the situation ahead of you. If you find yourself to be wrong, based upon the car not reacting the way you want it to, you have to instantaneously correct the situation while adjusting for the conditions ahead… or crash.

Now picture yourself managing a challenging patient presentation, one requiring a handful of pharmacological and physical interventions. You’re pretty much doing the same thing as driving in snow. Just like playing a game of chess, you have to be “thinking a few moves ahead” in order to keep up with what the patient’s physiology is going to throw at you. Do you have a fall victim with a broken hip in need of pain control? Did you think that they’re possibly going to drop their blood pressure with a dose of morphine? Well then you better be ready to give fluid to bump it back up to acceptable levels. However, what if you’re treating a CHF patient that would suffer further from the added fluid? What if they were a patient with Chronic Renal Failure? Would that affect your initial dose of morphine based upon the unknown factor of untoward hypotension? In my Northern system, I’d choose to use Fentanyl over Morphine in that case because of the lessened risk of hypotension, but in my Southern system I’d just have to start with a lower dose of Morphine and slowly titrate to an acceptable level of pain control once I gauged the patient’s response to the med.

How about a patient with a large anteriolateral MI? Their Left Ventricular function is soon to be compromised if not treated in a cath-lab. You need to increase blood flow to the Left Ventricle and decrease overall cardiac work by decreasing afterload with use of nitrates, but that’s going to decrease their cardiac output and blood pressure by decreasing their preload as well. You need to stabilize the infarct as best as possible while maintaining the patient’s hemodynamic state, and you may need to consider supporting their left ventricular function with the use of a vasopressor such as dopamine to treat possible cardiogenic shock. In this case, careful observation of the patient’s presentation and all information available to you is of paramount importance in order to make the minute treatment decisions necessary for your patient’s best possible outcome.

It all comes down to “Mental Quickness” or having the mental prowess and state needed to rapidly intake complex information, process it against your knowledge base, and then make reasonable decisions on a course of action in a very short period of time. We call people who are good at this “Quick Witted” and it applies to myriad situations in daily life. People who are good at this are usually funny, are quick to react to new situations, handle change fairly well, and make darn good EMS providers. I practice by trying to have a joke ready for any situation… so you could also call a person who’s mentally quick a “smart ass”.

You can practice your skills at being mentally quick the same way I do. Use humor and try to make good comebacks to the hooks and barbs that your coworkers and friends throw at you. When we’re sitting around busting each other’s chops… we’re actually practicing our EMS skills, right?

Think about it. Exercise your mind through reading, learning new things, and trying to come up with new ways to think of existing information. You’ll be funnier, more popular, will be able to knock your buddies down a peg better, and will improve your patient care.

  • crazynewt

    Hey, this is good news for me, when I go to be an EMT in a year or two! I tell jokes that are so clever, even *I* don't get them!

  • raydio

    great article.

  • emschick

    Pretty sure my crew will stop talking to me if I get anymore quick witted. Actually that might be ok, I'm good with talking to myself.

    great post!

  • totwtytr

    I've never thought of it in this way, but being quick witted is a very important skill in EMS. I've seen plenty of people with great theoretical knowledge who just freeze up when confronted with a very sick person. You not only have to understand the theory, you have to be able to apply it correctly and in a timely fashion.

    Nice post.

  • raydio

    great article.

  • emschick

    Pretty sure my crew will stop talking to me if I get anymore quick witted. Actually that might be ok, I'm good with talking to myself.

    great post!

  • totwtytr

    I've never thought of it in this way, but being quick witted is a very important skill in EMS. I've seen plenty of people with great theoretical knowledge who just freeze up when confronted with a very sick person. You not only have to understand the theory, you have to be able to apply it correctly and in a timely fashion.

    Nice post.

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Chris Kaiser aka "Ckemtp"

I am a paramedic trying to advance the idea that the Emergency Medical Services can be made into the profession that we all want it, need it, and know it deserves to be.

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