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'A Thousand
Naked Strangers'

‘A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back’
— a book excerpt by former EMT Kevin Hazzard.
!

Grady isn’t a hospital. It’s a trauma center and a stroke center, a burn unit, a psychiatric facility, an enormous public resource. It’s a creaking bureaucracy, underfunded, overburdened and struggling to pay its bills. Its campus is dotted with clinics and sprawls across an immodest number of city blocks in downtown Atlanta. So it’s a hospital, yes. But it’s more than that.

Grady is an ecosystem. Swirling around it at all hours of the night are creatures from every level of the food chain. There’s a woman who lives in the bus enclosure out front and sings at the top of her lungs. She’s not singing songs but hymns, and when we arrive in the morning, we aren’t merely punching in to work — we’re receiving communion. Out in the streets, just beyond Grady’s front doors, are ambulances, doctors, nurses, visitors, the homeless, half-medicated lunatics and patients who’ve dragged their IV poles outside to smoke. Huddled together on the sidewalks — which are dotted with chewing gum and droplets of blood and the occasional human (waste) — are anxious family circles praying for loved ones, and the local news reporter who’s camped out because something tragic has happened. Something tragic always happens.

There’s a McDonald’s beneath the parking deck. Hospital trash is taken out a few yards from the ramp where ambulances bring patients in. This ramp is new. The old one was smaller and faced a different direction and was bordered on one side by a wall. Regulars — vagrants and homeless and down-on-their-luck locals — would sit on the wall and smoke cigarettes. Every time an ambulance came in, they’d clap and cheer. That wall became known as the Rooter Wall, the people perched on its ledge Rooters. To this day, patients transported repeatedly to Grady are called Rooters, and everyone who works here walks a fine line between love and hate when it comes to Rooters.

All this before we get inside.

Photo: Built in 1892, Grady Memorial Hospital was originally segregated into two facilities, one for whites and one for blacks. This photo shows an ambulance in front of the hospital circa 1896. AJC file.


Grady was built in 1892, and the original building still stands. The main hospital is much newer and infinitely larger and was once segregated into two facilities: one for whites, the other for blacks. Jim Crow is gone but not by much, and poor blacks, ever mindful of their separate-but-equal past, still refer to the hospital — the place they were born, where they’re healed, and eventually, where they’ll die — as the Gradys.

There’s a main entrance with an atrium — marble floors and high ceilings, a receptionist, mounted plaques — but anyone sick, anyone coming by ambulance, enters through triage. Triage is a three-ring circus, and its main attraction is the human body gone suddenly, maybe irrevocably, wrong.

Triage is run by two nurses, and at any given time it’s occupied by a couple dozen patients in various states of need. The main floor is home to the waiting room and its hundreds of souls in limbo. It’s also home to the ECC — what you’d call the ER. The Red Zone houses trauma; the Blue Zone houses medical. Both have a couple dozen rooms, plus twice as many informal hall spots where patients end up, despite having been shot, because someone has confirmed the wound isn’t life-threatening.

The Red Zone includes the trauma bays where the most critically injured are treated. It’s also home to Red Obs, which is a cramped parking lot for violent psych patients too sedated or too in need of medical help to head upstairs.

The Blue Zone has no trauma bays, but it has the CPR room, four critical-care rooms, an asthma room and the hospital’s detention area. Prisoners from the city or county jail, the men locked up in the federal penitentiary, all get handcuffed to a bed and brought to detention.

The ECC is a wild place overflowing with patients, competitive doctors, overworked nurses, and a ballooning coterie of support staff. It was built in the ’90s, designed to replace an ER that took the worst the city had to offer, that functioned with a chaotic precision and whose tile walls sported a handful of bullet holes until it was demolished.

The cafeteria is on the second floor; labor and delivery is on the fourth. Every time a baby is born — a child known from that moment on as a Grady Baby — a lullaby is played over the hospital’s PA system so everyone knows another life has entered the world. This city has a lot of Grady Babies, thousands, and the song has announced the arrival of so many for so long that halfway through, it fades and hiccups only to gain strength toward the end.

The morgue is in the basement. The psych ward is on thirteen.

Grady is a strange place and very much a part of this city’s fabric. The EMS department is no different. Wearing a Grady uniform, driving a Grady ambulance, gets me into and (more important) out of countless dangerous situations. People walking down the street, all of them Rooters, many of them Grady Babies, stop and wave as we drive by. “Hey there, Grady” is yelled every day from every frayed corner of this city. But it’s not easy. The call volume is enormous — over 100,000 a year — and the patients (mostly homeless, many drunk) are a handful. Turnover’s so high that people who’ve been around a while won’t speak to me until I’ve made it six months. That’s the first threshold. If I haven’t been fired or quit or killed by then, I’ll probably make it. In the meantime, they ignore me.

Outside of work, on the street and among friends, it’s different. The minute I say I work for Grady, I have everyone’s attention. The place is so revered, so feared, so mythologized that saying I work here gets the same reaction every time: I bet you see some crazy (expletive).

And I do. I’ve treated a woman stabbed by a stingray at the aquarium. I’ve run calls on football players, washed-up actors, and hysterical strippers. I’ve been called out to the projects, the Capitol building, the high-rises, the highway, the jails and churches, even Tent City — a squatters’ refuge on the edge of town. The hospital itself, yeah, it’s crazy, too. In some ways, a little too crazy. Like right now, for instance. I’m sitting in a small auditorium on the edge of campus listening to a speech on booby traps. Nobody’s sure who’s setting them or why, but we all agree the perpetrator needs to die. Slowly. Painfully.

Every few weeks another booby trap shows up. Maybe it’s a dirty needle, uncapped and taped to the bottom of a seat. Maybe the needle has been stuck through the foam blocks we use to immobilize patients. Maybe it’s poking out from under the hood. Today we’re listening to an administrator who has placed a picture on the overhead projector. He flicks it on, and the image — projected onto a screen at a terrifying 12 feet by 12 feet — is of a plastic bag filled with (urine) and bristling with uncapped needles.

“This was found in an ambulance yesterday,” he says. “It was just sitting there in an overhead compartment.” He keeps talking but we care about only one thing — who’s doing it? He doesn’t know. Doesn’t want to speculate, isn’t here to talk about that. He’s telling us to be careful, to check our ambulances carefully. To police ourselves. This isn’t what we want to hear. Someone’s already been stuck, so no, we don’t want to hear that we can minimize our chance of exposure by showing up early and double-checking the truck. We want to hear that the (expletive) has been caught, that he’s tied up outside for us to look at: Here he is, guys!
“OK,” he says, snapping off the overhead projector and slipping the photo back into a manila folder. “That’s all I have.”

We file out of the room and, despite our reservations, clock in. We grab our equipment and head out to the ramp. We enter our ambulances very, very slowly.

Author Kevin Hazzard (far left) joins Fulton County EMS and fire crews on a roof in south Fulton County where a man collapsed in the hot Georgia sun. CONTRIBUTED BY DAN DELAGE

Photo: The United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com


Forget the barbed wire and guard towers, the searchlights, the guns, the unspeakable past of its inmates and Atlanta’s federal pen isn’t menacing. It was built in 1902 and has a precise, austere beauty. From our spot across the street, it looks less like the onetime home of Al Capone than a branch of the Federal Reserve. We sit for a while in silence. The stereo doesn’t work, and the gas station doesn’t have any newspapers. We talk until we run out of things to say and then, almost absentmindedly, I pick up the radio mike. Some of the newer trucks don’t have this feature, but on the older ones, there’s a switch that turns the radio into a PA. Flip it to radio and I’m talking to the dispatcher. Flip it to PA and I’m talking to the world.

I don’t have a plan, this isn’t thought out, and I have no intention of making a statement. I just flip it on and whisper a long and dreamy hello. At the beginning, everything seems innocent, so we keep it up — whispering, singing, issuing commands in a heavy, almost indecipherable Scottish accent. When this, too, gets boring, we set it down. But no calls come out, and there’s nothing to do, and it’s just sitting there, waiting.

I switch the radio back to PA and key up the mike. The speaker clicks on and I pause, broadcasting dead air and my own breath out into the neighborhood. And then — on a quiet Sunday morning not even a block away from the federal penitentiary — I tell everyone within earshot the worst has happened.

“May I have your attention, please? There has been a jailbreak. I repeat, there has been a jailbreak.”

For a few seconds nothing happens. There’s no panic. No stampede. No sign at all that anyone has heard us. And then, across the street, a door opens. A skinny little hipster bolts out onto his porch. At first I don’t pay him any mind. It’s eight in the morning, we’re in a bad neighborhood, and this guy’s got a pirate flag hanging from his house. I don’t see him as the type who wants to be taken seriously. I’m wrong.

He darts down the steps and stomps barefoot across the street. We pretend not to see him even as we watch him march over. “He headed our way?” I ask, mouth barely moving. My partner nods, turns off the PA. This should be fun. The guy stomps up to the driver’s-side window and starts yelling. No hello, no nothing. Yelling. My partner, God bless him, smiles through the glass. He holds a hand to his ear and says, “I can’t hear you.”

This infuriates the little guy. “Unroll it, then!”

My partner reaches up and presses the window button, slowly lowering the window with a loud, rubbery squuuueeee- aaaaakkkk. He smiles. “What’s up?”

The guy rails on for five minutes, mostly about us waking him up at 8 on a Sunday morning but with a heavy emphasis on the fact that people live here. He says he’s heard everything we’ve said, every word, from his house across the street. I ask, because I can’t help myself, which house is his. “The one with the pirate flag?”

His hair catches fire.

He opens his mouth, then stops. He turns and marches off, and right about then my partner and I decide it’s a good time to leave. We don’t make it half a block before we catch a call. We flick on the lights and head over, and almost immediately, we forget about the hipster, the PA, even the jailbreak. But the hipster remembers us. Before we leave the scene of our call, a white supervisor’s truck pulls up. The supervisor gets out and walks over. He asks if we had an argument with a resident. I nod. “Yeah, some guy over by the prison. Why?”

“Did you say something about a jailbreak?”

It occurs to me, for the first time and clearly too late, that while sitting in an official-looking vehicle, I’d announced there’d been a jailbreak. Over a PA system. A block from the federal penitentiary. This was probably a bad idea.

The supervisor pulls his keys from his pocket. “After you guys drop that patient off,” he says, hopping into his truck, “go ahead and come by my office. We need to talk.”
It’s a very long transport.

As soon as we walk through the door, our supervisor drops it on us. “He wants to press charges.”

I’ve been standing, but once this is said, I sink down into a chair. While we were out running that last call, the hipster went (crazy) and called every number he could find, all the way up to the CEO of the hospital. Thankfully, it’s a Sunday, and the only person he could get is the supervisor sitting before us. Not that he’s terribly happy with us at the moment.

“Reckless endangerment.” The supervisor slips his glasses on, reads from a notepad. “He thinks what you said, coming from a city truck, near the pen, was official enough to make it like yelling fire in a crowded theater.”

I’m in disbelief. “Is he serious?”

“He wants you arrested.”

“That’s pretty serious.”

“I’d say so.”

“What now?”

The supervisor shrugs. Says for us to go about the rest of our day like nothing’s happened. “What’ll happen tomorrow, when everyone returns, I don’t know.”

That’s the story, and what happens now, on Monday, is what I’m here to find out. The director of EMS operations is silent. I clear my throat.

“Look, this was my fault. My partner, he was there, but I said it.” I rock back on my heels. “If anyone’s getting fired, it should be me.”

She nods, which, when you think about it, could mean a lot of things. She closes her eyes, and we settle into an awkward silence. Then, almost imperceptibly, the bottom corner of her mouth twitches. That’s followed by another twitch, then another, and soon her entire mouth breaks out into a huge grin. She tries to regain her composure, to look serious, but it’s too late. At last she laughs. I laugh. She cocks her head. I shut up. A deep breath in, a long exhale, and then —

“Did you really say that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Another smile. “You know you’re an idiot, right?”

“That’s what my wife says.”

“Get back to work. I’ll take care of this guy.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

Then, as I’m leaving: “Mr. Hazzard?”

“Ma’am?”

“No more PA.”

“Done.”

So this is how I make my mark, the way people finally learn my name. Not because I ran a tough call and did a commendable job but because I did something stupid. Something funny. Something nobody’s ever done. I’m no longer just a newbie. I’m the wiseass who came this close to getting arrested.

Copyright © From the forthcoming book “A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back” by Kevin Hazzard to be published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed by permission.

Behind the story

Photo: Branden Camp

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Kevin Hazzard worked as a paramedic from 2004 to 2013, primarily for Grady Hospital in Atlanta. This week’s Personal Journey is an excerpt from his new memoir, “A Thousand Naked Strangers,” which chronicles the life-and-death drama of an EMT’s job told with a large dose of gallows humor.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Hazzard served as a paramedic in Atlanta for 10 years. A graduate of The Citadel, he has published articles in Atlanta magazine, Marietta Daily Journal, Creative Loafing and Paste. He is the author of the novel “Sleeping Dogs” and works as a TV writer. He lives with his family in Hermosa Beach, California.


AUTHOR APPEARANCE
Reading and signing. 7 p.m. Jan. 12. $10. Margaret Mitchell House, 979 Crescent Ave., Atlanta. www.atlantahistorycenter.com.


Read more of our weekly Personal Journeys at myAJC.com/personaljourneys.