On Saturday night, while his friends unwind after a hard week, Isaac Wasserman ’14 bends over a stretcher in the back of a racing ambulance, trying desperately to stabilize his dying patient’s errant heartbeat. For Wasserman, weekend nights are anything but a time to relax. As a full-time paramedic in an ambulance, he provides emergency medical services to the residents of Bridgeport and Trumbull, Conn., on overnight shifts eight hours a night, four nights a week. Working with a partner, he alternates between driving the ambulance and caring for patients. The job is hard and often deadly serious. “The buck stops with me,” he explains. “There’s no one else I can call prehospital who does what I do.” The possibility of death is a constant presence, and Wasserman has found himself the reluctant witness of a patient’s final moments. An energetic 20-year-old with wavy brown hair and an ever present smile, Wasserman’s youth makes him an unlikely choice for the part. He has excelled in his work, however, and has found in the responsibilities and challenges of paramedic life a new perspective on medicine.
Wasserman first became interested in emergency work when he took an EMT course during his first semester at Yale, earning his initial certification. Since he was planning to study pre-med, he saw the course as an opportunity to explore the practical, everyday realities of medicine. “I thought that if I worked as an EMT, I would be able to find out what medicine was like, what the hell I was getting myself into,” he explains. He liked what he found and followed the course by volunteering in an ambulance his second semester, a job he saw as an opportunity to simultaneously apply his new skills, practice medicine and help pay tuition. Eventually accumulating enough experience to work alone, he completed additional training to become a paramedic, the top job in emergency work and a position that requires him to give medication, set up IVs, and minimize the effects of serious trauma. As a paramedic, he deals with the most critical patients, including those with cardiac problems, gunshot wounds or other life-threatening conditions. For Wasserman, this work gives pre-med courses meaning and provides assurance that his chosen career is right for him. “My entire time in the ambulance further confirms why I want to be a doctor. I love everything about it,” he says. “I now know that medicine is probably the only thing I can do.”
More than simply confirming his career choice, however, Wasserman’s work in emergency services provides a unique perspective on medicine, distinct from anything that he has learned in college or will learn in medical school. “For me, medicine is not the biological processes,” he explains. “It’s much more than that. It’s the intersection of biology and sociology. What factors go into determining someone’s behavior, their health decisions, and how they act?” As a paramedic, Wasserman sees his patients stripped of their pretenses. Medicine, and especially emergency work, brings relationships, decisions, and motivations out into the open. “How people act in an emergency is extremely telling,” he explains.
This deep personal insight is what Wasserman sees as the most important and rewarding, but also the most difficult aspect of medicine. On one hand, the cruelty and anguish inherent in the human experience are painfully clear in the back of an ambulance. “It’s the social stuff that is wrenching,” he says. “It’s dealing with death, it’s dealing with just how horrible people are to each other, I mean, especially the assaults that you see … ” He trails off, searching for the right word but not quite finding it. “You see people at their worst,” he concludes at last.
But Wasserman also gets a privileged look at the human capacity for courage and even joy. He smiles when he remembers the conversations he had with some of his patients, the life stories he learned. “We have an Auschwitz survivor in Trumbull who I’ve picked up before,” he recalls, “and if you didn’t [talk] with her, if it was just medical, you wouldn’t know that.” His favorite calls are those where he delivers babies (he has done three so far) because he ends up witnessing the best day of his patient’s life. The full range of humanity found in an ambulance is the hardest part of Wasserman’s work, but also the most compelling. His experiences with people are what keep him working his demanding hours, weekend after weekend, year after year.
As one of the few Yale undergraduates with a full-time job, Wasserman faces a tricky balancing act between college and work. His schedule this year keeps him off campus from Thursday night until Monday morning, preventing him from attending any of the weekend’s social events. In a way, however, such grueling hours serve to clarify which interactions are truly valuable. “I can’t go out and [drink] at a frat party,” he explains, “but to be honest, those things never appealed to me.” The time he spends with his friends during the week, on the other hand, becomes ever more important. “Without [them], I wouldn’t be able to work full time,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to deal with the stuff that I see, the situations that I’m put in, if I didn’t have these people to go back to. They’re able to help me talk it through.”
Despite the scheduling tension between school life and work life, however, the two often complement each other. The practical realities and demands of emergency work teach skills that Wasserman has found invaluable in his studies in the humanities (he has been accepted to the Icahn School of Medicine’s Humanities and Medicine program, which allows him take humanities in college while still attending medical school after graduation). Both pursuits require an alert and inquisitive mind. “It’s about asking the questions you didn’t know were there,” he explains. “In the field we call it ‘index of suspicion.’ At Yale, it’s called ‘intellectual curiosity.’ They’re exactly the same.” Conversely, Yale’s liberal arts education finds unexpected application in his line of work. “I feel like I’m in a better position to relate to my patients because I have this background in history, this background in literature,” he says. “I feel like I’m a better people’s person for it.”
More generally, Wasserman finds that practical medicine and a liberal arts education ultimately work toward a similar goal. “It’s all about exploring life and humanity at some level,” he says, “and you see that on a very micro-scale in the back of an ambulance.” The value of an education for Wasserman is the ability to process and interpret his experiences at work, which can seem senseless and inexplicable. His classes help him connect moments in an ambulance to a larger understanding, perhaps an understanding he can try to bring to his patients. “There is some sort of synthesis,” he muses. Finding that synthesis, however, is still in Wasserman’s future. “You only realize it when you’re asleep,” he jokes, “and then you don’t remember it in the morning.”