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Book excerpt – ‘Trauma Sponges: Dispatches from the Scarred Heart of Emergency Response’

Jeremy Norton’s memoir captures the personal toll the job exacts, as well as the unique perspective afforded by sustained direct encounters with the sick, the dying and the dead


In this excerpt from his memoir, “Trauma Sponges: Dispatches from the Scarred Heart of Emergency Response,” Chapter 18, “The Things We Carry,” Jeremy Norton reflects the crucible of the emergency responder’s dilemma – how to maintain compassion while spending a career wading through the consequences of other people’s horrible decisions; how to keep our decency, compassion, perspective and sanity in a job that sends us into the worst moments any person should experience, often without closure or context or relief.

By Jeremy Norton

Someone reading an early draft of this book wanted to know, “But what did you think about that call? What was your response to it?’

What do I think? Sometimes nothing at all. I’m blank to the biological or human carnage before me. It just is. Life happens, as does death. The first time you encounter a corpse, it’s creepy or fascinating or haunting. When you’ve seen hundreds, it’s mostly just work. The fact of the body. The details that stick are either horrific or else grossly inappropriate for general citizenry. I see the natural or causal where most civilians see the unfathomable or tragic. Too, so many people live in denial that their surprise event is often predictable and consistent with their conditions. Biological facts are what they are.

That man died hours ago; he had been dying for several weeks. That woman is drowning in her own fluids; she will keep smoking. You broke your leg: it hurts and it ruined your plans, but it is not fatal—unless you catch an infection at the hospital, but that’s not on us. Yes, that driver ran a light and totaled your car. Shitty, but you are alive. Your grandfather was ninety-four; he ran out of breaths, of beats, of time—it is not a tragedy. Honor his long life with love, not denial.

With deaths and family members, I remind myself that it is frequently someone’s first loss. It is often just a corpse to me, nothing more. And yet sometimes I am reliving two decades of similar suffering all at once, a roomful of howling ghosts—not simply the dead, but the cries of those who survive.

It’s hard to explain pithily. Life is too, too much upon us.

The worst calls can savage our minds, hearts, souls. We are the ones who carry the limp, lifeless kids from the fires or shootings or wrecks, who try to stop their tiny bodies from bleeding out, who forgo policy and breathe mouth-to-mouth into their charred little lungs—because it’s a gesture against the obscenity of wasteful death, even if futile. We are the last to touch the children before they are officially deceased. We fight for them while the parents stand behind us screaming at the heavens. We carry the frail bodies in our arms and lean over them, working them, trying and hoping and pleading, even as we look into their tiny dead faces and know they will not return. Their burned flesh, their blood, their smells: we get this on our clothes, in our noses and minds. We carry them deep within. Their parents’ gruesome anguish, their surviving siblings’ wailing: we are drowning in grief as we try to revive children who had no chance. Theirs were preventable deaths, caused by human errors of desperation, poverty, ignorance, horrendous judgment.

And we go back to the barn, restock our equipment, clean the human off our gear, and wait for the next call. Soon, we’ll stand in another living room where people are using the oven to heat their house, are locking the door from the outside while they run “real quick” down to the corner bar, are escaping into drugs and drink while their kids are ignored, are driving recklessly without car seats or seatbelts. We cannot shake these next parents, cannot show them the faces of those dead children, nor the horribly human parents who now carry the weight of their dead kids on top of all their other regrets and failures.

We say nothing. We take their blood pressure, give them oxygen, turn off the oven, open a window, walk them down to the ambulance, and we say nothing.

I know. I know that what we should blame is the ignorance, not the ignorant; the desperation, not the desperate; the dysfunction, not the dysfunctional. But we stand face-to-face with the person who, for whatever reasons, made the decisions that brought us all to this spot. It becomes hard to clock the larger sociological framework—even though it is very real and ever-present. Its totality renders it nearly invisible. And then we’re kneeling beside someone, looking judgmentally (or not at all) at the culmination of decades, if not centuries, of complex systemic injustice. I’d say systemic failure, but I’m not sure this isn’t how the system was designed to function.

Because if we take personally those who misuse and abuse the 911 system, robbing us of sleep, health, interfering with real emergency work, we become caustic and ugly. If we detach and refuse to involve ourselves, we slide into indifference and disinterest. Damned either way. The empathy exams are not graded on a curve: we must be present and ready on every call, or we risk failing when it matters. … But, for all of us, our noble intentions and genuine efforts to put ourselves into the bad calls and hard scenes do not save us, do not protect us.

The ceaseless overnight runs, the bleak futility of so many calls, the unresolvable poverty, the abject and tragic violence: it crushes your heart. I try to protect some core of myself so that I have heart and mind and spirit for my family, for my crew, for myself—and for the next patients. I go home and purge the frustrations, the horrific absurdities, and heartbreaks, and I return the next shift with that small portion of my heart reopened for the kicking.

When we talk about PTSD, traumatic response, psychological distress, this is what gets us, far more than one single “bad” call: being keel-hauled night after night in depths of brutal suffering, powerless witnessing. It is crushing. And the alarms keep sounding and someone needs to respond to the next one.

The greatest trick the devil played ….

Excerpted from “Trauma Sponges: Dispatches from the Scarred Heart of Emergency Response” by Jeremy Norton. Forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2023 by Jeremy Norton. Used by permission.

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Jeremy Norton

About the Author

Jeremy Norton has been a firefighter/EMT with the Minneapolis Fire Department since 2000. He was promoted to captain in 2007 and heads Station 17 in south Minneapolis. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Norton received a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University and a master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University. After teaching high school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Norton moved to Minneapolis, where he taught creative writing at the Loft Literary Center before joining the MFD.

“Trauma Sponges: Dispatches from the Scarred Heart of Emergency Response”
University of Minnesota Press
© October 2023