A month or so ago, I really needed to talk to a friendly neurologist (for a novel, not because of personal illness!) I asked around and a friend on Facebook assured me that there was no one cooler or more interesting than her buddy, Joe Clark. She was right! Joe not only cheerfully answered all of my questions in great depth, he gave me fascinating information about all sorts of neurological issues, and I could have listened to him for hours. I was in writer heaven and I am truly in his debt! When I found out that he wrote a book, My Ambulance Education: Life & Death on the Streets of the City about his experiences working on an ambulance, I immediately wanted to read it. Great book! Great person! So, of course, I peppered him with questions which he kindly answered.
What made you decide to work on an ambulance?
Several things pushed me in the direction of writing the book. First as I am still working in the medical field I socialize with people who work in hospitals and emergency rooms. So we often would swap stories and I would engage in telling about my time on the ambulance. Several of my colleagues kept saying that I should write my experiences down and I did. I found that writing them was cathartic, so I just kept it up. My research is concerning stroke and neurologic diseases and I found that my previous ambulance life was benefiting my current work. With my research beginning to be applicable to emergency patients I found myself coming full circle professionally; first working on the ambulance and now doing research to help patients in life and death settings. All these things came together to motivate me to write the book.
You're now a scientist and a researcher. In looking back at your experience, was there anything you regret?
The answer to that question is an emphatic no. I do not regret the experience I had on the ambulance. I did burn out and that is unfortunate but I grew because of it. In some ways, I am not the person I was in the book especially concerning the burn out. I do think I am a better person and scientist because of those experiences and appreciate the education I received on the ambulance. This is a big part of the reason why “education” is in the title of, my book, which is because that time guided me to my current career and still impacts on what I do.
What I loved most about the book was how unsparing you were in your descriptions of what could go right--and what could go wrong. What frightened me in your book was when you talked about the people who were not that talented as far as ER work. I worry about having to go in an ambulance (or have a loved one in one)--are there any ways to tell if the ER workers know what they are doing?
In corporate America there is a saying that 20% of the staff do 80% of the work. In an ambulance that is not the case and it cannot be because it is often just two people taking care of the patient. So the people on those teams need to work well together. Fortunately with two people on any given call one of them can often be the lead and do that proficiently.
In the Emergency Room of a teaching hospital you want to avoid being sick or injured when the new crop of residents arrive. These are all the “newbies” who haven’t honed their skills so try to avoid the ER in June and July. Usually these people are closely monitored by the senior people. Newbies need to be trained and mentors know to take care of the patient and still educate the new residents.
You left because you felt burned out. Is this a common problem and what does the industry do to help people with it?
Yes I felt burned out. It is a common problem in this industry and others. Burning out in this case may or may not be related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but fortunately there are programs and research ongoing concerning PTSD. Counseling and institutional support is much better than it was 20 years ago. One of the biggest changes, in my opinion, is that the stigma of PTSD or burning out or failure to cope (choose a name), is abating. Now that PTSD is acknowledged and accepted as being common and/or real, positive steps are being made.
When did you know you wanted to write about all of this, and are you writing anything else these days?
A date is kind of hard to give, but I think I can give an answer nonetheless. As I said above I started writing down various stories as anecdotes or even homilies that I told to friends as kind of dinner conversation. I wrote seven of these and put them in chronological order and liked what I saw. There was personal growth and informative content. I gave these assembled dinner conversation pieces to some close friends and received positive reinforcement. One physician friend commented that the readings allowed her to understand how and why I was so oriented with my research towards “helping people.” Helping people was a theme in the assembled chapters and these chapters eventually were joined by others to form, My Ambulance Education.
As far as writing anything else these days, yes. There are two parts to that answer though. I am constantly writing grants and research papers and that continues as a kind of slow burn in my career. Part two of that answer is that I have a second book that continues where My Ambulance Education leaves off. The working title is, How I Survived My Graduate Education, and is about choosing and obtaining a Ph.D. in the sciences at Michigan State. So a kind of “education” series is being built. I’m currently trying to find a publisher so we shall see how this goes. I also blog concerning my work and writings and this is found at www.josephfclark.com/blog. The blog is a mixture of ambulance, science, research that is relevant to what I am doing personally and professionally.
I find your life--and your work--fascinating. Can you talk a bit about it here?
Thank you so much for the comment and question. I truly love what I do. I’m a college professor doing research and teaching. Much of my teaching is mentoring graduate students and my research is concerning the causes, diagnosis and treatment of stroke and neurologic disorders. We have discovered a molecule that was completely unknown that is in the spinal fluid of patients with some kinds of stroke, hemorrhagic stroke specifically. It is so cool to discover something that has never been seen, published or patented before and to realize that it may be important in treating people. It will take years for our current research to be used in hospitals, but I do believe that today’s research will be tomorrow’s cutting edge treatment. I’m privileged to be part of this work and leading a great team of people trying to “help people” and save lives.
My time on the ambulance started me off trying to help one person at a time and now my research is still trying to “help people” but now with the possibility to help thousands of patients suffering from stroke. I really love my life and enjoy what I do. My hope is that the work that I do in my lifetime will benefit humanity long after I am gone.