In the aftermath of 9/11 Kevin Hazzard felt that something was missing from his life—his days were too safe, too routine. A failed salesman turned local reporter, he wanted to test himself, see how he might respond to pressure and danger. He signed up for emergency medical training and became, at age twenty-six, a newly minted EMT running calls in the worst sections of Atlanta. His life entered a different realm—one of blood, violence, and amazing grace.
Thoroughly intimidated at first and frequently terrified, he experienced on a nightly basis the adrenaline rush of walking into chaos. But in his downtime, Kevin reflected on how people’s facades drop away when catastrophe strikes. As his hours on the job piled up, he realized he was beginning to see into the truth of things. There is no pretense five beats into a chest compression, or in an alley next to a crack den, or on a dimly lit highway where cars have collided. Eventually, what had at first seemed impossible happened: Kevin acquired mastery. And in the process he was able to discern the professional differences between his freewheeling peers, what marked each—as he termed them—as “a tourist,” “true believer,” or “killer.”
Combining indelible scenes that remind us of life’s fragile beauty with laugh-out-loud moments that keep us smiling through the worst, A Thousand Naked Strangers is an absorbing read about one man’s journey of self-discovery—a trip that also teaches us about ourselves.
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A Thousand Naked Strangers
I did nothing to save the first person who died in front of me. I simply stood watch and let her go. She was old and white and wasting away in a nursing home. Her death was unceremonious, but fast, and I was the only witness, earth’s final sentry, there to do nothing but close the gates as she slipped through.
I was only twenty-six when she died, but already I’d squandered away two lives—the first as a failed salesman, the other as a reporter in exile. EMS was an accidental third act. It was early 2004, centuries ago. When I look back, I find it hard to believe this death and countless others happened, that at one time my sole purpose was to be present, as either anxious participant or indifferent witness. As with much of my EMS life, the memory is fuzzy: soft light filtered through gauze. It’s only the details—the little ones that don’t seem to matter at the time—that carry on. So really, what I have is more sensation than recollection, more feeling than anecdote.
This is how it all feels to me now.
It’s my second night, and I’m partnered with a guy who never goes home. He’s a firefighter in the next county, but he’ll do anything for money and works a handful of part-time jobs. When he isn’t here or at the fire station, he sweats over the fryer at McDonald’s. Just before ten, we’re called to a nursing home for a sick woman. My partner is tired. He walks slowly, eyes to the floor, as we push the stretcher off the elevator and wander down the long corridor to the patient’s room. We ease alongside her bed. A nurse hovers in the background, saying the woman didn’t eat dinner, isn’t acting like herself, and needs to be seen. I take her blood pressure, her pulse, count her breaths. Her eyes are closed; her skin—white and crinkled like parchment paper—is dry and hot. My partner asks for her papers. We don’t ever leave a nursing home without papers. Most people in a nursing home can’t talk, and those who can don’t make sense, so even a question as straightforward as Who are you? doesn’t yield usable results. So we get the papers, a thick manila envelope stuffed with everything from medical problems to next of kin. More important, it’s in this packet that we’ll find insurance information and whether or not there’s a do-not-resuscitate order.
Ostensibly, we’re here for the patient, but really all we care about is the DNR.
The DNR is the word of God Himself, written in triplicate and handed over not by Moses but by a big-boned woman in orthopedic nursing shoes. It’s in these papers that we’ll find answers to the uncomfortable questions that absolutely must be answered. What if she loses consciousness? What if she dies? Do I go all the way—CPR, electric shocks, slip a tube down her throat, drill a hole in her leg for medication? Or do I watch her swirl the drain until she disappears altogether? What does her family want? What would she want? The existence of this piece of paper, even its absence, means a lot. To everyone. At the hospital, the nurses will ask about it, and the doctors won’t look at us until we’ve answered. At her age, in her condition, everyone will agree resuscitation, even if it could be accomplished, would be cruel. So does she have a DNR? The nurse says she does, that it’s atop her packet, the first page in the stack. She leaves to get it.
And that’s when it happens. Before my partner—who’s leaning against the wall—coaxes his mass into action. Before I pull back the sheet. Before anyone addresses her directly. She opens her eyes—milky and unfocused—and tilts her head forward. Her lips part and then, without ceremony, she relaxes. Her last breath escapes. A single tear runs down her cheek.
I know instantly what’s happened. But is it really that simple? That easy? The nurse has just said the patient has a DNR, so that drilled-into-my-head-during-school compulsion to act doesn’t kick in. Instead, I spend the first few seconds staring into her vacant eyes, tracing the arc of that single tear—her final corporeal act—and marvel at this woman. Moments ago she was something to pity, bedridden and in a diaper. Now, plucked from her stained nightgown, she is cloaked in the wisdom of the ages. She knows why we’re here and, more important, what’s next. And if it’s not the black nothingness we’ve feared all along, then how small we must look to her now. In dying she has crossed over. Or hasn’t.
My partner, unaware she’s dead, has finally come to life. He motions for me to grab the other end of the sheet so we can move her onto our stretcher. I need to tell him, let him decide what comes next, but I don’t trust my own instincts. I’m brand-new at this, I’ve never watched someone die. My experience with the dead—recent or otherwise—is limited. If my partner doesn’t notice, then perhaps she’s not dead. The woman was hardly moving when we arrived and now looks no different. With a yank, we slide her over. He covers her with a sheet, buckles her in, starts pushing. I stare at her chest, her face, looking for signs of life that I know deep down I will not find. We grab her packet, and sure enough, the DNR is stapled to the top. We ride the elevator, step out into the cool night. With a sharp metallic click, the stretcher is snapped into the mount on the floor of the ambulance.
“I think she’s dead,” I say.
My partner stops and looks not at her but at me.
I clear my throat, tell him I don’t think she’s breathing.
He climbs into the ambulance, looks, feels, deflates. In the absence of the DNR, he might do something, but it’s not absent. It’s right there, and this document, drafted and signed with the sole intention of clarifying this woman’s final moments, instead obscures our next move. Had she died in the nursing home, we’d leave her, but she’s here now. Dead on our stretcher. In our ambulance.
We have drifted into murky water.
He calls the nursing home. “We’re in the parking lot,” he says. “Your patient is dead.” “She’s in your ambulance,” the nurse tells him, “she’s yours now.” I stand outside while they argue. Our patient lies in state. What to do with her? The hospital doesn’t take dead bodies, nor does the nursing home. This woman has died and no one wants her. She is a corpse in limbo. My partner hangs up. Fumes. He goes back in to explain, to plead, to threaten. I’m not sure why, but he leaves me in the back with her.
I sit in the ambulance and stare into the woman’s half-open eyes. I grab the packet and flip through. If we are to keep each other company, I should at least know her name. Her birthday. Turns out she is eighty-eight.
There aren’t many things you can do in the back of an ambulance with a dead woman. My cooler sits in the corner, but no. I could talk to her, but frankly, she is so recently dead, so unchanged from before, I feel as if addressing her directly will wake her. Well, not her but the ghost of her, which is worse. This may sound foolish, but I can assure you that all except the most gruesomely killed or severely decomposed look as if they’ll sit up and begin talking at the slightest provocation.
I decide to call home. “Are you still awake?” I ask my wife.
She says she is. She broke down and started watching the latest episode of The Sopranos without me. “You’re gonna love it.” When I say nothing, she asks if I’m mad, and after a second I tell her where I am. Tell her that I’m alone with a woman I’ve watched die and who has become, thanks to my indecision, something of a refugee.
She asks how the woman died, and though I know this isn’t what she means, I say, “Peacefully.”
Table of Contents
Book 1 A Change of Plans
1 I've Made a Mistake 3
2 From Zero to Hero 8
3 Dead Mannequins 16
4 Living and Breathing Dead People 20
5 Failure Is an Option 29
6 A Job at Last 32
7 First Day 37
Book 2 Fresh Meat
8 Pray for Carnage 51
9 Killers 54
10 Tourists 59
11 The True Believer 65
12 Death by Broccoli 68
13 The Seekers 76
14 Two Dead at Midnight 83
15 Nailed to the Wall 86
16 Accidental Veterinarians 91
17 (Un)Prepared for the Worst 96
18 Death Before Discharge 100
19 The Perfect Call 107
20 Rules to Live By 113
Book 3 Top of the World
21 Do No [Serious) Harm 119
22 The Private Life of a Public Hospital 126
23 There's Been a Prison Break 131
24 Courage Under Mustard 138
25 Dead Smurfs 146
26 Hearing Voices 153
27 Nobody Dies Tonight 165
28 Another Day in Paradise 171
29 A Long Answer to a Stupid Question 185
30 Faith Healers 192
31 Hubris 198
32 Dead on Arrival 207
Book 4 The Fall
33 Swirling the Drain 215
34 Grand Theft Auto 223
35 Mold Them in Your Image 229
36 The Stork Rides Again 234
37 The Summons 241
38 Full Circle 246
39 Long Way Gone 249
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After hearing Mr. Hazzard discuss his book in an interview on PBS, I decided to give it a look and I'm glad I did. I have been considering a career change after 12 years in the ministry and am now convinced the EMS is not the job for me. I'll never look at an ambulance (or an EMT) the same way again! Cracking good read with plenty of the graphic detail you'd expect from a book like this and also much unexpected humour you might not. Not a bedtime read, though--simply too hard to put down!
I also purchased this book after hearing the author in an NPR interview, and I'm so glad I did. This book is in turns funny, smart, poignant, irreverant, sad, gritty, and insightful, and often moves from one to the next in a way that surprises and makes you stop and savor the moment. I love the author's writing style! I highlighted many passages just to be able to return to enjoy them again. Well done, Mr. Hazzard. I will be watching for more from you.
I liked this book becsuse of tbhe author, Good stories ad the best grammar ive seen, i recommemd this book,
Best book Ive read in years
This was an interesting read. As a ICU Nurse, I see the patients after EMS have gotten the patient, started an IV, started fluid resuscitation, and maybe even secured an airway and performed CPR. So reading about the challenges these hero's face before they come to the hospital to be an amalgam of being informative, hilarious, and completely identifiable to me. Healthcare workers, in my opinion, see a different side of humanity than what the majority of people see. As a result, it is imperative to develop a wicked sense of humor to help to cope. Hazzard definitely expresses this type of humor throughout his book. So, if you are easily offended, you may not like this book. However, if you are OK with wicked humor, do not have a weak stomach, and what seems like a pretty honest account of what healthcare providers experience, I would recommend this book. PS: I know that I finished this book 1 day after EMS week (May 15-21, 2016), but I wanted to sincerely wish all of our Emergency Medical Service personnel a Happy EMS week, and Thank you for all that you do! We appreciate you!
"Death cracks inside jokes that only we emergency workers—with our practical knowledge of the postmortem human—will ever laugh at." In A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, former Atlanta paramedic Kevin Hazzard shares his memories of entering the medical emergency field, a sample of his ten years of experiences in the field, and how he knew it was time for him to move on. The book's dark humor and matter-of-fact style will make a lot of sense to many people already in the high-stress helping industry and may come off as surprisingly nonchalant and too frank for others. When you deal with life and death crises day after day and come across scenes that even Stephen King's imagination can't conjure up, you have to create some emotional distance if you're going to survive the field. If you are ever in the situation to require emergency assistance from an EMT, paramedic, fireman, police officer, etc. and they have poor bedside manner, cut them a break. Traditional customer service does not always apply to these folks when the bottom line is saving lives. Their focus is elsewhere as it should be. These folks have seen it all and, based on this medical memoir, it's far from pretty. Yet they continue. Next time you bake a batch of cookies, set a few aside and go show some appreciation.
A Thousand Naked Strangers is Kevin's story of when he worked as a paramedic working the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. After 9/11, Kevin thought something was missing in his life and that's when the call to become a paramedic came to be and how this job changed him in a way that he didn't see coming. When he and his wife started a family, that took more importance than being a paramedic and slowly he left the job and stayed home with the kids. This book is full of stories of how he started his career and everything he saw and heard during his time on the streets to give everyone a deeper appreciation for what these people see and hear on a daily bases! I liked this book just mostly because I'm drawn to books about law enforcement and paramedics and it makes you be more appreciated for what they go through on a daily bases. I found myself flipping pages just to not read some of the ick factor involved but overall it was a pretty good book. If you like to read books that give you a behind the scene factor of what a paramedic goes through, then this is the book for you but I'm gonna have to warn you that it does have some gross moments in there but than again, it's their job to try to save a life! Thank You to Kevin Hazzard for sharing your story of your time as a paramedic!! I received this book from the March - Book Of The Month Club in exchange for a honest review.
Great read and very well written. If you are thinking about becoming a paramedic or just want some insight into the world of EMS, I would highly recommend this book
Take a former journalist; make him a paramedic in a high-poverty, high-danger area for a decade; then turn him loose again to write about it, and he will play his readers like violins and make us like it. A Thousand Naked Strangers is a high octane, gloriously visceral ride in an ambulance and out of one, through Southeast Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you to Net Galley and to Scribner for the DRC. Since I read multiple galleys at a time and I loved this one best, I tried to feed it to myself in small nibbles, like Mary Ingalls hoarding her Christmas candy, but it was just too riveting and I could not stay away. At the memoir’s beginning, our guy is just looking for work. With just a few months of training, he can become an EMT. His journalistic career wasn’t working out as he had expected, and he found himself working as a paperboy instead, delivering the newspaper for which he had written. That’s about as rock bottom as it gets. He becomes an EMT; then he sets out to discover whether he wants to commit to the extra year and a half of schooling required become a medic. Once in, he’s hooked, not so much in spite of the risk and unpredictability of the job, but because of it. And when you think about it, what other job pays so very little, involves so much danger, and gets so little respect? Teaching comes to mind, but being a rescue worker trumps even that, particularly for the low pay and insane hours–holidays missed–to do it, a person needs to be young, and to be an adrenaline junkie. And for a decade, Hazzard fits that description. When he starts out, he is callous, as youth often are, speculating with his partner about what constitutes the perfect call. The perfect call, to their way of thinking, has requirements that are measured in the number of dead and wounded, the amount of danger. Does the patient have to survive in order for it to be a perfect call? Nah. Over the years he matures, and he becomes more respectful of the patients with whom he deals. He talks to addicts, hookers, and children in a way that is forthright and kind. The job takes a lot out of him, but it also gives him a lot. He grows up. He deals with the dead; the nearly dead; those that are feigning death; and those that are just looking for a free ride somewhere. He delivers babies in record numbers, and he transports a guy on a roof down to the ambulance. He sees just about everything, from suicides to homicides, from the domestically abused, to the kid with a roach in her ear. He plays the wildest imaginable pranks, and once in awhile he gets called on the carpet for it. Some of the incidents described in this memoir are just drop-dead funny, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I laughed out loud more than once. Some are incredibly dark. Some just left me with a feeling of awe. But although the tone changes many times, the pacing is absolutely consistent. Hazzard’s journalistic background shows; every single word is there for a reason. It is tight, taut, and urgently compelling, all the way through. So it’s entertaining, but it’s also educational. I didn’t know the distinction between an EMT and a paramedic before I read this memoir. I also didn’t know that not a holiday goes by without someone having a heart attack. I didn’t know that just about everyone, regardless of their level of intoxication, says they’ve had two drinks. And I didn’t know about the tension between paramedics and firefighters, between paramedics and cops. Get this memoir!
Incredibly exciting ride... I pre-ordered and it was delivered over the weekend. I couldn't put it down. It took me into a world I didn't know existed in Atlanta. It's funny, sad and incredibly addicting.