The Plague-Ground – “Not much use being anything else.”

Many years ago, I interviewed a medic who flew with Ornge, Ontario’s air ambulance service. My job was to write up a personal profile of him for the Ornge website.

In our brief phone call, he taught me a lesson in life and leadership that we can all use today.

I asked him what he does when his helicopter lands on a major highway where there’s been a horrific accident.

“The first thing I do happens just before we land. I try to assess from the air what’s going on below.  How many vehicles were in the crash? Any on fire or exploded? How many people injured? Dead? How many police and firefighters?”

“Then the instant the pilot signals I can leave the helicopter after we’ve landed, I leap out. I don’t crawl out, I leap out and stride over to what looks like the person in charge. When I get close, I wave my arms for everyone to gather around and say: ‘Okay, everyone, let’s get to work.’ ”

“You’ve got to understand the irony here – and exploit it. To everyone else, I’m the guy who lands from the sky. I’m going to save the person who’s horribly injured on the road. But to me, I’m the guy who knows less than anyone else. I’m the last to arrive. What the hell do I know?”

“But they’re all looking at me when I step out of that helicopter. To them, I’m the sheriff. Most of them can’t actually do much by the time we land. The fire’s usually out, the highway’s blocked off.”

“I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve landed on highways dozens of times. I learned that what they’re looking for is someone to lead. They see me. They hear me and they follow me. After I say “let’s get to work,” I start assigning jobs.  I never say “I”, always “We”, as in “We need to get our stretcher up against the truck.” Or “We need three guys to lift the gurney into the helicopter.”

“No one ever hangs back. No senior cop has ever said: ‘Hey, I’m in charge here.’

“Remember, I  still know less than anyone else. But I do know my job is to get someone who’s been thrown from their car, or badly burned, or had their bones crushed onto a stretcher, and from there, onto the helicopter”.

“We’re usually on the ground for just a few minutes. Then we lift-off and are gone. It’s often hours or even days later before I learn all that happened in the crash.”

“Sure, my job was to pick up a badly injured person as quickly and safely as possible. But think how that would go if I crawled out of the helicopter and said:

“Could you please tell me who’s in charge? I’m going to need some help.”

 

Yesterday, I started listening to Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill and how he rallied the British to ‘win’ at Dunkirk and to really win the Battle of Britain during the Blitz of World War II. 

Back then, Britain’s chances of defeating the Nazi’s were about as good as ours would be on our way to a trauma unit in an Ornge helicopter.

What made all the difference was Churchill and especially his words. He knew the situation was hopeless. He knew that Britain and the British Empire would likely never survive. But he chose to believe that Britain could win. He chose to show optimism, and he ordered his colleagues to exhibit it, no matter how despairing they felt. As he said: “It does not seem to be much use being anything else.”

That air ambulance medic and Mr. Churchill share much in common.

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17 replies
  1. Avatar
    Brian wynn says:

    As lifeguards we learn this early on. There is no use running about and flapping. At least one guard on the deck or the beach has to take the lead and do it forcefully. And if not the lead you tend to your assigned job—in a corner , , , or doing the compressions—with diligence and care .

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  2. Avatar
    Louise Levitt says:

    One of the fun things about reading this collection Bob, is how in sync we are. When you talked about music and your father I didn’t mention how mine had also inspired a love of music in me. However today upon reading here that you had begun The Splendid and the Vile, well, I had to jump in.
    I JUST began the book (reading) last night- a great leader is hard to find. There are so many ways of thinking about Churchill and his first year as PM – in my mind, comparing among other things, WW2 and covid 19.
    And a great thinker and writer and galvanizer is also hard to find and you are one!
    Thank goodness for great writers and thinkers whose ideas come at just the right moment to lift us from hell.

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  3. Avatar
    Douglas Reid says:

    Such a great story and so timely. It’s surprising how a new arrival brings hope and promise, though his/her specialized expertise doubtless plays a large role. Perhaps everyone adjusts to the situation and realizes that a leader isn’t a person, it’s doing what is appropriate given the situation.

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  4. Avatar
    Sharon Taylor says:

    Hi Bob et al.
    Still listening/ reading/ contemplating. Day whatever of our own lock ins, whether official or not. I love this interview and self assessment by your Mr. ORNG. Leadership matters and this piece reminds us of that. None of us are in charge either, but we can all adopt optimism and let this lift our spirits, and count on this as an even stronger form of contagion.
    Keep connecting the dots for us all, Mr. Ramsay! Health and optimism to all.

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  5. Avatar
    joseph rosenthal says:

    Bob a very great story indeed. i will not say anymore as i dont want you to get a swollen head, however this was absolutely great , as per usual. To steal a line from one of your other admirers,” absolutely brilliant, Bob ” joe and Diane

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  6. Avatar
    Madeline Thompson says:

    Great post Bob, renews energy and belief that we can somehow fix a world
    that is almost as despairing if you look at it from a different angle. Your air
    ambulance medic delivered an excellent message to us all – once we’re out
    of this current malaise, time to go to work on so many levels, including
    frontal attacks on our political systems world wide. I found this story very
    inspiring indeed, no such thing as a ‘little person’.

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  7. Avatar
    Michele Carroll says:

    In peak disaster we all feel vulnerable. What we need is strong optimistic and honest leaders. Your orange medic rings true and real because he is deeply humble. He has a role to play as does each of us right now. I’m reading the Larson book at the Lake. Churchill was A man of deep feeling (with some ridiculous habits) who will ever be remembered as the greatest leader of all time.
    Thanks Bob! xx

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  8. Avatar
    Dan OConnor says:

    The difference in most things is your attitude about them. The margins between winning and losing, success and lack thereof, and overcoming obstacles can be reduced to chance. Pasteur said chance favors the prepared mind. Therefore, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Obstacles, strife, and friction are what develops and hones character.

    Deep down we need to be put to the test to grow and appreciate.

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