Issue #83: On Willpower and The Hardest Class I’ve Ever Taken


The picture above is the cover of the Textbook I’ve been living in for the last seven months. It contains almost 1500 pages of single-spaced, tiny type and weighs more than a bowling ball. It is almost thicker than a clenched fist. I am certain it could stop a large knife and possibly a small-caliber bullet.

I would gladly burn the book in effigy or sell it if I were not sure that I will be referring back to it with frequency in the future. Even if I didn’t need the book as a reference, I would probably keep it as a reminder of an accomplishment I view as a minor miracle: that I passed my EMT Certification Course.

Instead of burning that book in effigy, I keep it as a trophy.

I have no interest in nor any special talent for Emergency Medicine, but to fulfill my goal of becoming a Firefighter, I had to be EMT-B Certified. So, I spent seven months grinding my way through this wretched book. The last leg of the course involved these insane 12-hour class days (Thanks, #Snowpocalypse!) in which I had to sit there for hours on end and feel my body disintegrate while my head continually threatened to explode.

On the day of my Final, I contracted what has come to be known as the “Goddamn Bear Flu” from my roommate. I am part-Navajo, and thanks to 170 years of white people sneezing on my people, I almost never get sick. Ordinarily, I go years between colds or sinus headaches. But my roommate was exposed to some freak who picked up this obnoxiously-virulent strain from a bear, which he regrettably passed onto me at the worst possible time.

As I took my practical final, I was seeing double and doing that awkward shivering/sweating thing people do when they are extremely feverish. I had already thrown up everything I had eaten in the past week. I wish I could attribute some of that to nerves, but in reality I wasn’t nervous at all, except about possibly passing out from hypovolemic shock in the middle of my Scope of Practice. February 28th, 2014 will go down as one of the 10 Most Miserable Days of My Life, unless I move to Canada or Philadelphia for some inexplicable reason.

My Practical Final was what I would call a “Game 7 Overtime” victory. To continue with the Hockey analogy: I got an early lead in the series, then fell behind. At the last possible moment – cold-sweating and shivering thanks to the Goddamn Bear Flu – I managed to eke through with a Passing grade. I have seldom been so relieved as when I saw the words “Adequate” on my Review Sheet.

(“Adequate?” Bet you can’t wait until you see me coming at you with a hypodermic needle and a grin, can you?)

I don’t even remember my Written Final. I literally blacked-out, again thanks to The Goddamn Bear Flu. Apparently, I got a 94, so, uh, good on me.

Afterwards, I was too exhausted, both mentally and physically, to even celebrate. My big celebration involved me forcing myself to stay conscious while I drove home, glaring at my stricken, strung-out-on-NyQuil roommate for passing along the GBF to me on the day of my Final, then crawling into bed and going into a 15-hour coma.

EMT is the Hardest Class I’ve Ever Taken, for reasons I’ve explained and reasons I’ll touch upon below. It’s basically taken my body a full week to recover from the chronic stress of the course, and for me to gather myself enough to write a post about it. The Textbook is my $170 Trophy, reminding me of what I accomplished and how hard I worked to get through. Plus, in the event of a home invasion, the book can double as body armor.

On Jack the Student

I am the definition of a Professional Student. Following a leisurely, Van Wilder-esque five-and-a-half year tour at my beloved Duquesne University, I almost immediately rolled into a nine-month Personal Training Certification course. After working as a Trainer for a few months, I went to a unnamed school I completely despise for about 18 months to get an additional Undergrad in Sport Management.

I worked full-time as a Strength Coach/Personal Trainer for another year or so before I grew dissatisfied. I had an honest conversation with myself, and decided I was wasting time not actively pursuing my dream of becoming a Firefighter. I abruptly quit my job as a Strength Coach (though my employer will tell you I was fired – it was one of those, “You can’t quit! You’re Fired!” deals) to start over again.

I couldn’t get someone to pay for my training, so I paid for my own. I decided to put myself through an EMT-B Certification course, one of the necessary Certifications to being a Firefighter, at significant cost to my own bottom-line, health, and sanity.

As I wrote above, I finally got through the course about a week ago. I have taken almost 250 College Credits and on-going Continuing Education since I was eighteen, and I can say again with no hesitation: EMT-B is the Hardest Class I’ve Ever Taken.

This seems to be a fairly common view. I’ve spoken with a number of successful Paramedics or even Doctors who have told me that EMT-B is the most difficult course they’ve gone through. Here is my quick overview on why I believe that is:

To be an EMT, you have to know a good chunk of what a Physician has to know. You do not have to be able to practice all of it, but you need to know much of the Anatomy/Physiology, effects of common medications, the ability to understand and identify many medical conditions, and so forth. The catch is that you have to learn all of this information in a relatively-short amount of time.

In my case, EMT-B, AKA, “How to be a Street Doctor”, was crammed into a Semester + Four Weeks of Hell in February. The volume of information is just staggering, especially if you are not used to such an overload.

Beyond that, most EMT students are getting this tsunami of information with little or no background in Medicine. I’ve worked extensively in Preventative Medicine as a Strength Coach/Trainer, and I have an excellent understanding of the Human Body and Orthopedics. I was still drowning at times due to the sheer volume of facts I had to be able to recall and apply at a moment’s notice.

But I got through. By the skin of my teeth and with a number of good people pulling along, but I got through. It may not be a giant accomplishment for some people, but it took every ounce of my effort and Willpower to force myself  through it. It was an extremely-rough seven months, but it’s finally over, and I am one step closer to my dream of pulling people out of  burning buildings.

On Hockey, Golf, and What My Family Doesn’t Know About EMT


I love Hockey. Breaking News, I know.

One of the reasons I love Hockey is that there is a direct correlation between Effort and Results. If you work harder, the vast majority of the time you will get a better outcome. Usually, you can compensate for a lack of talent with courage and determination.

I am the type of person who will punch through a brick wall, if I want something on the other side of it badly enough. My Willpower – my ability to drive myself through duress – is probably my greatest character strength.

Meanwhile, one of my greatest weaknesses is my inability to think like other people. One of the people I recently took the EMT course with noted that I could read the same paragraph as ten other people and take something entirely different away from it.

This is what gives me such a talent as a scoring forward and a purveyor of girls with low self-esteem: I have an uncanny knack for seeing the flaws or holes in something – the negative space, if you will. I can look at a Goaltender and see the 1/100th of the net he or she doesn’t have covered. I can look at a neatly-stacked defense and see how they are slightly misaligned. Many of my gifts lie in Creative Problem Solving and taking an unconventional approach.

And really, that’s Hockey. Unlike Football, in which a Coach draws up a designated play and the players execute it to the letter, Hockey is best-played when it is free-flowing and unscripted. Hockey involves chemistry and constant reaction, but it’s very difficult for anyone to compel a Hockey game to unfold in a step-by-step fashion. Hockey lacks the predictability of Baseball, Football, or Golf, and in my view, that’s one of the things that makes the game so great.

The other way Hockey differs from those other sports, and Golf in-particular, is again that there is direct correlation between Effort and Results. Golf is a game of notorious frustration, one that requires a consistent and methodical approach. You cannot play Golf harder, only better.

I liken EMS to Golf. It doesn’t matter how hard you try – it only matters if you can do a given procedure or if you know the appropriate solution to a given problem. Like Golf, EMS requires an individual to take an extremely-systematic approach, and like Golf, EMS involves a dedication to perfection. You can treat a patient properly in 99/100 ways, but if you mistreat them in even the slightest – for example, if you forget to ask if the patient has taken Sildenafil before you administer Nitroglycerin for his chest pain – you could kill someone. This stress – the knowledge that one wrong move could kill someone – is chronic and constant.

You all know me pretty well – I am not great at following orders. I excel when I am allowed to think creatively and unconventionally, and I struggle mightily when I have to follow protocol. Someone smart wrote this about me:

“…Your overly-relaxed nature can make it difficult for you to focus on projects that require organized sequences of steps or stages. Thus, your ability to accomplish may be inconsistent. Indeed, it’s possible that you might be criticized periodically for being unreliable or unable to “stay within the lines…”

Guess what? To be an EMT, you have to do exactly that. EMS is predicated on following protocols and sequences to the letter. To use the Golf analogy, you can hit the ball as hard as you want, but it doesn’t matter if you send it slicing into the woods or line-drive it into the water. In Golf and in EMS, you have stay on the course, avoid a litany of traps, and do so with very limited margin-for-error. The difference with EMS is that you must do all of this while a patient is gushing blood and people are screaming at you.

There are people who are simply wired for the error-free, systematic approach. These people often gravitate toward Medicine or Mechanical Engineering at a relatively-young age. These are the people who have the discipline to ensure that parts of our society run like a metronome, and have the ability to completely block out external factors and stress while doing so.

Meanwhile, there’s me, Mister “Artistic Temperament,” who needed the support of an A-Team of confidants and friends as well as a minor Act of God to get through a course that some incredibly-dense people have no problem with.

While acknowledging that I would not have gotten through this course were it not for some exceptional support, I am very proud of myself for sticking with it. EMT was not easy for me, at all. I couldn’t apply my strength, my Willpower, to internalizing the material itself, but I could apply it in how relentlessly I fought through the frustration and stress of the course. I succeeded, which is going to do nothing to rein in my ego.

Now, as for what My Family Doesn’t Know About EMS:

I have always been academically-gifted. One of my favorite jokes is that the first time I took the SAT (back when it was a 1600-point test), I was sober and well-rested and only got a 1250. The second time, I came in hungover and sweating Black Velvet, and I got a 1390. One of my minor claims-to-fame.

As such, the expectation of me has always been that I will pass any course or test thrown my way with flying colors. One of the reasons I took so long to finally commit to Firefighting was that my family insisted it was not a proper use of my intellectual gifts. From a very young age, I was told, no joke, that I could be a Doctor or a Lawyer.

So when I would occasionally talk to my mother about the course and she would hear that I was struggling, she was stunned. She would ask me questions like “Did you get hit in the head again?” and “Are you drunk, or just retarded?”

There are some people who can barely spell their own name who are very successful EMT/Paramedics, and there are some academic geniuses who cannot get through the course. It’s a fine line between knowing a tidal wave of material, and being able to recall/apply that knowledge instantly and under duress.

Also, one has to take my personal biases into account. As I wrote above, I am probably the last person in the world who should be an EMT. I am a mistake-making, risk-taking free-thinker (WOO!) if ever one existed. It’s hard for people like myself to remember Step #34 in a 100-Step process when we are busy dreaming of Manhattans and ways to seduce the Madame of the Office.

But the bottom-line? EMT is Hard. I would double-underline that if I could. If I could convey one point to my family, it would be that my Hockey-related concussion issues aside, I did not suddenly go from being an academic all-star to being a dolt. Again speaking from the position of a Professional Student, it’s hard to envision a more-demanding course.

So, in Conclusion:

Ask anyone who has completed it: the EMT-B Certification is rough. No matter what happens from here, I can say that I got through it. As someone who lacks the natural attributes that most successful EMTs possess, I can say as a proud Hockey Player that my well-refined Will was what allowed me to get through.



About sfarrell11000
All over the place

2 Responses to Issue #83: On Willpower and The Hardest Class I’ve Ever Taken

  1. Pingback: Challenge Yourself | Jack_Has_Spoken

  2. IT Supreme says:

    Another good article among many. This was also the hardest class I ever took, although I took it in Missouri. While I ended up not being able to use it due to the number of EMT’s in the area, I worked my ass off and finished top of my class, and helped some other people who were struggling across the finish line. Nice to see I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a brutal course.

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