A few readers have encouraged me to write about my time working in emergency medical services on the ambulance and as a volunteer firefighter. I was hesitant at first, mainly because I’m not sure if anyone would be interested, but also because writing a story about yourself in which a stranger dies of some horrific cause seems slightly ghoulish. However, I think it’s important for people to realize what the day–to–day life of a first responder is and what it isn’t.

The worst day of my career happened just a week after my 21st birthday. It was a Thursday, around the middle of April in the Florida Panhandle. I remember the date so well because my birthday had been such a big event, especially at Florida State University. Although the school has excellent academics and I was lucky to have some top-notch instructors, turning 21 was more of a milestone at that place than graduating.

It was around 3:00 p.m. and I had just returned to my tiny apartment after my last class. I was debating going for a run or taking a nap, leaning towards nap, when my fire department pager went off. Calls in the middle of the day were unusual for our small department, which served a town of about 6,000 residents roughly 20 miles away from where I lived.

It was a car accident on a patch of country dirt road I didn’t know. It took me nearly 30 minutes to get there but on the way, I kept tabs on what was happening through my radio. It was a single vehicle flipped onto its roof. Four or five patients were being transported to the hospital as trauma alerts, and there was one “signal 7” reported—which meant a fatality.