From the Sou’wester: Pull Over for Pauline Dinh

a woman sitting behind the wheel of an ambulance
Pauline Dinh

At 4 p.m. on a Friday, few college students can say they’re preparing for their 12-hour shift at a career that saves lives. For Rhodes College senior Pauline Dinh, it’s just part of her job as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). As the youngest member of the crew, Pauline drives ambulances on the weekends and encounters all varieties of people, ranging from senior citizens to convicts. Over the course of our conversation, she recounted stories of runaway patients, jamming to Beyoncé and scoring floor-tickets to the Justin Timberlake concert.

The day before her freshman year at Rhodes, Pauline completed the national registry to be certified as an EMT. During her three years on the job, she’s been promoted to advanced EMT and has driven the ambulance since her 21st birthday. She works for a private service, which takes both emergent and non-emergent calls. Thus, she responds to, for the most part, nursing homes or patients with minor traumas.

“The patients are the #1 most entertaining part of my job,” she said. “As EMTs, it’s not always life or death. Sometimes you’re just taking care of an old grandmother who is feeling down or sick, and all they want is someone to be there with them and hold their hands. Oftentimes, we are just trying to understand what they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing by simply being there for them.”

Not all patients are compliant, however. She explained that on one occasion a psych patient managed to unfasten all three of his seat buckles and bolt from the ambulance while they were at a stoplight. Another time, a patient heard Beyoncé playing over the ambulance’s radio and started singing at the top of her lungs. “Some people just totally go for it,” she recalled with a smile.

One of the perks of being an EMT is her service’s contacts with the FedEx Forum, Memphis’ entertainment venue. When her ambulance service monitored the Justin Timberlake concert, she scored floor tickets. Since no one called with an emergency, she enjoyed the prime seating for free. She also gets the same hook-up for Grizzlies games. “Sometimes if people aren’t too crazy or sick, you just get to enjoy!”

Pauline’s job covers much more than monitoring concerts and basketball games, though. “Sometimes people just think we sit at the station, waiting for calls, but there are a lot of stressful components when you’re on duty,” she explained.

Balancing an emotionally and physically demanding job with college coursework is no easy feat. “Usually on Fridays, I’ll have class at 9 a.m. I’ll stay up during the day to do homework and then go straight to work, maybe take a nap if I can. I work from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next day, then go to sleep. I usually drive the first seven hours, so I’m not sleepy, and then I switch off to respond to calls or do homework,” she explained. “The key is lots of naps, caffeine and good friends.”

“The difficult side of my job is that a lot of stuff we learn in school is so different from real-life experience,” she lamented. “When we roll up on a car accident or something, we know what to do in the books, but you don’t account for the adrenaline you feel, the effects of working with a new partner or all the other things involved. If the car is on fire, what do you do?”

Her biggest pet peeve as an EMT? “Rush hour takes forever. We can take lights and sirens, but a lot of people don't know that ambulances top out at 82 mph. It's a safety thing. And people are supposed to merge to the right lane, which a lot of people don't do. They just stomp on their brakes or swerve to the left. But we understand – ambulances can be scary.”

Even though she has 12-hour shifts on top of college coursework, she lit up when she talked about her job. Her enthusiasm showed in her ear-to-ear grin.

“It’s a really tough job, but we’re here for everybody. It’s what we do, and we love our jobs. That’s why we do it.”

Story and photos by Emily Faber ’19
Reprinted with permission from The Sou'wester, Vol. 99, No. 17