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True stories

Forget 'ER.' With its gritty tales of suicides, ODs, and urban frailty, a paramedic's blog gets real

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / January 20, 2008

On the snowy December afternoon when the cars stopped moving, Jay Weaver was stuck in his ambulance, on his way to the house of an elderly man who was having trouble breathing. The traffic light at the corner doggedly changed colors, but the gridlock held. "We just sat there, lights flashing, siren yelping," Weaver wrote later in his blog, Other People's Emergencies: Random Thoughts of an Urban Paramedic. "After a while, we turned off the siren. There was no point in keeping it running. It was making a lot of noise, and that was all."

Finally, they inched to the man's house and took him to the hospital.

But on a day filled with frustration, the grimmest moments would come 16 hours into their double shift, when Weaver and his partner arrived at the cluttered apartment of a 42-year-old man who had collapsed. After they began CPR, blood poured from his mouth and nose - the result of a perforated ulcer, too far gone to fix. As Weaver helped carry the man out of the apartment, he bumped into the family's Christmas tree.

The "sight of that tree filled me with sadness," he wrote. "I realized that the man's family would have a miserable holiday. This would forever be the Christmas that their husband and father died, and I suspected that they'd never view this season quite the same way again."

Weaver, a 22-year-veteran of Boston Emergency Medical Services, began blogging in December 2006 so that far-flung relatives could hear about his life at work. But gradually news of his gripping tales began to spread and a regular group of readers grew addicted to his dramatic tales of flying through the city, from the Back Bay to East Boston to Roxbury, answering the calls of the sick (and sometimes, not-so-sick). Since he began writing, the blog has recorded about 56,000 visits.

"I keep being fascinated by his stories," said Michael A. Burstein, a writer and editor from Brookline who says he reads Urban Paramedic nearly every day. "I'm probably one of his many readers who thinks that some publisher out there ought to offer him a book contract immediately."

Weaver may be the only emergency medical worker in Boston who blogs - he hasn't come across any others - and his entries offer a rare glimpse into the daily emergencies that rarely make the news. His prose is a grittier version of doctor/writers like William Carlos Williams and Oliver Sacks.

One day last year, Weaver described a long, futile attempt to revive a woman in cardiac arrest: "After all we had done, the woman was just as dead as when we had started."

Last August, when he found himself responding to heroin overdoses every night for two weeks, he wrote about the alarming trend: "Heroin overdoses tend to come in bunches. You can always tell when a potent batch of heroin has been released onto the street, because for days or weeks afterward, addicts all over the city stop breathing."

A chilling Christmas Eve
But one of his most chilling tales described the cold Christmas Eve when his ambulance was called to the Tobin Bridge, where a man in his 20s was standing at the edge, looking over the water. The man, crying, said his wife had just announced that she was leaving him.

He leaned over the water and let go with one hand. Then, Weaver wrote, "He leaned back further. He held the rail with just his fingertips now. [A few] hundred feet of air stood between him and the harbor."

The young man used his free hand to gesture toward Weaver, another paramedic and a police officer standing on the bridge.

Weaver wrote, "Pointing to each of us in turn, he said, 'It's not your fault, and not your fault and not your fault. But I'm going.' With that, he turned and leaped headfirst over the edge."

In the nights after the jump, Weaver dreamed about that moment again and again.

Weaver has responded to hundreds of murders, more than he can remember, and well over 100 suicides. Four times, he's been inadvertently stabbed by needles of drug users as he tended to them. So far, he's managed to avoid HIV or hepatitis infections.

"It can be a very dangerous job at times," he said in an interview. "No matter how well trained we are, no matter how well prepared we are, no matter well equipped we are, some of us are going to get hurt."

Weaver grew up in small town in central Massachusetts but had always been fascinated by cities. He wanted to be an architect who designed big projects, maybe the new Boston Garden. So he moved to Boston and enrolled in what later become Boston Architectural College.

One day in early January 1981, he was walking downtown when he saw smoke on the skyline. He followed the dusky sky until he was opposite a burning building at a corner of Arlington and Newbury streets. Weaver stood there for hours.

"I was just so fascinated by these firefighters who were rushing in to put out the fire that I just stayed and watched and skipped all my classes that day," he said.

After darkness had fallen, firefighters carried out one body bag, then another, holding brethren who died after a floor collapsed. And Weaver thought: "I don't want to spend my entire life sitting at a drafting table. There's too much out there. I want to go out and experience some of what happens in the city."

The next day he applied to take the test to become a Boston firefighter. But he never made it onto the force and decided to train as an EMT instead. Soon, he took classes at Northeastern University - where he's now on the adjunct faculty - and was promoted to paramedic.

When Weaver first began blogging, he tried to stay anonymous. He didn't use his name on the blog, writing instead with the initials TS. But it wasn't long before other paramedics, recognizing the calls he described online, figured out the identity of the Urban Paramedic. One day when he showed up for his shift, a colleague said casually, "So how's the blog going?"

Weaver takes pains, however, to protect the identities of those he helps, as required by law. He obscures the details of the calls so patients cannot be recognized, even changes their professions. He omits names of hotels and switches the names of similar neighborhoods.

'A great television series'
Weaver writes often about the frustrations of the job, including responding to calls that are not emergencies. "Not everyone should be allowed to call 911," he wrote one day after someone called to report a man sleeping on a park bench. "Some people are just too stupid."

And he sometimes finds humor in the stories he sees, even the most tragic among them. Weaver wrote about a college student who tried to commit suicide by drinking a bottle of laundry detergent, only to spend the night vomiting up bubbles and foam. He and his partner found an elderly man reported missing by his sister - he was at home, in bed with a prostitute.

"A lot of this is the sort of thing that would make a great television series," said Aaron Weber, a Somerville blogger and television critic who reads every Urban Paramedic post. "He conveys both these moments of incredible intensity and going on a routine call that's totally not interesting."

Weaver, who lives in Somerville with his wife, her two children from her first marriage, and, on some days, the two children of his first marriage, will soon take a blogging break. He has voluntarily joined the Army's Judge Advocate General command - Weaver got a law degree from Suffolk University Law School in 1999 - and will be reporting for five months of training in Fort Lee, Va., on Feb. 10. He had long regretted not joining the military when he was younger; now, a nonpracticing lawyer, he's looking for some legal experience.

Once he finishes his initial training, he'll have an eight-year commitment to the Army Reserve. He plans to keep his job with Boston EMS and leave sporadically for JAG work.

He doesn't know where he will be sent, though he knows some Army lawyers are assigned to front-line combat units.

"It's by no means a guaranteed safe position," he said.

Weaver hasn't decided whether he'll resume blogging when he returns. But he hopes to return to writing, maybe even a book about his experiences as the Urban Paramedic.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com

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