Wednesday, January 13, 2016


"I did nothing to save the first person who died in front of me. 
I simply stood watch and let her go."

If, like me, you are curious about and fascinated by the mindset and daily grind of first responders, run and pick up a copy of Kevin Hazzard's A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back. Thoughtful, intense, humorous (often morbidly so), and compelling, Naked Strangers is a fantastic look at the frenzied world of EMTs and paramedics through the lens of someone who lived it in often too-vivid color.

Forty-three paramedics and EMTs were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. A reporter at the time, Hazzard felt his days had become too safe and routine. Wanting to test himself, to see if he could stand and respond in the face of exigent circumstances, he "almost by accident" enrolled in an eight-month EMT program. Thus began a ten-year career as an EMT and paramedic (you will learn the differences if you don't already know them), handling calls in some of the most dangerous and colorful areas of Atlanta.

Are there stories? Oh yes, not to worry, there are stories. Crazy stories, unbelievable stories, sad stories, stories full of grace and humanity. From haggling with the homeless for a fair price to clean the life detritus from the back of an ambulance to responding to calls during shootouts to having the ambulance stolen in the middle of a rescue.      

But where Naked Strangers really pays off is when Hazzard takes the reader through the emotion of the journey from the inside. Right up next to the fear, the angst, the power, the burnout, the glory (and the guts, literally), the helplessness, and how those impact his life, professional and otherwise.

Hazzard's story goes full circle, and he sheds bright light on his schooling, early EMT days, progress to paramedic, flirtation with burnout, and ultimate decision to lay down the stethoscope. I can't tell you how honest the book is, but it feels glaringly so. Hazzard does not only paint himself with the positive brush; we get good and bad, high and low, which ultimately makes the good better and the whole much more powerful.

Written in an easy-flowing style that brims with confidence and storytelling ability, Naked Strangers isn't just an entertaining and insightful read, it's a good one. Hazzard writes well, and paints vivid pictures of the environments he moves through on a daily basis:

Grady is an ecosystem. Swirling about it at all hours of the night are creatures from every level of the food chain. There's a woman who lives in the bus enclosure out front and sings at the top of her lungs. She's not singing songs but hymns, and when we arrive in the morning, we aren't merely punching in to work - we're receiving communion. Out in the streets, just beyond Grady's front doors, are ambulances, doctors, nurses, visitors, the homeless, half-medicated lunatics and patients who've dragged their IV poles outside to smoke. Huddled together on the sidewalks - which are dotted with chewing gum and droplets of blood and the occasional human turd - are anxious family circles praying for their loved ones, and the local news reporter who's camped out because something tragic has happened. Something tragic always happens.

Hazzard can also turn a nice phrase on a dime:

Just enough heroin is being kissed by God. Too much is a gentle ride to a breathless sleep.
EMS is wild and imperfect. Just like our patients, it's dangerous and a little mad and possibly contagious.

Hazzard's trip through emergency medicine is a strange, gory, and entertaining one. Ultimately, it's a human one, one man's journey to test if he has what it takes to walk towards danger unprotected, to act or simply bear witness, all while getting paid like a barista and missing holidays at home. Sound crazy? It just might be.

STREET SENSE: A smart read infused with humor and emotion, A Thousand Naked Strangers is well worth your time if you have any interest at all in the world of emergency medicine. Highly recommended.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Chris, like all True Believers, is something of a savant. He can quickly and, with great certainty, determine whether a patient's shortness of breath is caused by asthma or congestive heart failure. He can also control a crowd, deliver a child, and stop even the heaviest of bleeding - but he can't find Norway on a map. "No matter," he says. "I'm not here to save Norwegians."

COVER NERD SAYS: I like this cover. It tells a prospective reader, to a large extent, what can be expected inside. I like the palette, and the red ambulance is a nice set-off that certainly highlights the book's subject matter with even a glance. My only quibble is that the font is a bit on the casual/comic side. I had hoped the book was serious in tone and was pleased to find it was both serious and well-written. Humor runs through the book, no doubt, but not perhaps to the extent suggested by the cover. This one is no joke.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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