Ambulance Girl

by Jane Stern

(Crown)

M ost 911 callers don't consider that their responder could be a hypochondriac claustrophobic seriously afraid of death and dying. But if you live in West Redding, Connecticut, the person who saves your life may be such a person--Jane Stern.

NPR junkies may have heard Stern on The Splendid Table. She's a regular contributor, and is the author of 20 books about food (with her husband Michael), including RoadFood and Square Meals. And indeed, Stern is a lot more suited to food writing than emergency medicine.

At 52, she was overweight, clinically depressed, utterly neurotic, and having serious marital problems. Barely able to leave the house, she took logical action, deciding to become a volunteer EMT in her small Connecticut town's fire department.

Surviving the grueling, ex-marine-run training course and passing the exams was a formidable feat for the hypochondriac Stern, who was no longer clinically depressed, but now had new words to describe her psychosomatic tendencies. Much of the book's humor comes without embellishment, as Stern interacts with her fellow volunteers and shares lessons from her EMT textbooks: "Do not give CPR to a severed head," and, "If you have a patient whose leg or arm is partially amputated, do not pull it off to make things 'neat.'"

Much of the book is slapstick. Her first day working at the hospital Stern deals with a schizophrenic kickboxer who'd tried to kill his mother, miraculously (and accidentally) revives a comatose woman, and on two instances is asked to spread a patient's butt cheeks so a nurse can take a rectal temperature. Stern relates waiting for the temperature to register and trying to think of small talk to make. When the nurse whips out the thermometer and walks briskly away, Stern is left holding the man's cheeks apart, and it takes her a few self-aware moments to let go.

Stern's voice makes this book what it is--uncensored, jocular, and frank. Its levity is balanced by the harsh realities of emergency medicine, the sad secrets and power struggles of a small town, and her own compelling history. It's a glimpse into a world many of us never see, shared in detail by someone still thrilled with the wonder of it all. ERIN ERGENBRIGHT