A daughter of suburbia saves lives in the city

A TUESDAY INTERVIEW-Q&A

September 22, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Angela Burkins played dodge and jumped rope like the other kids when she was growing up on the Bird River near White Marsh. But she'd really get excited when an ambulance or a fire engine would roar by.

"I think it was in my blood," she said.

At 23, Ms. Burkins drives ambulances as a paramedic in the Baltimore City Fire Department, a job that propelled her into a world of violence and misery drastically unlike the suburban American Dream she was raised in.

Last year, she and her Medic 10 partner, Patricia Neary, responded to some 2,650 calls for help from the East Baltimore public. They work out of a Baltimore firehouse at Eastern Avenue and South Collington Street in Highlandtown.

Ms. Burkins began her career at 16 as a volunteer in the Baltimore County Fire Department while she was attending Perry Hall Senior High School. She is working now on a nursing degree at Essex Community College.

At 17, fresh out of her Emergency Medical Technician course, she witnessed the January 1987 Amtrak crash in Chase that killed 16 people. For 14 hours, she helped pull victims from the wreckage of the train.

For her work, she was one of a group of rescuers honored at the White House.

QUESTION: What is it like for a kid from the suburbs to be a city paramedic?

ANSWER: Coming into Baltimore City was a culture shock.

I never thought people could do such things to each other -- shooting each other over girlfriends, things like that.

You see children being shot. I handled the 3-year-old who was shot in June by the 15-year-old. The baby was face down in a pool of blood at Valley and Biddle. His mother was off to the side on a phone saying: "He's shot, he's shot."

We rolled him over, and he didn't have a pulse. He wasn't breathing. He was shot in the back. The bullet went up through his shoulder and then up into his head. We did as much for him as we could, but he was dead on the scene.

Q.: How do you deal with such horrible stuff?

A: Talking about it is the best way. My husband's a Baltimore County firefighter, and we talk about what happens on our shifts. You talk to your co-workers, who understand.

Once you're on the scene, automatic pilot kicks in. No emotion. You deal with what you have to do. But after it's over, it hits you like a brick wall.

Q: You got into this by wanting to help people, but has the reality of this job changed you?

A: I've hardened. I used to be naive, and that stopped just a few months after working my first assignment on North Avenue.

When I started this job, I thought that if something bad happened to you, it was because you were involved in crime. I know that's not true, that you can be an innocent bystander and get hurt.

Now I lock my car doors all the time. I never used to do that before. I wouldn't come down to the city where I work and walk around by myself at night.

Q: What value does life have for someone who sees death every day?

A: I've learned that life is fleeting and that you can't save everybody.

But I've also had cases where the patient had no pulse and wasn't breathing, and by the time we got to the hospital, they were talking to me. That's the best.

I try not . . . to be angry in my own life. I try to work things out. You never know when someone you love will be taken from you. You have to cherish life.

Q: Are different parts of town known for different types of calls?

A: Up in Highlandtown, you see more cardiacs, chest pains and trouble breathing because of the elderly. In the inner city, you're going to see more drug-related assaults.

Down around Central Avenue, we have our regular drunks. We know a lot of them by name.

On weekends, we make runs to Fells Point for assaults, a lot of fist fights and stuff like boyfriends punching their arms through windows because they're mad at their girlfriends. Sometimes down there I run into people I went to school with.

Q: What's the weirdest call you've handled?

A: We get calls for people with roaches in their ears. The roach crawls in while they're sleeping and can't get back out. They say it's very painful. We can't do anything for them but take them to the hospital.

We also get abused by the public. Sometimes we're used as a clinic. We get called for stomach aches and back pains, and you get angry, because someone down the street might be having a heart attack or getting shot.

I've had calls for sick dogs. One woman said she was dehydrated and wanted me to give her a dollar so she could buy a soda. I asked her why she didn't drink some water, and she said she wanted a soda.

I told her: "I'm not going to give you a dollar. I have to work for it."

Q: Is it hard to keep from making judgments about groups of people when you see such severe social problems day after day?

A: It is. But when you go into people's homes and you see how they live, you find out that a lot of people want to get out of where they're at.

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