Kevin Grange has dealt with almost every emergency situation imaginable in his years working as a paramedic in Jackson Hole, Los Angeles, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Grange recently released a new memoir called “Wild Rescues.” He joined Will Walkey from KHOL in Jackson, WY, to discuss the challenges of emergency care in the backcountry and the mental health toll of being a paramedic. As a warning, this interview includes discussion of suicide.
Will Walkey: “Wild Rescues” is obviously a personal memoir of yours. But you also say in the book that it’s important that you get the work of wildland paramedics and wild EMS [Emergency Medical Services] people in the spotlight. Why was it important to you to tell the stories of wilderness medicine to a general audience?
Kevin Grange: I think it’s important because about 70 percent of EMTs [Emergency Medical Technicians] and paramedics work in a rural setting; however, in every movie, book, TV show, it’s always set in an urban setting. So, there was a whole side of the emergency medical services and fire departments that had never been portrayed before.
Walkey: What are some common challenges that you would face when in a wild setting as opposed to in Los Angeles, where I know you worked as well?
Grange: One setting is just the staffing. You know, in the city, you generally arrive on scene with a fire engine full of four firefighters and two on the ambulance. You have six people on scene. Whereas here, you know, oftentimes you might just arrive with your partner. Or, when I was with the park service, sometimes it would just be me on the ambulance by myself. And there is the weather and the environment and reaching the patient. So, the clock is always working against you out here.
Walkey: I think my favorite story in the book was that first wild rescue that you did in Yellowstone.
Grange: Yeah, that was for a car that had just gone off the roadway and down a steep embankment into the woods. As we were driving there, we encountered a huge herd of bison on the road, which, you know, wouldn’t leave. We tried the sirens. In that case, I had to imitate a mountain lion over the P.A., which actually surprisingly moved the bison. And that call just illustrates that, in this remote and rural setting there’s the Plan A, which often doesn’t happen due to circumstance, and then there’s Plan B, but oftentimes you’re improvising to make a Plan C happen.
Walkey: You opened up a little bit about some of the mental health challenges that you faced while working in Teton EMS. Can you just talk a little bit about that—some of the specific mental health challenges that you faced and then maybe how you were able to overcome them a little bit?
Grange: Definitely. First responders are great at providing help, but historically, we haven’t been good at asking for help. Each first responder inhabits their own haunted house because of these traumatic calls that you run. They begin to kind of stack up internally. And so I ran a couple of tough calls. You know, unfortunately, the national parks do attract a lot of people who do want to commit suicide. And so I did run that call and that sort of put me over the breaking point for me personally. And it brought up some of the other traumas. I would say it was like on the lower end of post-traumatic stress, so I was able to listen to podcasts and talk to coworkers, and I found journaling very helpful. And the best thing was just getting outdoors and being in nature. So, you sort of get your own tips and tactics to deal with these tough calls. And it’s just important to sort of discipline yourself to do them after the tough calls.
Walkey: Switching gears, national parks have been called “America’s best idea.” You call them the “highest expression of democratic ideals.” How has your experience as a paramedic led to your thoughts on national parks as America’s best idea?
Grange: So, I think of the National Park Service as sort of like the heart of America. And how that relates to EMS is that, you know, we enter a scene and a call and our thought is ‘No one is beyond saving,’ and we’re going to do everything we can to save a life. And that’s irrespective of someone’s, you know, race, color, creed, socioeconomic status. And that’s this American idea that every life has value—every life is sacred. And it’s also sort of connected to the national park idea that everything within the universe is connected and has value from, you know, this river to that stone to that forest. So there’s a great overlap. And then, you know, democracy and the national parks is just this American idea that has spread throughout the world and created a lot of good.
Walkey Outtro: Grange’s new book “Wild Rescues “is out now. I’m Will Walkey in Jackson, Wyoming.
If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or an emotional crisis, help is available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.
KSJD and KHOL are members of the Rocky Mountain Community Radio coalition.