This is a passionate and moving story of courage and the influence of language. It’s a great example of entering another person’s world through mirroring — and much more — in an extremely dangerous situation.

We think you’ll enjoy this story, from Rosemary Lake-Liotta, sharing her experience working as an EMT in tough neighborhoods.

Her response was the opposite of the classic instructions in such situations. You are usually told to respond to conflict with placating words like “let’s all calm down and discuss this rationally.”  I think you can easily imagine how that would have worked here.

From the new book, Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree: 61 stories of creative and compassionate ways out of conflictAvailable on Amazon.

Words Save Lives

After my training to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) I was given an opportunity to further my learning. I would participate in a 120-hour unpaid internship riding with Chicago Fire Department Paramedics to learn further crisis intervention techniques in the field.

One of the paramedics who mentored me during my field internship said some things on my first day that I will never forget. “You are going to be seeing and meeting people who may be very different than you. They may not look like you, may not act like you, they may not share the same values as you, they may use foul language, and they may not have the same personal hygiene habits that you have. They may be homeless or living in poverty. They may have had horrible life experiences that have shaped the way they act and what they do. They may be deaf or blind. They may be from another country and not speak English. You must treat every person you come in contact with, regardless of who they are, with RESPECT.”

He continued, “The words you use and how you use them convey many things in this work. First, they must always convey respect. Next, you must be able to communicate with others in terms that they use and understand. You will have to learn to be very flexible and change with the circumstances. In any situation, you must always protect yourself and protect your patient. When you take a person onto your stretcher, their life becomes your total responsibility. It makes no difference if you’re in a hospital or in the projects; if a person is on your stretcher, that person is your responsibility.

“When you are here with us in the field,” he said, “I want you to keep your mouth shut and watch everything we do, listen to what we say, and especially observe people’s expressions as we interact with them.”

During the months that followed, I watched hundreds of faces. Each transport provided a wealth of knowledge regarding human behavior, and taught me to choose my words with care. All that training prepared me for the day that was to change my life…

I had taken a job working for a private ambulance company that had contracts with hospitals and nursing homes all over the Chicago area. Each ambulance was assigned a two-person team that included a driver and an attendant, both certified EMTs. Long before the era of cell phone technology, the ambulances were equipped with stationary CB radios. (The only portable radios available were carried by the paramedics who staffed the four mobile intensive-care ambulance units.) This meant that when we left the ambulance to get a patient, we had no radio contact with dispatch.

My partner and I that day were assigned a routine transport that was dispatched as a “patient pick up” at one of the housing projects, Cabrini Green. The patient was to be transported to a local hospital for physical therapy. I had been to Cabrini Green many times during my internship with the fire department. As part of my training, I had a crash course on gangs and gang violence. In effect, I had learned to “speak gang.”

The cement walls of the high-rise buildings were covered with gang graffiti, much of it dominated by The Vice Lords and The Latin Kings. Graffiti was one way the gangs claimed their territories, letting others know that this was their turf. The hallways were also cement and open to the air, being covered by chain-link fencing from the first floor to the top floors to prevent people from falling to their deaths. The elevators were in poor repair. We never knew beforehand if the elevator we needed would be working or not. Today we were lucky. The elevator doors opened. I pulled the stretcher in and my partner Joe pushed the button for the 14th floor. The doors closed. As we lurched upward the light in the elevator kept flashing on and off, and the elevator would stop all together and then jerk upward again. Perhaps the wiring had been gnawed on by rats, which were a common problem here.

When we arrived at the 14th floor we both cautiously stuck our heads out to see if the scene was safe. It looked clear so we pulled the stretcher out of the elevator and proceeded down the hall to apartment number 1407. Joe stood on one side of the door and I stood on the other side. We knew not to stand directly in front of the door because you never knew if there was a person on the other side with a gun. Joe pounded hard on the door. A voice came from the other side.

“What the hell you want?”

Joe said, “We’re EMTs here for Jessie.”

The door opened and a little boy of about 10 was standing there. “C’mon,” he said, “Jessie’s in here.”

We followed the boy with our stretcher in tow, passing through a small living room and into a bedroom. Sitting upright on the bed was a young man with thick white casts on both legs. He was wearing shorts that had been cut up the sides to make room for the casts that started at his hips.

“Jessie can’t move himself at all,” the little boy said. “You have to lift him up.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“I’m Henry, Jessie’s my brother.”

Jessie told his brother to go next door and stay with a neighbor while he was at the hospital. After Henry left I asked Jessie what had happened to him. He said that the Lords had broken both of his legs with baseball bats because he would not join their gang. He and his family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said that due to his religious beliefs he would never join the gang. He asked that I give him his Bible so that he could read at the hospital while he waited for his physical therapy appointment. When we had Jessie safely secured on the stretcher, we headed back out into the hall.

I was at the front of the stretcher as we pulled Jessie along to the elevator. I pushed the down button and again the elevator doors opened. This time three men were standing there. The man in the middle was holding a gun. He looked down at me and said, “WHAT THE HELL do you think you’re DOING with MY BOY?”

I glanced back at Jessie and saw sheer terror on his face. In that split second I knew that these were some of the men that had done this violence to him. I straightened to my full height of exactly five feet, looked up at the man with the gun, and said, “He’s NOT your boy, he’s on my stretcher, he’s on MY TURF. He’s MY boy!”

Shocked, the man looked at the gun he was holding, looked back down at me, and said, “SAY WHAT?”

So I said, “Now I can see that you’re a man that demands RESPECT.”

“I give you that RESPECT.” I said. “Now let me tell you about my gang.”

He said, “YOU in a gang?”

“Yeah! All these EMTs and Paramedics that come here when you call 911 are all part of MY GANG. Now, let me ask you, has there ever been a time when you called 911 and someone from MY GANG didn’t come to help you?”

“No, they be there,” he said.

“THAT’S RIGHT. If you mess with me or you mess with anyone on MY TURF,” I pointed to Jessie, “or you mess with anyone in MY GANG, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK’S GOING TO HAPPEN THE NEXT TIME ONE OF YOUR BOYS IS BLEEDIN’ OUT BAD AND YOU CALL 911?”

He looked back down at the gun, then looked back at me and said, “DAMN, YOU A BITCH!”


“Let the lady pass on by,” he said with a nod of his head.

I pulled the stretcher into the elevator, praying that he wouldn’t change his mind. Tears were streaming down Jessie’s face as the elevator doors closed. Joe and I took some deep breaths, doing our best to prepare for whatever might meet us on the ground floor. Thankfully, when the elevator doors opened again the scene was safe enough to proceed to the ambulance. We notified our dispatcher that an incident had occurred but that no injuries resulted and we would call him from the hospital. En route, I asked Jessie who the men were. He said he didn’t know their names. I asked him if they were some of the men that had broken his legs. He nodded and said, “If I tell anyone who they are, they will kill my family. I already talked to the police. What you don’t understand is that I have to live there.”

When I called my dispatcher, a meeting was arranged with the supervising field paramedic and the owner of the company to discuss what to do. Because the man with the gun did not actually point the gun directly at me and say he was going to kill me, and I did not know who the men were, filing a police report was not recommended. Thousands of people live in Chicago Housing Projects and many have guns. Paramedics and EMTs across the country face dangerous situations every single day. They continue to do their job. We were there to safely transport Jessie to physical therapy and back, not try to hunt down gang members. Following the meeting, I was promoted to become one of the company’s EMT trainers.

As a trainer, I went to pick up Jessie three times a week for the next six months with trainees under my charge. Every time I pulled up to Cabrini Green and got out of the ambulance, the gang scouts that were watching over their turf would say, “Hey, it’s that little white MEDIC BITCH again!” And then the call would come back, “He says let the lady pass on by.” I was never bothered by anyone there ever again.

~Rosemary Lake-Liotta

Excerpt from Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree: 61 stories of creative and compassionate ways out of conflict, by Mark Andreas. ©2011 Real People Press.

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