Nice Ambulance


Tim Plagainos (emergency medical services technician)

Income: $47,000 (1998)

Health Insurance: covered by employer

Rent: $700/mo.

Utilities: $75/mo.

Phone: $100/mo.

Food: $600/mo.

Transportation: $415/mo.

It begins at night, usually just before 11:30, when he puts on his utility belt with the long flashlight for dark alleys, a punch for crashing through windows— “usually just on cars, though”— and a big scissors for cutting people’s clothes off. Next he zips up his navy blue emergency services jacket, puts on his badge with the symbol of the Rebel Alliance— “what Luke Skywalker belongs to”— and bursts out the door of his Upper East Side studio. Within moments, he is flying through the metropolis in a New York Presbyterian Hospital ambulance with red lights flashing, rescuing one to four people a night— mostly people with chest pains, myocardial infarctions, acute pulmonary edema, sometimes people who drank too much, took an overdose— but one time, delivering a kid. “She gave birth on the bathroom floor of this basement apartment. It was the most rewarding experience. Nobody should have this much fun on a job.”

Plagainos, 25, admitted he watches the reruns of the 1970s television show Emergency! “Actually it inspired a whole generation before me to become paramedics, guys now in their forties. They thought it was the coolest thing ever.” Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto are firefighting paramedics. Whenever they get in their ambulance, the dah dah dah L.A. freeway driving music starts and pretty soon they’re bending over some ’70s-looking person on the ground saying, Settle down, mister, and then they bark into their radio transmitters, I’ll go check his head for hematoma.

“In school they tell you not to flip the caps off medication like Johnny Gage does,” Plagainos said. He went to the Catholic Medical Center in Queens, which cost $5600 and surprisingly only took a year, considering that paramedics have to know things like how to pass a tube through the vocal cords, inflating a small balloon on the tube and artificially ventilating the person if he or she is experiencing cardiac arrest.

“Actually it’s pretty easy at the technician level. We’re following treatment protocols that have been set up by doctors.”

Plagainos has worked at Cornell for almost two years. “There are other facilities that pay more than Cornell— the hourly rate is $18.01 for a new paramedic, with a night differential of $1.80— but it’s a really great place to work.”

Plagainos became a paramedic because “when I was in the navy, a hospital corpsman, I wanted to design and repair medical equipment. I discovered my math abilities weren’t quite what they’d been in high school. I’d taken emergency medical technician courses and liked it.”

Plagainos— whose uncle, mother, and grandmother were nurses and now his girlfriend is— grew up in a three-bedroom ranch home in Port Jefferson, Long Island. “My father works for the telephone company. He’s a central-office technician, repairs dial tones.” Plagainos went into the navy, in San Diego, after high school because “my father talked me into it. He’d been in Vietnam. He felt the military was the best route for me to get discipline. To an extent it worked. But I’m not a hawk, you know, like those old men having liquid lunches saying, Yeah, we should be kicking those Vietcong. That’s not me at all.

“Being a paramedic isn’t what I plan to do for the rest of my life. With all the lifting of people off sidewalks, I don’t see my back lasting forever. I’d like to get my bachelor’s, move toward being a physician’s assistant.”

Then he could make more than the $47,000 a year he earns now, which means he could buy more comic books. He already has 3000, which he keeps in his mother’s basement because she has a dehumidifier. His favorite? “That’s really a tough one. Probably Superman or Green Lantern. It used to be Batman because Batman was the epitome of everything a person could arrive at by applying themselves and utilizing self-discipline. But ultimately Superman. Because he’s the difference between man and God.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 23, 1999

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