Cindy Gorham sat in the back of the ambulance tending to a patient who was demanding painkillers. Gorham refused. The man grabbed a nearby pen and stabbed the Scarborough paramedic in the back of her hand.
Gorham quickly applied first aid to the puncture and got back to work. She never pressed charges, and the man later apologized.
This sort of incident, while not a common occurrence, does happen regularly, experts say, as emergency medical providers go about their business of giving aid to those in crisis. The irony is not lost on Gorham and other emergency workers who sometimes find themselves attacked by the people they are trying to help.
Next month, a Lewiston woman is scheduled to go to trial in Androscoggin County Superior Court on a charge of “assault on an emergency medical care provider” after allegedly hitting the face of an emergency medical technician who works for United Ambulance.
Faith Douglas, 28, was riding in the back of an ambulance on the way to Central Maine Medical Center a year ago when the assault happened, police said in court papers.
Douglas was “highly intoxicated” and was later found fighting with emergency room nurses who put her in restraints, the police report said.
The ambulance worker was asked whether he wanted to press charges. He said he did.
Not all assaults are prosecuted, emergency workers said.
Dave White, operations manager at United Ambulance, said assaults generally fall into two categories: voluntary and involuntary.
If a patient has lost control due to physical or mental illness, emergency workers are more forgiving and will often brush off the incident as part of the job.
But if a patient is drunk or abusing drugs or is just angry and lashes out at somebody who is there to try to help them, the assault is not as easily forgiven, White said.
“Those are the ones that bother us,” he said. “They should know better.”
White estimated that at least two of his roughly 100 workers is assaulted in some manner each month. Most injuries are not serious or lasting. Most are glancing blows, he said. Most go unreported, even to supervisors.
Broken glasses and scrapes and cuts are the norm, he said. One time a patient pulled a knife on him. A fellow worker was threatened by a patient who brandished a gun.
Although there’s always the risk of injury, it’s overshadowed by the emergency worker’s goal: to provide medical attention to patients in crisis.
“Most people don’t get into this profession expecting that to happen,” he said of the assaults.
Gorham, who’s also a full-time firefighter, has been in the emergency medical services for 20 years. Over the years, she said she believes the risk of injury at the hands of patients has been growing despite recent protocols that have emergency workers waiting for police before venturing into possibly hazardous situations.
“It’s a lot more dangerous out there now than it used to be,” Gorham said. “In more recent years, it seems to be more true, inadvertently or intentionally, they hurt you,” she said.
The added risk hasn’t soured her passion for the work.
“I love my job,” she said. “When that happens, I try not to take it personally.”
While assaults by patients are a constant risk in the life of an emergency medical worker, just getting to and from the scene is even more dangerous, both White and Gorham are quick to point out.
A Wilton paramedic was killed recently when the ambulance he was riding in collided with a pickup truck on Route 4 in Turner.
Ambulances are on the road to get patients the medical care they need as quickly as possible.
But fewer motorists seem to be pulling over for emergency vehicles these days, as required by law, Gorham said. Ambulance drivers sometimes jot down tag numbers but are more focused on navigating traffic, she said.