Cindy Briere rarely gets a day — or night — off.
Recently, she worked alone in the back of a speeding ambulance trying to stabilize a person suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.
After an hour of trying to stabilize the patient’s breathing with a manual ventilator, the patient died from a severed aorta.
Briere said in the heat of the moment she has to stay completely focused on the task of stabilizing her patient and anticipate what could go wrong.
“You could blink and something changes,” Briere said.
Although she said this was a particularly severe incident, it’s not uncommon for Briere to see things like this on a weekly basis. She’s a 13-year veteran of ATI — short for Ambulance Transportation, Inc. As a critical care paramedic, she’s responsible for the successful transfers of patients from lower level hospitals to trauma centers — hospitals equipped to treat patients with life-threatening injuries — throughout Chicago.
From its mid-sized warehouse on South Stewart Avenue, ATI operates 28 ambulances, including two devoted to critical care. The critical care ambulances are usually out on patrol, and it’s in the backs of these that Briere works from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. often three nights per week primarily dealing with the city’s epidemic of gun violence.
“In a week, [with] 12 hours shifts, I would say probably anywhere between 60 percent to 70 percent of the runs that I do … are directly related to some kind of violence,” Briere said.
In the past five to six years, Briere said she’s seen an increase in gun violence in the city.
“I feel like everybody is collateral damage, and they’re shooting without limits,” Briere said.
Shooting incidents in the city this year through April 2 are up 67 percent compared to that same time period four years ago, according to Chicago Police Department crime data.
Briere said she does a lot of patient transfers from the South and West Sides of the city. Hospitals such as Roseland Community Hospital, St. Bernard Hospital, Norwegian American Hospital and West Suburban Medical Center commonly treat people who suffer violence and need trauma care, according to Briere.
“Let’s say that someone gets shot on the West Side and their friends drop them off at West Suburban. Now West Suburban, not a bad hospital, but it’s not a trauma center, meaning they don’t have trauma surgeons [and] they don’t have the capability of taking care of critically injured patients,” Briere said. “So we go there, we package [them] and get [them] as stable as we can and transfer them … to a trauma center where they need to get.”
Due to Briere’s role in the care of trauma patients, she deals with critical patients on a nightly basis. She said she witnesses how cruel humans can be to one another first hand.
“I don’t necessarily ask why. I do find myself saying how. How can be people so cruel to each other?” Briere said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever come up with an answer.”
Even with the extensive years of schooling and on-the-job experience it takes to become a critical care paramedic, Briere said nothing prepares anyone for the emotional side of her job.
“At the end of the day, you’re dealing with human life, and they teach you how to fix it and how to maintain it,” Briere said. “They don’t necessarily teach you how to deal with it on a personal or an emotional level.”
As a result, Briere has had to do her best to detach herself from the patients she deals with. She constantly reminds herself that no matter what happens, she will be safe at the end of the night and that once a patient reaches that trauma center, they are no longer her problem to worry about.
“You definitely become calloused over time,” Briere said, adding that it’s not an easy process and must come with experience.
“I think it depends on where you come from … and how you’re brought up and just different things that you’ve experienced in life [affect] how easily you’re able to make that transition to ‘This is your job.’”
Briere grew up in the Logan Square neighborhood on the Northwest Side, an area notorious for gang violence. She said it’s probably that background that let her easily adapt to the harsh realities of violence in the city.
Still, when patients die in the back of Briere’s ambulance, when she witnesses children in critical condition or when she takes care of sexual assault victims, it can stay with her. She said the worst thing a person can do is ask a paramedic to recall the worst thing they’ve seen.
In reflecting on her role as a paramedic, Briere said the defining characteristic of her job is to provide human interaction not just to her patients, but to their loved ones as well.
“It’s that human compassion that I feel like is really key,” Briere said. “Sometimes that gets lost, and I try to make sure that I do maintain that awareness that these are people and we’re dealing with people really in the worst times of their life, when they’re at their lowest, and you just have to be a human being.”
That compassion has driven Briere to check up on past patients, reassure the families and friends of patients outside trauma centers and even attend the funerals of patients who died despite her care.
“Sometimes you can’t shut off the human side completely,” Briere said.