Synopses & Reviews
As half the esteemed writing team of Jane and Michael Stern, Jane Stern had achieved every success a writer can hope for: acclaim, bestsellerdom, and the opportunity to travel the world. But five years ago Stern found herself gripped by a terrible depression. She became reclusive and paranoid, immobilized by panic attacks and hypochondria. Ambulance Girl is the story of how she survived a midlife crisis and severe depression by doing exactly the opposite of what she had found comfortable for a lifetime. With humility and humor Stern recalls 140 hours of rigorous training in the classroom of an ex-Marine who did his best to frighten her off with EMT horror stories. She describes a night spent in a hospital ER dealing with a schizophrenic karate teacher who had just tried to kill his mother, and the confusion and sometimes pathos of her first calls as a rookie EMT. And as time goes by, Stern's new vocation opens her eyes to some of the secrets of human nature and the inner life of the town she had called home for 20 years.
As half of the esteemed writing team of Jane and Michael Stern, Jane Stern had achieved every success a writer can hope for. But five years ago she found herself gripped by a terrible depression. "Ambulance Girl" is the story of how she survived a midlife crisis by doing exactly the opposite of what she had found comfortable for a lifetime.
About the Author
JANE STERN is a contributing editor and columnist at Gourmet. She is the author, with her husband, Michael, of more than twenty books, including Roadfood, and a winner of the James Beard Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Sterns are regular contributors to National Public Radio’s The Splendid Table. They live in West Redding, Connecticut.
Reading Group Guide
Five years ago Jane Stern was a walking encyclopedia of panic attacks, depression, and hypochondria. Her marriage of more than thirty years was suffering, and she was virtually immobilized by fear and anxiety. As the daughter of parents who both died before she was thirty, Stern was terrified of illness and death, and despite the fact that her acclaimed career as a food and travel writer required her to spend a great deal of time on airplanes, she suffered from a persistent fear of flying and severe claustrophobia. But a strange thing happened one day on a plane that was grounded at the Minneapolis airport for six horrible, foodless, airless hours. A young man on a trip with his classmates suddenly became dizzy and pale because he hadn’t eaten in many hours, and there was no food left on the plane. Without thinking about it, Jane gave him the candy bar that she had in her purse. A short time later the color had returned to his cheeks, the boy was laughing again with his friends, and Jane realized that this one small act of kindness—helping another person who was suffering—had provided her with comfort and a sense of well-being.
It was shortly thereafter that this fifty-two-year-old writer decided to become an emergency medical technician, eventually coming to be known as Ambulance Girl. Stern tells her story with great humor and poignancy, creating a wonderful portrait of a middle-aged, Woody Allen–ish woman who was “deeply and neurotically terrified of sick and dead people,” but who went out into the world to save other people’s lives as a way of saving her own. Her story begins with the boot camp of EMT training: 140 hours at the hands of a dour ex-marine who took delight in presenting a veritable parade of amputations, hideous deformities, and gross disasters. Jane—overweight and badly out of shape—had to surmount physical challenges like carrying a 250-pound man seated in a chair down a dark flight of stairs. After class she did rounds in the emergency room of a local hospital, where she attended to a schizophrenic kickboxer who had tried to kill his mother that morning and a stockbroker who was taken off the commuter train to Manhattan with delirium tremens so bad it killed him.
Each call Stern describes is a vignette of human nature, often with a life in the balance. From an AIDS hospice to town drunks, yuppie wife beaters to psychopaths, Jane comes to see the true nature and underlying mysteries of a town she had called home for twenty years. Throughout the book we follow her as she gets her sea legs and finally bonds with the burly, handsome firefighters who become her colleagues. At the end, she is named the first woman officer of the department—a triumph we joyously share with her.
Ambulance Girl is an inspiring story by a woman who found, somewhat late in life, that “in helping others I learned to help myself.” It is a book to be treasured and shared.
1. Stern seems to find the experience of anonymity refreshing, even euphoric. Of her first day in a hospital emergency room, she writes, “I am just a spare pair of hands that day. I have no name, no authority…I am hooked.” Similarly, her strategy for getting through the terrifying experience of driving a fire truck for the first time is to tell herself, “I exist only in this moment. I have no history at all.” Why is this displacement of self so attractive to her? Do you see it as a form of denial, or as a healthy – perhaps even necessary – release from self-absorption?
2. Stern’s encounter with her “first dead guy” drives home the inevitability of unanswered questions in life. She wants to know why the man’s brother didn’t notice he was blue; why the brother suffers from a grotesque facial deformity; why the brother failed to call 911 earlier in the day. How does she deal with these unanswerable questions? And do we identify with her reactions?
3. Why does Stern call duct tape “the operative semantic symbol of the dividing line between Fairfield County snooty and Fairfield County down-to-earth.” How does the disparity between New Canaan—where Stern takes her EMT training, and “where the ambulance cot blankets look like the monogrammed coverings of show horses” —and Georgetown, mirror the disparity between Stern’s pre-EMT and post-EMT lives? How do Stern’s friends react to her sudden decision?
4. How does Stern’s induction into the EMT world alter her perception of her hometown? Why does she note that “Now when I stop at the service station my eyes are cast downward with humility”?
5. Stern’s moment of reckoning comes on a grounded plane, where she is trapped for six hours with no food, no fresh air, and a clogged toilet. Discuss her statement, “I died the thousand deaths of a coward before the plane finally took off.” What allows her to recall in retrospect the one moment on the plane when she “didn’t feel like the whole world was collapsing”? How do you think Stern would react to being trapped for six hours on a grounded plane today?
6. The class about head injuries throws Stern completely off balance? What painful family memories does the session dredge up, and why does she remind herself, “It is important to know that there will not be anyone waiting under the window to kill me”? What simple gesture snaps her back to reality? Why?
7. As she volunteers at the low-tech, profoundly un-scary Georgetown Haunted House on Halloween, Stern contemplates a lifetime of being fearful. She writes, “Knowledge replaces terror for me, and instead of being afraid I can now safely watch one of the Heibeck brothers’ young sons lying on a table, covered with raw chicken livers, screaming as if he is having live surgery performed on him.” In what way does this sum up the theme of Stern’s memoir?
8. When John, a beloved father figure to Stern and her husband, emerges from a two-week coma, he is brain damaged, partly paralyzed, and has lost all memory of his rich life. Stern is devastated to realize that, in certain circumstances, a successful EMT “save” is perhaps no more than a crass intervention in what might be a timely death. How does this realization affect her? How does it change the EMT work she performs in the following weeks?