Book Review - Grady paramedics at center of Kevin Hazzard's 'Strangers'

A bold new memoir reveals the secret life of public health professionals

Ask any Atlantan about Grady Memorial Hospital and they'll have something to say. Some may call it a lifesaver. Their own campaign touts, "Atlanta can't live without Grady." Others may call the 123-year-old institution a nuisance, central to crime scenes and indebted by service to the indigent, while many natives proudly exclaim their, "Grady baby" status.

Author Kevin Hazzard could call Grady his life. His experience is chronicled in A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, slated for release at the top of 2016. The former journalist felt drawn toward a public service career in the tense days and weeks following the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks. Instead of entering the military as many of his Citadel classmates did, Hazzard decided to become a paramedic. Introspection in the wake of a national disaster and the author's terrified response to an accident scene in his youth informed what eventually lead to a life changing decision.

"I didn't grow up wanting to be an EMT," he writes, "nor do I know if I'll like it. What I do know is I want to get hip-deep in the things that matter." Hazzard quickly found out how all lives matter — most of them black — in the complicated business of saving them. The restless then 20-something knew that employment with Grady represented the pinnacle of medic valor in the beleaguered emergency care field — one that would test his mettle and prove dedication to his new career.

While Hazzard ultimately found himself through his unusual career leap, his early observations of the paramedic life are unsettling: "Disturbing as it may be, the raw truth is that often enough, the people showing up to your medical emergency often do so because this was the only respectable job they could get with a GED and a clean driving record."

Hazzard's gift for writing swift prose matches the adrenaline of the emergency scenarios without losing any nuance of the characters — both his colleagues and the patients. The stories of the often poor, drug-addicted, or mentally challenged people he encounters on each call are told with a compassion and humor that never compromises the seriousness of each situation. He also doesn't shy away from the racial and socioeconomic dynamics in the days before areas like the Old Fourth Ward became hip hangout spots with luxury apartments — and does so without politicizing.

If you're easily grossed out, brace yourself, as Strangers spares no details. Hazzard makes sure you see, hear, and smell everything packed in every chapter where a single series of passages contains more blood, guts, and gore than a season of "Grey's Anatomy." A nasty stabbing incident is made vivid: "Puncture the skin, really puncture it, and fatty tissue explodes out like a pink mushroom cloud. It stays that way wobbling like chewed bubble gum, until it's stuffed back in and the hole is closed."

Unlike the top-rated TV drama, however, Hazzard offers no love stories (at least not conventional), or neat conclusions — in many instances we never know if the patients live or die — as he returns to the next call in the unending perils of dark Atlanta streets.

His detailed, frustrating, and often laugh-out-loud stories will cause you to view the familiar checkerboard patterned trucks and blaring sirens without contempt, but the full respect of courageous professionals that work one of the hardest jobs in the country.

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard. Scribner. $25. 288 pp.

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