Paramedic: The rough trade

Originally from Mumbai, Jasmine Jasavala is one of the Toronto Emergency Medical Services' (EMS) most senior and well-respected members, and has been a paramedic since 1980. Jasavala picks me up at Kipling subway station and takes me to EMS station #39 in south Etobicoke, where she has worked for much of her career. We have a few minutes until her morning shift starts so she invites me to join her for a cup of saffron tea. As she hands me a mug the dispatch telephone rings and she turns to me, "we have to go!" Before I put the cup down, Jasmine and her partner are in the ambulance, waiting for me to catch up.

Paramedics are a highly visible part of Toronto's streets. In 1975, a number of private operators of ambulance services were amalgamated into Metro Toronto Ambulance, and in 1998 the name changed to Toronto EMS. Currently, the organization has 1,171 employees, 150 ambulances, and is the largest operation of its kind in the country.

The call takes us to a Goodwill store on Dundas Street West, where we find a confused woman recovering from a seizure. Jasavala makes her way towards the patient and warms up to her like an old friend. She puts her hand on the woman's shoulder, "Are you ok? Do you know what just happened to you?" Jasavala quickly learns that the woman is on medication, but hasn't been taking it. The woman takes a Bible out of her pocket, "This is my medication." Jasmine suggests to the woman that she come to the hospital but she refuses, emphatically. Jasmine spends a few minutes explaining to the woman why she needs to take her medication and makes sure she is stable before we leave the scene. Back in the ambulance she says, "I didn't really know what to say when she brought out the Bible. I mean, how can you argue with god?" she smiles. "I'm good, but I'm not that good."

Jasavala admits what just occurred is a routine event. "Many of our calls out here in Etobicoke aren't emergencies; they're more of a community service. Most people don't have the training needed to handle people with medical problems or mental disabilities. That's where we come in."

She goes on to tell me about the "old days" in the early 1980s when she first started working with Toronto EMS. "Back then" she recalls, "of the 300 or so paramedics, only 10 were women. You would come into the station and find Penthouse magazines lying about and Sunshine Girls posted on the walls. It was a very different place; an old boys club. We even had a policy that two women weren't allowed to work together."

When asked how difficult it was to work under such conditions, she admitted, "It wasn't that hard. I'd get comments from patients like 'I didn't know women were doing this kind of work.' Some of my coworkers' wives would even complain that they didn't want their husbands working with 'some woman.' Despite this, I never considered myself different and people accepted me for that. You had to be tough, and I was."

Back at the station, I ask her why she became a paramedic. She explains that she originally wanted to be a doctor. "When I came to Toronto, the government didn't recognize my educational credentials from India. I started working in the securities field and even waitressed for a few years. Then a friend of mine was taking his ambulance exam and told me I would be perfect in this line of work. I enrolled in Ambulance and Emergency Care at Humber College and thought to myself, 'I've arrived, this is my calling.'"

I asked her about some memorable calls. She thinks for a while, possibly scrolling through the thousands of people she has helped throughout her life. "There was one call while I was still a student. Someone had been assaulted on Isabella Street. The person ended up being a young gay man who was beaten up by a group of men because of his sexual orientation. When we arrived, he was hiding underneath a truck and wouldn't move. I remember crawling under the truck and talking with him. There were tears rolling down his eyes and he was trembling with fear. I started to cry with him and promised that nobody would hurt him if he came with us to the hospital. He held on to me the whole way, like a young boy being protected by his mother." She pauses, "There was no tolerance in those days. Toronto is so much better now."

After several decades of serving on Toronto's streets, most paramedics finish their careers in administration. Many suffer injuries, while others simply burn out. After 28 years, Jasavala has more seniority than any female still on the road and proudly avows she isn't going anywhere. "This is what I signed up for, this is where I belong."