A Heartless, Sensationalist Look at Suffering
Author: Kevin Hazzard
I remember when this book was first published and displayed as a Book of the Month pick – how desperately I avoided it at all costs and shuddered at the gruesomeness of a job that involves seeing and participating in some of the most heartbreaking moments of a person’s life. At the time, I was only a few years away from my father’s own heart attack and subsequent touch-and-go time in the ICU under experimental treatment. This was a book that was definitely going to trigger me and bring up some very brutal, complicated memories. I avoided it.
But, as the years have gone on, I’ve slowly become able to read medical true stories and even found myself with a terrified but grim curiosity. When A Thousand Naked Strangers popped up on Audible, right after I’d gotten through a few morbid true crime books in (more or less) one piece emotionally, I decided to see what all the hype was about. I was both disappointed and intrigued.
It begins with the author, Kevin Hazzard, feeling bored and inconsequential in the early aftermath of 9/11. He wanted to do something of value, and he also wanted to prove himself. Enter paramedic emergency medical training and Hazzard’s nine year stint on and off various ambulances across the down-and-out areas of Georgia.
Early on in his career, as he works his way up to paramedic, he identifies three types of people involved in the emergency medical game of life and death: “a tourist,” a “true believer,” and finally, a “killer.” He runs the gauntlet of each mentality during his decade’s long career, beginning the rough and tumble training with shocking pictures of cadavers in medical books (which puts some hopeful students off before training even begins), an out-of-it-professor, and a grim gauntlet of heart attacks, drug dens, traffic accidents (those are inevitably the worst), and even a murder (or two). A Thousand Naked Strangers starts as a personal journey and then evolves into a string of stories, giving readers all the gory details and bizarre sequences that they secretly tuned in to hear.
We have family members watching a beloved granny choke to death at the table, a stunned man covered in brains after a car accident he caused, pieces of bone stuck to the EMTs shoes, a guy at the bus stop with maggots falling from his face, and behind it all, the disconcertingly jocular Hazzard who sees everything as an entertaining game and has some pride in being above it all. The stories showcase the horrors and realities of an EMTs life – the risks they take, the expertise they have, the crucial decisions and accidents – but Hazzard’s own personal tone made me thoroughly dislike him while both respecting (and being amazed at) his chosen profession.
Hazzard starts out, admittedly, as a “tourist.” He’s here to see something interesting, just hoping for some sort of disaster to set his day spinning. While the readers are (admittedly) being ghoulish in our very interest and attraction to a book that promises real life tragedies for entertainment, Hazzard supersedes his audience. Enter – the “perfect call.” The perfect call is the confluence of bloodshed and dire events that the EMTs imagine performing perfectly at (if the patient or patients survive doesn’t matter.) I get that gallows humor is necessary in the medical and emergency field, where the lack of a sense of humor can lead to serious psychological trauma, but something about Hazzard’s sensationalism is inhuman. He wishes for disaster (a lot) and yet is self-righteous when people he encounters ask him for a weird story (which is really what this entire book is about.) I came away with the impression that it was all a lark for him, especially after the “perfect call” and the segment in the story where he engages in an ongoing political warfare with the police first responders in a cat-and-mouse game that literally puts innocent people in harm’s way. Ditto the fact that actual empathy seems to be lacking, and he treats his patients like future stories to tell over a few beers.
A Thousand Naked Strangers is valuable in that it displays how little EMTs, who risk their lives daily, are paid and how desperately difficult and yet utterly necessary their work is. It gives readers a glimpse into a world not otherwise seen, but the author harms his own narrative with a cavalier attitude. The gruesome tales are interesting, but the lack of empathy is more than a bit disconcerting, showing a side of Hazzard’s world and personality that I’m sure many readers will wish they had never seen.
– Frances Carden
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