Overcoming fear behind the wheel of an ambulance

Hello from North Haven!

Driving and island life are deeply connected for me. Although I took driver’s ed in high school, I never got comfortable enough behind the wheel of a car to get remotely enough hours to go for my license. I lived in Providence, and then Boston, where it’s very easy to get around on foot or via public transportation.

But when the phone call came, out of the blue, inviting me to apply for the music and theater teacher position at North Haven Community School, I realized the bell had tolled for me, and it was time to get my license.

I enrolled with Friendship Auto School, and an extremely patient but frequently mortified Haitian man guided me through the streets of Somerville, Massachusetts, as I flinched and winced and panicked. I passed my test on the second attempt, after parking the car in the middle of the road on the first try. The student before me had driven her car right up on the sidewalk and I definitely wasn’t going to make that mistake.

I hastily learned how to drive a stick, as the car Bill and I would have on the island was his ancient and venerable Toyota truck, but was jittery behind the wheel. This almost ended in disaster as we drove the truck from San Diego to Boston, and I pulled out into the wrong lane in Iowa. I didn’t drive again until we were on island.

I drove the truck some, never without Bill in the passenger seat, constantly fretting about damaging it with my twitchy braking. I got my own tank-like Saab that winter, then a Honda Accord with excellent gas mileage and poor visibility. I even drove it on the mainland, but managed to back into three parked cars with it, too. I switched to Rav 4’s after that, but stopped driving on the mainland (except for a few medical emergencies) after I got pulled over for driving too slowly in Waldoboro.

All this to say that although I love being an EMT, learning to drive the ambulance has always been last on my list of priorities. So when my crew chief told me that not only was an AVOC course being offered this spring, but that she expected me to take it, I agreed, but inside I was in a full panic.

The first day of the class was a didactic session – a powerpoint, enlivened by our excellent teacher (who also taught my First Responder course a million years ago), about all the ways you can crash an ambulance. When he said “Now, are any of you the kind of driver who doesn’t see someone wave? If so, you’re probably not going to be the best ambulance driver,” I blushed with shame. That’s me exactly. If I look to see if someone’s waving, I immediately start to steer towards them. When he mapped out the complex star pattern we might be expected to drive – IN REVERSE – I muttered “ye gods” under my breath. My classmates heard. They all knew me well enough to know how terrified I was.

The driving session was the following morning. I learned how to turn on the master switch, and then hauled myself up into the driver’s seat. I adjusted it as far forward as it could go, although even then my feet barely reached the pedals. My crew chief sat in the passenger seat, calmly explaining how to move from park to drive to reverse as I suppressed a nervous giggle.

We began with the serpentine course. Driving forwards through it – very slowly – I got a sense of the bulk of the ambulance. Reversing through it – even more slowly – with constant supportive coaching, I was pleasantly surprised at the growing comfort I felt. I drove the ambulance down the road to the station, and again with a lot of direction and support, backed it into our narrow bay without bumping into the walls, or any of our equipment. Driving back to the school parking lot to continue the cones course, I even got it up to 20 miles per hour (the speed limit was 30, but at least nobody was about to pull me over!)

I finished the cones course with only one cone nicked, thanks to the patience of my crew chief and our instructor, and felt an exhilarating rush as I put the ambulance in park. Although nobody in their right mind would schedule me as an ambulance driver – the ambulance would be the last to arrive on scene for sure – in a pinch, I was able to drive it. And, I had overcome a lot of anxiety to even sit in the driver’s seat!

The good feeling lasted all day. That afternoon, my husband suggested we take the whaler into Perry’s Creek, a calm inlet around the other side of Vinalhaven. It was choppy in the Thorofare, but calm in the creek. I mentioned that it was too bad Bill wouldn’t be around when my mother comes to visit in a few weeks, or we could do a Vinalhaven trip with her.

“You could drive the boat,” he said. “After all, you just drove an ambulance.”

Driving the boat, wind in my hair, basically a world conqueror

We switched seats, and in the flat calm of Perry’s Creek he taught me the basics. Compared to what I had just done, this was a cinch, and I felt good enough to drive it all the way back to North Haven, through little whitecaps in the Thorofare and even up to the town float.

After all, I had just driven an ambulance. It’s possible that I can do anything.


Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to kveller.com, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for reformjudaism.org, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!