The Power of Small Talk
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Health and Wellness

The Power of Small Talk

Learning the importance of simple conversation through the work of an EMT

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The Power of Small Talk

It’s always been a weakness of mine. You can put me on a stage in front of the entire student body and tell me to give a speech, and I won’t break a sweat. Sitting me down next to a stranger and telling me to make conversation, well that’s a different story. All my life I’ve waved it off. It’s useless. Why start a conversation with someone I’ve never met just to hear about how much warmer Texas is than New England, or how far outside of Boston someone lives. What do I take away from those conversations? What do I gain? After transitioning into my freshman year of college, and being forced into countless confrontations where small talk was the only way to avoid painstaking silence, I found the answer.

For four years in High School, I volunteered as an EMT at Darien EMS Post 53, in Connecticut. Post 53 is the only ambulance service in the country that is staffed and run by high school volunteers. To date, I have responded to nearly 500 medical emergencies, each of which has left me with a unique lesson. Not a day goes by where I try to reflect and find which lessons have become the most valuable. While there are far too many to choose from, there is one that stands out.

To my surprise, it did not come from the car accident that left a man trapped, unconscious, with six inches of bone protruding from his leg. It did not come from watching a young man weep before his deceased father, as I packed up my bags and exited the room. It came from a simple interaction. An interaction between a fellow EMT, and a patient.

We were called to a home one afternoon for an EDP (Emotionally Distressed Person). I was a new EMT at the time with little experience and was on duty with my friend and mentor Emma. Emma is the kind of girl who can sit down next to complete stranger, and within 10 minutes tell you their life story (as I mentioned, a situation that scares the shit out of me). It was only natural that she became one of my best friends. After arriving to the scene, we entered the home, bags in hand. We waited in the kitchen while a police officer spoke with the patient in another room. Calls such as this often do not require much medical care, rather just a transport to the hospital. So, we waited quietly in the kitchen. I scanned the room in an attempt to gather information on the patient. The condition of a patient’s home likely corresponds to their personality; key information when dealing with EDPs. All I noticed was the mountain of dirty dishes overflowing from the sink and a kitten asleep on its bed in the corner. A few more minutes passed, and the police officer had convinced the woman to come with us to the hospital, so we escorted her out to the ambulance.

Before we departed I checked her vital signs, as this was protocol, and asked some basic questions. The woman was very depressed, suicidal in fact, and to my surprise was willing to share why. She went on for a few minutes, and her story made me feel helpless, completely and utterly helpless. Just about everything that could have gone wrong in her life, had done so. And as we started toward the hospital, the back of the ambulance fell silent. What could I say? This woman’s life had completely fallen apart, and here she is in the back of an ambulance with a 16-year-old boy who’s had an EMT certification for only a couple of days. She doesn’t want to listen to me. What could I possibly say to make her feel better? Nothing, I thought. There’s nothing I can say that will make a difference right now. As soon as we drop her at hospital, she will forget all about any conversation we have. A few minutes went by, and this is what I told myself. In retrospect, I laugh at how wrong I was.

“Your kitten is adorable!” Emma told her. That was all it took. Its simplicity amazes me. We were constantly taught in EMT class how to deal with patients suffering from mental illness. What to say, what not to say, how to say it, etc. Not once did I think that saying “your kitten is adorable” could bring a smile to the face of someone who, just moments ago, had told the police officer inside that she wanted to take her own life. The conversation, filled with smiles and the occasional laugh, continued all the way to the hospital. The interaction was no more than small talk. It was a conversation between two strangers, filling the void of silence. What did Emma have to gain? That didn’t matter. She wasn’t the one having the worst day of her life.

It wasn’t until now,3 years later, that I have come to appreciate the significance of that interaction. A conversation that I so quickly avoided lifted the spirits of what seemed to be a hopeless soul. Although I can’t speak for the events that followed that ride to the hospital, I do know that for those 15 minutes, Emma made our patient feel better. For 15 minutes, she was able to smile, laugh, and most importantly, forget about her troubles. That conversation reminded her that even when it seems that all hope is lost, happiness is never too far away.

So next time you find yourself sitting next to a stranger, ask them how they’re doing. Ask them where they’re from, or better yet, tell them that their kitten is adorable. If you're lucky, you might make the worst day of their life a little bit better, and a little bit goes a long way.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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