By Margaret Casteneda
My career has been a mixture of Emergency Medical Services, bartending, and news producing. But not all at the same time.
I began my EMS career at the behest of my best friend's brother. I was 16 and living at the Rescue Mission. One night, he drove me to the Mission after a gathering at their home. He saw the condition of the homeless shelter and started to cry. He said I was too smart to be living that way. He had taken the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course and said I would be perfect for it. He said I had street smarts and book smarts, and that I was emotionally tough when it came to the tragic things that life hands you. He handed me their business card and drove away.
I don't think he'll ever know how much that night impacted my life.
I worked as a waitress at a comedy club, as food server at a hospital, and did what I needed to do to survive until I turned 18. Then I found out that I wouldn't be able to work on an ambulance until I turned 21. Insurance will not cover EMTs under 21 and ambulance services will only make exceptions for paramedics that can't drive .
I became an Emergency Medical Technician in 1997, just 6 months shy of my 21st birthday. I wound up bartending at a small bar in La Union, New Mexico until my birthday. I met a few bikers and locals who made the time go by quickly.
I then received the call I had been waiting for. I was an employed Texas EMT! I was so nervous and excited about finally being able to use my skills and training in the field. For two and a half years, I served the county of El Paso, TX alongside some of the best EMTs and paramedics that ever graced the five boundaries of El Paso.
I learned that being in Emergency Medical Services is more than just showing up and using your skills and maybe saving a life. EMTs with a good camaraderie usually save more than just their community, they save each other. People think that firefighters, EMTs and paramedics have a gallows sense of humor, but they don't understand that it is a coping mechanism. We show up and start CPR on a 6 month old infant who had his head smashed into the wall because mom wanted him to shut up. Or a family that hasn't checked in on grandpa for a week wants us to bring him back when rigor mortis has set in. A drunk driver plows into a family, killing them all, but he walks into the back of a police car. There is no therapy or debriefing that can remove these images and emotions imprinted on our souls. What we did have was fishing at Rainbow lake by station one, practical jokes between stations 2 and 3 and company parties at Wet n' Wild. Those things made the rough calls just a little bit easier. I served my community for two and a half years before I needed a mental break.
I went to LA and tried my luck in the big city. I worked for a talent agency as a receptionist. My roommate was an agent's assistant for the adult theatrical department. We were two girls out on the town trying to find new talent and give some poor schmuck their big break. That's how I met my daughter's father.
My roommate and I went to The Hollywood Improv on Melrose. She didn't think you could find talent at a comedy club, but I told her that comics are the best actors for commercials. Their timing is impeccable and they are great at character creation.
My roommate saw a comic that she just had to talk to, not for talent, but for his phone number. I had to play wingman because he was there with a friend. His friend was wearing a black leather jacket and had hair like Brian May of Queen. We watched them on stage, and I must say, I was smitten. Rick didn't do your usual bathroom humor, his brand of cerebral humor made him even more appealing. After a few dates and some drunken nights, I think we both knew it probably wouldn't go anywhere. I decided my LA venture was done and headed back to Texas. A few months later, I found out I was pregnant. Getting back on a truck was no longer an option. Back to bartending.
My daughter was born and I moved back to LA. I was lucky to get hired by another talent agency, this time as an agent's assistant. I say “lucky” because my employers became my family. Neil, Sheila and Blair not only hired me, but they helped me outside of work. I came to LA with baby diapers and nothing else. They helped me furnish my empty apartment, toys and a swing for my daughter and even helped with baby clothes. I was and always will be appreciative of the opportunity and assistance that they gave me. They will never know how much I love them for giving me the hand up that I so desperately needed. Raising a daughter alone was difficult, but worth it. The folks at Commercial Talent made it even more accomplishable. I learned how casting works, time spans, head shots and BS resumes, and when your boss turns 50 and a random actor wannabe shows up at your birthday lunch at Spagos, you go with it...and take pictures.
After a year of fame and fortune, I returned to Texas to be closer to my family. Finding a job proved to be difficult and my daughter and I ended up in a one-bedroom apartment that was previously rented by a prostitute. Many a night I would get a knock on the door or window at 2 a.m. asking for Bubbles. I saw an ad for a website director at the local ABC affiliate, not much of a background was needed, other than enthusiasm for news and the ability to write. Before I had decided that college was not in my future, I wanted to become a journalist, investigate stories and tell the tales of the downtrodden. I took my chances and applied. I was amazed to receive a call for an interview.
The interview consisted of a spelling test: Condoleezza Rice and Arnold Schwarzenegger being on the list of words, geography and distances. Luckily for me, I had driven from Los Angeles to New York. The position was between myself, and a former news director from Ohio, whose husband had been transferred to El Paso. Needless to say, she was hired. The news director said he liked the way I wrote and not many people could pass the distance test down to the last mile. He asked if I wouldn't mind interning until a position became available. I didn't have to wait long before the I-Team investigator retired and I took his place.
My career in news sprang to life. It was amusing to me how much news producing was like EMS. Hectic, deadline-oriented, dramatic. And newsies have the same gallows humor as EMS people do. One day I would investigate "shady" landlords, the next day I would be sitting in court listening to a child murder case. I even investigated why the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission and the Sheriffs Department raid strip clubs and adult book stores at the same time.
There is a quirky law in Texas that states you can sell neck massagers, but they cannot be phallic-shaped. Neck massagers are sold at adult books stores, hence the raids. I had to reveal my investigation to the newsroom at our 10 a.m. meeting. The veteran anchor that everyone turned to with questions of journalistic integrity (who was also highly respected within the city) raised his hand and asked "is a cucumber still legal?"
I produced three morning shows in El Paso, had a short stint as a news writer in LA, then I went on to Fort Myers, Florida. I realized that news was starting to change. I had an executive producer order me to drop a story about five soldiers killed in Afghanistan to the "B" block and move a story on Brittney Spears appearing in court the following week to the "A" block. What I once thought was important for the viewer to know, no longer mattered. Instant gratification and sensationalized news became more the norm than the investigative news I’d produced when I started. I no longer looked forward to going in; it became a job instead of work. I hoped that moving to Las Vegas would change my opinion of the state of news and journalism. I think by the time I arrived, I was so burnt, I just wanted out.
I have been on an ambulance since I left news six years ago. I enjoyed my time on an ambulance in New Jersey, then made my way back home to Texas. I decided that was the time to obtain my paramedic license. There is a $20,000 difference in the cost of school from New Jersey to Texas. As a single mother, I felt saving $17,800 was a good idea.
I went from Emergency Medical Technician to EMS Liaison in the five years that I have been back in Texas. I maintained the relationships between five emergency departments and the first responders and emergency personnel in the west Texas region and southern New Mexico. I educated and accomplished many difficult feats, but with the economy and the uncertainty of health insurance and the Affordable Care Act, there were many lay offs, myself included.
My position at the hospital was eliminated in November, and yes, I received a two-week severance package and am now collecting unemployment. I'd rather be working. The job market everywhere is horrible, but in El Paso, it's ten times worse. I could jump back on an ambulance, but I can no longer afford to make $9 an hour. Between the rent, my car payment, supporting the kiddo and life, I can't afford to spend 12 hours on an ambulance to not make ends meet. The man who hired me for the hospital network knew that I not only had the connections of an EMT ground pounder, but the contacts from my tenure in the world of news. Why am I telling you all this? Because even with all the experience and knowledge in my noggin, I still can't find a job.
I have been on interviews where I have been told that I am overqualified, under-educated, and (so far my favorite) that I'd get bored. I continue to search, but nothing. I send out at least one resume a day, hoping something sticks. I was frustrated at first, but luckily, I have a fiancée who is supportive and understanding. It has made this endeavor easier. My first job was at the age of 15 at a pizza parlor, I am not accustomed to unemployment. It's scary not knowing if this is temporary or if we will have to leave this city to find a job.
I am appreciating this time that I can drop off and pick up my daughter at school, help her with her homework and science projects, go on hikes and road trips, and sometimes just camp out in the living room and giggle. The first 10 years of her life, I was her mother, father, caretaker and provider. Right now I am able to do the things with her that I did not have time to do before. I am taking this opportunity to study for my paramedic test. I volunteer my time with the fire department and the Drowning Prevention Coalition so that I don't go stir crazy at home. I no longer have an excuse for an untidy home or not going to the gym. Once I pass my paramedic test, the job search will change and the income will come back into play. But until then, this is strange for me. I am not hopeless. I guess there is something better waiting out there for me.