Thursday, November 17, 2022

Q&A with Kevin Hazzard


Photo by Bonnie J. Heath Photography



Kevin Hazzard is the author of the new book American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics. He also has written the memoir A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back. A journalist, TV writer, and former paramedic, he lives in Atlanta.


Q: What inspired you to write American Sirens?


A: I spent 10 years as a paramedic, an experience I turned into a memoir (A Thousand Naked Strangers, Scribner 2016). Someone who’d read the book reached out to see if I’d ever heard of Freedom House [the Pittsburgh-based group that trained the first paramedics] and, despite the fact that I’d worked the job for a decade and had written about it, I hadn’t.


So I started to research the story and was immediately moved not just by stunning success of the first paramedics but also by the way they’d been trying for decades to bring the world’s attention to what they’d done. I simply wanted to see if I could help the cause. 


Q: The BookPage review of the book says, in part, “American Sirens is a stirring, ultimately heartbreaking story in which jaw-dropping medical innovation meets racial prejudice. After finishing Hazzard’s memorable account, readers will never hear an ambulance siren the same way again.” What do you think of that description, and what do you think the story of Freedom House says about medicine and race relations in this country?

A: I would push back on the heartbreaking aspect a bit. There are many aspects of the story that break your heart but I think—and the medics themselves second this notion—that the main takeaway of their story is not how it ended but how they’ve continued to use the experience to help change the world.


As I was working on the book, I kept marveling at how little things had changed since the ‘60s and ‘70s. Skepticism about medical advances, the reluctance to embrace new ideas, the stubbornness of prejudice, these are things Freedom House battled every day and we continue to deal with them now. 


Q: How did you research the book, and what role did John Moon--one of the key figures in the book--play in your research?


A: I tracked down any books I could find that touched on the subjects and was lucky enough to have a large trove of contemporaneous newspaper stories. I spent a lot of time in archives both in Pittsburgh and at Harvard, digging through the papers of several of the key players, including Nancy Caroline, Peter Safar, and Phil Hallen.


I also interviewed everyone I could get in touch with. John Moon was one of those people. He and I spoke countless times between 2018 and when then final edits were made in 2021. He was pivotal in telling the story.


Q: What do you see as Freedom House's legacy today?


A: There are a number of very tangible things both big and small (ambulance design, the introduction of Narcan) that can be attributed to Freedom House but I think their legacy is far richer and more complicated than that.


They are the progenitors of a vital and wildly successful branch of medicine. Anyone doing the job today owes them a debt of gratitude for sure, but they’ve also gifted us something else—a legacy of determination and resilience, of grace under extreme pressure. Their story greatly enriches the creation myth of EMS. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a story that took place in mid-century Los Angeles. It’s early in the process, but it resides at the intersection of medicine and law enforcement and is both urgent and a truly great story.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The events of American Sirens aren’t ancient history. This all went down just a couple decades ago. Racism and injustice aren’t simply relics of the past. They continue to this day and only in confronting them head-on can we hope to cure these ills.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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