An EMS physician triumphs over tragedy
following a horrific, nearly fatal injury
By L. Michael Peterson, DO
“The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.”—Vince Lombardi
Every day I remind myself that I do what I love and how that came to be. As medical director of several EMS entities in West Virginia, including a large aeromedical service and a community college paramedic
program, most people would consider that I’m at
the pinnacle of my career. But I didn’t
land on my mountain top intentionally. I reached the summit through
grace which evokes within me a sincere sense of gratitude.
I’m on top of my mountain, but
each person must decide what their
mountain is. My position in EMS
allows me the opportunity to give back
and to make good on the promises I
made to God and to myself to honor
those who helped me along the way,
particularly the EMS crews that saved
my life—twice—and allowed me to
become worthy of all the blessings bestowed
As EMS providers, we often fail to realize
our impact on patients and we also fail to realize their impact on us.
We each have our own story. Some stories
may seem greater than others. Some stories are
more dramatic, yet some go unnoticed.
This is my story, my descent into hell and
how EMS saved my life for the third time. It’s a
story about grace and gratitude and is intended
to convey respect to all who participated in my
life’s successes and failures.
It’s a story about duty, honor and acknowledgment. It’s about showing how you can work
through stress, despair and hopelessness. How
you can carry on when tragedy strikes and enjoy
a new and gratifying career. I ask that you follow me through this journey and recognize that
what you do every day matters.
When I was seven years old, I dreamt of becoming a police officer like my father, a California Highway Patrol officer. One of the earliest
moments when I realized that I wanted to follow in his footsteps occurred one night as I
watched my mother cry.
Mom woke my brother, sister and me from
sleep one night and gathered us around the tele-
vision. Four California Highway Patrol officers
were gunned down by two suspects they were
attempting to apprehend in Newhall, Calif. Our
father was on duty in the same area. We watched
the news as each officer’s academy graduation
photo appeared on the screen and we hoped
that none of them would be our father’s.
I would later experience the line of duty
death of another of my father’s close friends
and partners and see the devastation it caused
for a family. I also learned about the culture of
public safety and just how special the communities of police, fire, EMS and dispatchers are.
These experiences made me more steadfast
in my belief that I wanted to be one of those I
admired and respected.
At the age of 21, I was accepted
into the police academy. It was a proud
moment for both me and my father.
I finally had my chance to become a
member of the first responder and
public safety community.
The police academy training fully
immersed me in the police/public service mindset, teaching me that there
was much more to the culture and
that professionalism, teamwork and
doing what was right for the community were more important than any
Trust, integrity, loyalty and pursuing the
common good were at the forefront of everything I was about to do.
FIRST EMS ENCOUNTER
I had my first personal encounter with EMS
early on a Christmas Eve morning, when I
received a radio call regarding multiple suspects at a liquor store. I rapidly proceeded to
the corner market, failing to hear the dispatcher’s notification that I had no back up available.
As I arrived on scene, two suspects exited,
with one proceeding northbound, away from my
I made the decision
that my life would end
there on the pavement,
& bleeding to death.