You Can’t Save Them All

Editorial Note: Last August, I asked eight dance artists at different points in their careers what “making it” means to them. Their responses were so poignant that I decided to make every August “making it” month and continue posing the question to various dance artists. Please join us this month in looking at what “making it” means as a dancer, artist and human. -Emmaly Wiederholt

On Call with SFFD Paramedics from Rebekah Fergusson on Vimeo.


At about five AM we get a dispatch. Someone’s husband is breathing oddly and she can’t wake him up. Lights, sirens, and seconds saved; our boots pound up the stairs, heavy with equipment to save his life. We do everything and we get nothing. This man has passed away despite the fact that we exhausted all of our resources, skills, and training. We were all hopeful and we were all devastated (none more than his wife who stood watching this tragedy unfold around her). Feeling angry and insignificant comes easily. A profound disappointment surrounds us. It tells us that all the work, care and dedication does not seem to impact anything. But this call is not about you, and your life is not about one call. The success in emergency medicine, just as in dance, comes from the committed investment over a series of fleeting triumphs and disappointments. Sometimes you get to be the hero, you get the solo role or coveted grant. And sometimes it’s not about you.

I am a professional dancer and I am a professional medical care provider. The passionate pursuit and investment in both fields has made me better at each one. I feel successful in both fields, but I haven’t “made it” in an obvious or traditional manner with regards to dance. Being selected to join the ranks of the San Francisco Fire Department is certainly a rare honor. If it were a dance company I’d have “made it.” Sometimes I feel unsteady, sometimes I am confident. But I experience both emotions in dance and in medicine. Even though I have stumbled into external validation in one field and it has escaped me in the other, I don’t feel any differently about my footing in either one. An external idea of success does not change the internal emotional environment. So this is an unreliable measurement. Even as my emotions may vacillate, I am deeply satisfied with my work in the studio, on stage, and on the streets of San Francisco.

A younger version of myself might have been disappointed because she thought I’d be in a big ballet company soaking up the spotlight. I can placate her concerns by showing her the bucket-list-items I have crossed off and saying those things we’re always telling each other to fortify our own legitimacy. But ultimately the act of checking a box or meeting an expectation falls short of importance. Of course I’m proud to say I’ve performed on this stage, in that city, presented my work here, danced with them there. Those have been unforgettable experiences; but they are fleeting. They come and go as quickly as a life saved or a life lost to those doing the work in emergency medicine. The memories resonate for years but the action occurs in a finite fleeting moment of success or failure that is largely out of your control. To look through a microscope at each dance performance and medical call can be revealing, but those moments cannot be recaptured.

What persists for me in both art and science is the work. In physics you learn “work” is related to force but there must be a displacement: an overall change for it to count. If an object doesn’t move: no work is done regardless of the force applied. To do work you cannot remain in a stagnant (however elevated) place of prestige. The successes and failures we all experience are effects but they do not define our work. For me there is always further to climb and deeper to dig and I aspire to never run out of territory.

The satisfaction and glory of performing on stage is rarer than I’d like. But the effort and the pursuit is a part of the success in dance. I get a nightly dose of “performance” responding to shootings and stabbings, long falls and heart attacks. Dancing allows the stress to dissipate and the focus to shift from others to my own body. That does not make it a hobby (in case you were wondering). You cannot spend years of training, investment and work to then relegate a professional passion to a hobby. I may not perform in several shows each month or draw (small) stipends from multiple projects/companies. But in many ways, this is a relief. I work deeply and for extended time on a single meaningful project, and my focus is allowed to settle and discover. Success has different recipes and manifests in different forms.

Sometimes I worry that I’m not dancing enough or not performing enough; I am not enough. Sometimes I have to say “no” to a dance project I think I would enjoy because of my schedule. But working on an ambulance is not merely a means to support my dancing. Providing emergency medical care to my neighbors is a deeply fulfilling honor. The fact that it is fairly compensated allows me the financial flexibility to invest my time in dance projects that nourish more than my bank account. When I have an incredible shift where I get to be the hero, I am as high on humanity as I am when I’m on the stage. Performing arts and medicine both provide a fun adrenaline rush, but so does bungee jumping. For me the sense of human connection, generosity, and meaningfulness are what keep me deeply investing in my work. Those things happen in the studio, and on the simple calls. Sharing your art with a friend can be just as powerful as performing in front of thousands. Getting someone’s slippers before we go to the hospital can mean more to our patient than oxygen.

Before a big performance, my dad sent a text message wishing me luck. I told him I was nervous and he said “good.” He then wrote that being nervous means you care. When you are prepared, the nerves allow you to excel more than is possible in practice. He told me when you stop being nervous it’s time to stop what you’re doing. So whether the butterflies come from technical choreography on an uneven stage or a decompensating patient that I must care for, I go into my jobs well prepared, full of care, and with some helpful butterflies. When you always try your best, you always have somewhere further to go.


Raised in Oklahoma, Kaitlin Parks began her ballet training with Yu, Leidi. After attending Idyllwild Arts Academy for high school she found a home at the SF Conservatory of Dance under the direction of Summer Lee Rhatigan. While training in the year round Conservatory program, she attended the SF Paramedic Association’s EMT program and became an EMT in 2008. She currently works with the San Francisco Fire Department on an ambulance responding to 911 calls throughout the city. Most recently she has performed with Joe Landini, Joy Prendergast, Eric Kupers and collaborates in long-distance dance and film pieces with

The introductory video was produced in partnership with One Day in SF and One Day on Earth. All footage was shot in the wee hours of Saturday, April 26, 2014. Directed/Shot/Edited by Rebekah Fergusson. Music by William Ryan Fritch. Special thanks to Kaitlin Parks, Matt Bean, and the SFFD for allowing a filmmaker into their world for the night.

Photo by Samantha Waidler