Inside the life of a Jewish paramedic – An interview with Zach Cantor

“We're trained to approach medicine in a very algorithmic way. You remove the human from it because you must in order to deliver the best care. The approach to the traumatic patient or the medical patient is very systematic. It’s the patients who remind you of family members that make it hard, like when we go into a nursing home and the patient reminds you of your grandmother. That's the human and emotional connection and we don’t always talk about it, even though we experience it each and every day.”

These are the words of Zach Cantor, currently a Paramedic Education Coordinator providing continuing education for Eastern Ontario’s front-line paramedics. He gave an interview to the E-Bulletin to bring another dimension to an article he wrote in 2022 ( published this month) about an experience as a front-line paramedic in 2017. The article captured the emotional moment Cantor was confronted with antisemitism while preparing to save a life:

"My heart skips a beat. A knot forms in my stomach. I’m face-to-face with the embodiment of evil, etched permanently on the chest of the man fighting for his life, dependant on me for that fight. Unmistakably, unfathomably, it’s a giant Swastika."

Cantor was drawn to being a paramedic from a young age. He likes the medical side and detective work involved as well as the adrenaline that comes from the job, not to mention the variety of experiences and encounters. 

“You’re the first person to initiate medical care and that care is given indoors, outside, with the public watching, or anywhere else it is needed. It sounds cliché, but every day is different, and the work makes a huge difference in the lives of my patients.” 

In the article, Cantor describes what it felt like to treat an unconscious patient who had a swastika tattooed on his chest. It took him five years to process the event before he decided to share his story. His story was published in the Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine in June 2023. Read his story in his own words here.

As a result of his experiences and those of his colleagues, paramedic services have made more resources available for front-line paramedics to talk about how the patients they treat impact their mental health. 

“These experiences stay with you. I didn’t realize at the time, that it would take me so long to process this event.”

“Writing the article was cathartic for me. It gave me some closure and allows people to come into our world a little bit. It offers a lens into the human side of our work; the part the public doesn’t see. It lifted the veil on the challenges of the day-to-day work that are outside of the medicine,” Cantor said.

There are only a handful of Jewish paramedics in Ottawa, but the paramedic service is very diverse and there are many instances of a paramedic having to face a patient who makes their hate known. When a paramedic needs to talk about their experiences, there is a fantastic peer support network available. 

“There are also a lot of really great grassroots organizations like Boots On The Ground. The paramedic services have acknowledged that the job is hard both physically and mentally, so they have invested a lot of time and money into a support system.”

Cantor is an Ottawa native and a graduate of Hillel Academy, now the Ottawa Jewish Community School. He loves his work and knows that he is practicing pikuach nefesh (saving a life) and therefore doesn’t mind working weekends and holidays.