Spotlight: Holly Sherman
Centered around the work of emergency workers in the vibrant city of New Orleans, Nightwatch brings the life-saving action from the front lines directly to your television screen. One of the first responders who leads the way is Holly Sherman, the lively and passionate EMT of the New Orleans EMS. We sat down with Holly to learn more about her career, from the craziest stories on the job to what keeps her going through the long, grueling night shifts, and how she feels about saving lives with the cameras rolling.
Q: How did your involvement with the show first come to be? How were you first approached or informed about the show?
A: Dick [Wolf] had actually originally met a group of EMTs out in the street, fell in love with them, and said, “I’m going to make a TV show about you.” It was just a funny story that they told, because they never thought it would happen. And then it did. They interviewed people in pairs with their normal partners who they would run the streets with. I don’t know if I was initially chosen for that reason, but one day I was walking through the parking lot getting ready for work. I’m heavily tattooed, loud, funny, and very boisterous. I think it may have been the time that Dick Wolf and Rasha Drakovitch (Producer) were at the office together.
I think it was Rasha who asked Titus Tero who I was. Titus and I have been friends since I was 17 years old, and we were in EMT school together. And so he was like, “Oh, that’s my girl, Holly. She’s a great medic with a great personality.” And that was it from there. They contacted me and asked me if I would do it. Of course, I said yes, but I had no idea what it was going to be. I thought it was going to be an hour-long YouTube special. We literally thought it was going to be some obscure thing that maybe a few people would see.
Q: How did you adjust to having cameras on you and production crews following you while you’re doing such an intense job?
A: For me, it was easy because my number one focus is, and always will be, the patients in front of me. The guys on the crew are super professional, and very intuitive. They pick things up quickly, so they never get in our way. They’ve ever so beautifully and gently slid out of the way, even if we were going to reach for something. I think their professionalism mixed with ours made it very easy, and to have them just work around us and actually have them film our real job in real-time without any do-overs .I feel like that makes it very simple.
Q: Can you explain how production on Nightwatch works? Are there always camera crews riding along in the ambulance? Are all calls filmed? If not, how is it determined which calls are filmed?
A: There is a whole production team in each ambulance and in each sprint car. In the ambulance, there are a lot more people. There’s the producer, there’s usually the main camera, there’s maybe a second camera, and then there’s the sound mixer. They go on each and every call. When we step out, they also step out and the producer will usually at some point try and ask the family, ‘Hey, we’re filming the show, is it okay if we follow the paramedics along?’ And so it’s not something that we really deal with. Sometimes we do, obviously, because we are from New Orleans, and we do connect with the public. We have a relationship with them. And so sometimes they’ll see the crew and ask us what’s going on, and we tell them it’s Nightwatch and for the most part they’re okay being filmed. Especially now that we’re so many seasons in, and it’s a New Orleans-based show, everybody in the city loves it. It’s pretty easy for us to get people to say yes to being filmed.
Q: Has the show put parameters on storylines? Are there topics or scenarios that they are unable to air?
A: Obviously some calls are extremely traumatic for the people running them. And so there are some calls that they typically won’t even attempt to film. For instance, a pediatric cardiac arrest, which is when you have a baby that stops breathing, and their heart stops beating, and we’re attempting to resuscitate them to bring them back to life. They typically won’t try to film things like that, just because it’s so traumatic. I mean, realistically, they try to film everything, but these are real people, these are their real stories with real trauma.
Q: What was your journey to becoming a paramedic? What about this job appealed to you? What kind of training was involved?h
A: It was completely accidental. A friend of mine was a paramedic, and I really had no understanding of what a paramedic was. But my friend was like, ‘Hey, they’re offering this EMT course that’s one month, and they’re giving a $2,000 bonus. I’ll split it with you.’ I was 17, so I was like, ‘Oh, a thousand dollars, sign me up.’
I was completely shocked by the information I was learning. I was never a medical person nor did I ever have medical interests. I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was a small child, but I would say that within the first two weeks of actually being in an ambulance and working, I was completely hooked, and I felt like it definitely was my life’s calling. So I never looked back and everything completely changed for me. Before Katrina, I was planning to go to college, but when it hit, I ended up actually graduating at 16 years old with a diploma from a school I never attended. Every plan that I had was disrupted, but when I fell into EMS on accident, it ended up being the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I think I would have been miserable as a lawyer.
Q: What do you think it is about EMS that hooks people?
A: I think the realization that you are actually doing something very special and unique. I think most people see ambulances all the time, but they don’t really understand what’s going on within it. I think people have a general assumption that an ambulance is just picking people up and driving them to the hospital. They don’t realize that we actually provide life-saving care. We have the same technical and clinical skills that doctors are using in the emergency room. We’re doing some of those same things in an ambulance. And it’s fun and very free. There’s a lot of autonomy, and it’s different every single day you go to work. I think that’s pretty addicting.
Q: How do you think that being a frontline worker in a city makes you connect to that environment in ways that you otherwise wouldn’t?
A: I get to see every walk of life in the city, from rich to poor, from the not-so sick to the very sick. We have interactions with people from every walk of life throughout the city, and it makes you appreciate people and it makes you appreciate the city because we also know the city in and out, which is not something that other providers can say. The fire department, they stick to their area. The police, they stick to the area that they work in. We run through the entire city without any boundaries.
Q: Can you see yourself ever working as a paramedic in another city?
A: No, I really couldn’t. New Orleans EMS instantly became my home. I moved back here from Baton Rouge after being displaced from Hurricane Katrina. I love this city, and I love the people. And then the service itself, the comradery that exists and the protocols that we have, it’s very progressive. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
Q: What is the most challenging part of being a New Orleans EMS?
A: I would have to say the violence that we deal with. The constant exposure to a very high amount of violence and trauma. It takes its toll on any person. It’s very hard to go to work day in and day out and see people constantly hurt and killed. We have an exposure that the rest of healthcare does not have because we are exposed to the scene at its most basic, raw form. We see the family in the middle of the street, screaming when someone gets shot or hit by a car or commits suicide, and we are actually exposed to the raw moment when it’s actually happening versus us bringing this person to the hospital.
Q: How do you handle the stress of dealing with constant emergencies?
A: I don’t find it stressful. It’s oddly my happy place. It’s the place where I can get away from any stress that I have. I think it’s because I’m so comfortable doing it. I truly believe that I was made for this job. My brain just handles it. I think I have a really good conceptual understanding of life and death and everything in between. I feel very fulfilled helping people, and I’m good at it because I have given myself the time and opportunity to self-educate to the point of comfortability. So I don’t get scared of phone calls.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: The fulfillment that you get from making a difference. I’ve had people whose hearts stopped beating, and they stopped breathing. If we did not exist, they would go into a pine box and be buried underground. But there have been times in my career where I have successfully resuscitated somebody, and I’ve seen them walk out of the hospital, and I’ve shaken their hands. Getting to talk face-to-face with somebody who was actually dead for a period of time is addicting; it’s a high that you can’t compare.
One of my most memorable calls was with the “Mardi Gras Indians.” They’re of Native American heritage, and they settled in the city long, long ago and they have become a staple in the city as their bloodline has continued. It’s an honor to ever meet them and talk to them in person because they have so many amazing stories, and they have such a strong, rich heritage. One of the grandmothers went into cardiac arrest, and her heart stopped beating. She stopped breathing. She was clinically dead, and we successfully resuscitated her and brought her to the hospital. I didn’t think about it at all after that, I just went on to the next call and two weeks later, I got sent to that address because the family called and asked if we could come and pass by. I walked in and remembered the house once I got there. Sometimes, on the rare occasion, we’ll have somebody call us and thank us for what we did, and so that’s kind of what I was expecting. But when I walked in, this woman who had been dead two weeks prior was sitting in a chair, and she talked to us, she hugged us, she cried with us. She gave us these special feathers and these beautiful Indian names and said this amazing prayer for us. And then they gave us some food and sent us on our way. It was a very solid, real, amazing, wonderful experience that I will never forget.
Q: What is it about the night shift that makes your work so important?
A: My dad worked nights, and I always thought that was kind of cool. My dad was a career welder, but he worked nights and it was something that I grew up with. I fell into it, and it’s a different world. It’s different when somebody calls at three o’clock in the morning and they say they’re short of breath. They’re usually really short of breath. So, it’s usually a really good call. You do get a lot more trauma at night, which we all thrive on, as hard as it is to see repeatedly. It makes it interesting. It’s very challenging, because trauma is so different.