This is Essential: Leah Basarab - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

During the coronavirus pandemic most people have been forced to work from home or, worse yet, they’ve been laid off or furloughed. But not everybody. We decided it would be interesting and important to shine a spotlight on some of the essential workers who are also members of our music community for a new series we’re calling This Is Essential.

When she was a child growing up in the York area, Leah Basarab had two main goals in life: she wanted to play music and she wanted to be a paramedic. She started on the first at four years old with piano lessons, later falling in love with the bass, her current instrument. You might recognize her from the absolutely electric post-punk outfit Rainbow Crimes or maybe you saw her old two piece Ex. By V. at one of the countless shows they played over the years. She’s also been practicing emergency medicine for more than two decades. Those twin goals have not just been accomplished, they’ve been exceeded.

If you don’t know what a paramedic does, Basarab explained that, “You’re doing pretty advanced procedures. [It’s] the same procedures that physicians do, that nurses do, but you’re doing them out in the field.” That includes dealing with all manner of life-threatening conditions like heart attacks, strokes, and the like but also treating patients who have just been in car accidents or suffered gun shot wounds or drug overdoses. She’s been at the job for 19 years, ten of which have been in the Philly area, and has been in emergency medicine for a total of 21 years. “I started as an EMT,” she explained. “Then I went to school to be a paramedic.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, her responsibilities both to herself and others have increased exponentially. Her basic job duties haven’t changed that much – she’s still treating all the same injuries she was before, just in beefed up safety gear and with a heightened sense of awareness – but she said there’s a much greater feeling of anxiety and fear that accompanies her everywhere she goes. Despite all this, she sees no reason to stop being a paramedic. Basarab loves her job and loves helping people, even – or maybe especially – in times of crisis.

While her time in punk and DIY have certainly influenced her medical career, this interview is “one of the few times I’ve actually spoken publicly about my job” she told The Key. Although it’s clear she’s immensely proud of everything she’s done, she also definitely believes in, as she put it, “putting your head down and doing the work.”

Still, she’s working on a book about the political aspects of emergency medicine and has been incorporating those themes and stories into her music. “I see myself talking about it more,” she said. In her time off she’s been writing – she told The Key she’s up to 90 pages – and working on an ongoing solo project called Low Moan Hover.

Leah Basarab playing in EX. By V. in 2011 | Photo by Yoni Kroll

The Key: Tell me a bit more about your own history as a paramedic.

Leah Basarab: I’ve worked in a little bit of everything: rural settings, industrial setting, and currently I work right outside of Philadelphia in a very densely populated, very urban area that’s very busy. It’s just a constant on-the-go place to work. My job specifically is to basically bring the emergency department to the street and into people’s houses and then provide that level of advanced care. You really run the gamut as far as like what you’re responsible for and what you’re providing. Heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, fires, shootings, stabbings, anything that you can think of that comes across as an emergency that needs to be dealt with.

I think what’s interesting about it is being able to provide medicine in really weird [situations.] What I love about my job is that I’m doing these things in really unorthodox ways and providing medicine in just very chaotic settings. A hospital I feel is very controlled compared to when you’re out in the middle of the street, you’re on a subway car, you’re in somebody’s house. It’s basically like a sensory assault.

You have the emergency you’re responding to [and that] runs the gamut between something that’s extremely life threatening, where you have a few seconds to reverse what’s going on with somebody or it’s going to kill them. Or it goes from that to somewhere in between, where there’s near-death kinds of things happening. And then it goes to the other direction where I feel like my job a lot of times is more like the last resort because it’s the stopgap when everything else has gone wrong socially and economically with people. They have no source for healthcare and a lot of times we have been called to try and provide some level of care and some level of resources to people who have absolutely nothing.

At least in my current position I would say about 10 to 20 percent of my calls could be classified as life threatening and [for] a good majority [of calls] a lot of it, I feel, is social work and advocating for people that really have nobody in a healthcare setting that’s really consistently advocating for them. It’s a lot of advocacy work and a lot of trying to find resources for people on top of, you know, just problem solving and trying to make sense of really messed up situations.

TK: Without regular access to healthcare I’m sure emergency medicine in all forms really does become the only line of defense for a lot of people.

LB: Emergency medicine is not, in my opinion, divorced from social medicine. If you’re going to be involved in emergency medicine you’re going to be providing care for people that really have nothing else to go to. At that point it becomes your responsibility to try and do whatever you can. Every time I go to work, [I do] whatever I can do to go as far as I can for people to get them the help that they need in the acute setting and also try and connect them with some sort of resources or even just advocate for them even going to the hospital and what they may face there given their histories, given what they’ve been through.

It’s a lot of stress. But also I find the work to be incredibly meaningful and I don’t know how you could [do it] without finding a deep amount of meaning in it. There’s a lot of death. There’s a lot of tragedy. But there’s also, you know, being with people, helping them through something that might be the worst nightmare of their life, and being there with them. It’s incredibly meaningful work.

TK: From what you’re telling me there’s a lot of negative but also a lot of positive to this job.

LB: It’s twofold. I’ve gotten a lot of stress, I’ve been burnt out, I’ve been exhausted, I’ve been traumatized. Since I started doing this I think my whole view on life has been skewed and warped just by the sheer amount of loss that I’ve been a part of and seen. You really hold on to what you have and you really hold on to the moments that you have and the things that feel really special and close to you. They feel scary because you know how quickly they can’t be there and you know how quickly that you might not be here and that’s something that’s been pounded in my brain over the years. I just can’t shake that. But I also think that makes things incredibly meaningful and makes life very heightened.

I really thoroughly enjoy taking care of people and I enjoy taking care of people in intense situations, situations where they need their problem solved pretty rapidly. And I’m good at it. It becomes almost like an art form, you know, when you’re at it for a long time. It’s one of the things that I find an incredible amount of meaning in and I think that’s what keeps me [going.] There’s been plenty of times where I’m, like, ‘I might want to think about something else.’ But I think there’s an underlying deep meaning that I get from it. For all the tough stuff, I still love it and it’s still something that’s a big part of me.

TK: How have things changed in the past month or so?

LB: Everything that I just described in the sense of the chaos and trying to make sense of situations in a matter of minutes and not having a whole lot of time to figure things out, it’s just been heightened to a degree that I’ve personally never encountered. Talking to you now, this is the first time I’ve actually had some time off since we started seeing cases of COVID-19.

We’ve had staffing issues. Most EMS departments [and] most hospitals obviously have. So it’s been one of those things where you’re going to be working a lot more. I think all of us have been really taxed. I’d almost describe it as like a medical minefield because you don’t know what you’re walking into. In our case, we’re still going into people’s homes. We’re going into very closed environments. Sometimes we don’t know all the symptoms they’re having. Sometimes we don’t have all the information.

We were, as a profession, exposed to a lot of things before. So [at the start of the pandemic] we were kind of like, “Oh, this is just going to be something I’m going to need to adjust to.” For a little while when it all started it was not really something I was overly concerned with because I’ve been exposed to plenty of things before, I’ve had to go on medications for exposures before. But this is something really crept up and I started seeing more patients and being in more of these environments. Then having seen people get sick, knowing that paramedics have died from this, it wakes you up and then you realize that you go off autopilot and now you’re actually just kind of really anxious and really scared.

I think I was on autopilot for the first few weeks and then some incidents happened where people got sick and people died and I think it woke all of us up. But specifically I just felt more anxious. You know, I worry about bringing it home just like everybody else does. I worry about getting anybody that I love sick. That’s a weight I’ve never had to carry in my amount of time doing this. This is completely unprecedented. Even just walking around in people’s houses in these hazmat masks and it’s just so surreal. I don’t think I’ve adjusted to it. I don’t think any of us have adjusted to it yet. But we’re doing what we need to do to take care of people in a really, really tough time.

TK: How are you feeling now?

LB: I think I’ve been getting a lot more fatigued and a lot more burnt out. But it’s just something where you find your rest where you can find your rest and then you go back out and do what you need to do. I don’t like to play up this whole, you know, whatever people are [calling] heroics or anything like that. I don’t believe it for myself at all. What I believe in is putting your head down and doing the work. And that’s what needs to be done right now. If you have a skill and the skill happens to be in treating these patients and in working with these patients and taking care of them then that’s where you need to be. That’s what’s been pushing me. I know how to do a lot of this stuff and I can help right now, that’s what I was trained to do.

TK: When you’re not at work have you been able to find ways to relax? Are you playing music right now? Let’s talk about that for a bit.

LB: There’s the medic me and there’s the music me, which is just as important if not above that. So first off I miss my bandmates tremendously. My band Rainbow Crimes with Katy Otto and Alex Smith [ed. note: Alex is a freelance writer and contributor to The Key], we were really hitting a nice stride.

TK: The show at LAVA was great!

LB: Thank you! It felt great, that whole weekend was great. We were just pretty high on everything. In December we had played a Positive Force show in DC that was a dream come true for me. That’s something that I wanted to do ever since I was young and knew about Positive Force. We were really just kind of flying.

Like most musicians right now [I’m] just getting really beaten down with this. Not being able to see my bandmates and my close friends has just been really, really tough and pretty devastating. What I’ve been trying to do is work on my ever-changing solo project that I’ve been working on for years and hasn’t seen the light of day.

When I have time off or even if I have a night off just to have my bass in my hands and just to be doing something [musically] just centers me. My bass is like my soul. Thankfully I’ve been able to do that, even if I’m just writing weird little fragments here and there and recording them. It makes me still feel present, it makes me feel like I’m working towards something. We don’t know when we’re going to be able to be playing shows like a LAVA show again. We don’t know when that’s going to happen, nobody is going to rush back towards that.

There’s a lot of unknown so you kind of have to grasp what you can right now musically. I’ve been working on stuff on my own and just writing on my own which helps even in the midst of all this.

TK: Do you have time at work to listen to music?

LB: I have a lot of documentation to do [at work] so I’ll just put my headphones in and just go in my own world. I have hours worth of documentation to do so I’ve been listening to a good amount of bands just while doing that work. It’s been really nice because it reminds me of my life, this reminds me of who I am as a musician even though I’m here in the midst of all this really stressful stuff right now. I think just sitting at work listening to music while I’m writing charts has been super, super grounding and super helpful.

TK: What have you been listening to?

LB: One of the main things I’ve been listening to has been The Comet Is Coming. The Body is always been something that’ll help, depending on what the stress level is or what I’ve been dealing with. Moor Mother, Pygmy Lush. Those are some of the bands I’ve been listening to. When I’m not at work it’s been a lot of choral music or anything that’s kind of quieter. I have a huge thing for choral music and especially very quiet choral music so I’ve been listening to a lot of that.

One of my favorite bands is Gregor Samsa. I always love them and that’s a band that can just take me and settle me no matter what I’m doing through. So they’re a big one that I listen to when I come home.

TK: The Body is sort of the opposite of comforting, at least for most people. Why do you find yourself drawn to them?

LB: They’re a constant. It’s really kind of fitting right now when you’re sitting there and typing out your notes and it’s a dark and depressing situation. There’s just something about them that seems like it wouldn’t help but it helps me focus and get done what I need to get done.

TK: How long have you been playing music for?

LB: I’ve been playing music since I was four years old. I started with piano and went through that. Then I heard bass for the first time when I was a teenager and I was absolutely in love. That’s been my love affair ever since. So I feel like a bassist through and through, I haven’t touched really much else. It’s an instrument that I adore and I feel like I can really speak through it.

A lot of stuff that I maybe encountered at work or in my own life, I feel like a lot of that comes out when I play bass or when I have a live show. There’s a lot in my head when I’m playing and there’s a lot that I don’t even realize sometimes that’s getting processed. When I hear a certain tone or I hit a certain note or play a certain fragment of something, things just start to pour out. So my performances have always been informed by my work in some ways. The two have gone kind of back and forth. I think that’s always added to the intensity of what I’m playing and what I’m putting out into the world.

I haven’t been in like tons of bands. I think that comes from being from a rural area and not really having a lot of connections. Moving to Philly, that was one of my main reasons for coming here. I got lifted up and able to do a lot of things. The Last Word was one of the first things I went to [ed. note: an open mic poetry night held at the fabled Moonstone Arts Center in Center City, FKA Robin’s Books] and through that I got connected to Rockers! and met a whole bunch of people to the point where now I’m in a band with two heroes of mine. It’s been a nice musical journey in that sense.

TK: What’s been the relationship between your career as a paramedic and your career as a musician?

LB: What’s really interesting about the two of them is they were both formed when I was young. I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to play music from a very early age. And I also knew from a very early age that I wanted to do emergency work and I wanted to be a paramedic. I don’t know where that came from but those are the two things that have stayed together throughout my life. I would say it’s music first and then my job second but I think they both mirror each other in so many interesting ways.

They’ve honestly just gone back and forth even though they’re two vastly different worlds. I don’t necessarily plan for my work to inform my music but I just feel like it’s almost autonomic at this point, like it just falls out.

Rainbow Crimes | photo by John Vettese

TK: It makes sense for you to be expressing what you’re taking in.

LB: Yeah. I’ve left shows crying before, I’ve had tough times even during sets because I’m like, “I didn’t plan for that to come up in my head.” It might have been something that happened ten years ago, you know, or it might be a sound or something that comes from that. That adds to the intensity of whatever I’ve done. I’m typically very quiet but when I perform, when I play music, I’m a completely different person.

My time in DIY and very politicized artistic circles has led me to become the advocate that I am at work to really fight as much as I can for people that are most oppressed, even by medicine, and the people that aren’t getting the attention or aren’t getting the care. So having that political background, having that sort of punk ethos, and being like, “This is our cause, this is what we’re speaking for, this is what we’re fighting for” whether it’s at a show or it’s on the street for somebody that needs whatever they need, I feel like they’ve both coincided in that way, at least in my mind.

DIY has definitely set me apart. I’m fighting fights that I don’t see a lot of other people fighting at work. I’m not saying that to bolster my own ego; I’m just saying that sometimes people may not have that exposure to certain things or they may not have the politicization to some degree. I always look through that lens when I’m at work. There’s no other way for me to be able to do that work without looking at it in a very deeply political way.

My biggest thing as a woman, as a queer woman, as a trans woman has been getting a voice and being able to have a voice in in the DIY scene in Philadelphia. It’s been dramatically huge for me and something that I’m always grateful for. And while I’m at work the biggest thing is I realize what it’s like to have to fight for your own health care and I realize what it’s like to maybe have to fund your own home care or have your needs as a person be legitimized by medicine, because a lot of times it’s not.

So I think having to fight so much for even my own basic health needs leads me to fighting really, really hard for for people that also aren’t getting that care and not getting their basic survival needs met. Then I discussed that at shows or through zines. It’s very interwoven but the two never really meet, which is interesting. I don’t think I’d see people that I work with coming out to shows. The two are very purposely kept apart but they are, in my mind, very interwoven.

TK: Can you give an example of a time where you talked about your job to the DIY punk audience?

LB: One of the best DIY things I’ve done since I’ve been here – and again, it was another project with Alex [Smith] – is Electrifest which was in 2017, I think. It was a two day fest of LGBTQ workshops, health workshops, wellness workshops. Radical Nurses were one of the groups we brought in. Black & Brown Workers Co-Op was another one. And then we had a number of guest speakers, we did workshops, and we had music. I think that’s the only time that I’ve really seen particularly both my worlds kind of blend together in the sense that I was able to take my knowledge, my clinical expertise, and put it into this DIY festival. It was a lot of work.

It was really great to be able to offer people healthcare resources and in-depth information and also have just incredible bands, incredible artists, incredibly musicians all on the same [festival]. With any shows I’ve organized or been a part of I’ve always been a fan of [including] information sharing, resource sharing, making it more than just a show if you can. To do things for the people that are coming and the community around you, that’s always something I try to do with anything I organized.

That’s what I love about DIY in that sense is that you have room to do that and you have support to do that.

TK: I’ve always felt that music is a really good language to get other ideas across. If a show is only music and nothing else that’s totally great and I have no problem with it. But if there’s anything that can be attached to that – and it doesn’t have to be anything major or anything big – it makes the music part of it feel so much more important.

LB: You have a platform and you have people’s attention and I’m not saying that you have to say something every time but I think it’s a useful time to raise consciousness and raise the collective consciousness. You can talk about your own experiences or just try and work collectively in that time to inspire people. I think that’s the value and why I feel that it’s vital to be putting that type of event together. And again, that’s what DIY culture allows you to do.

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