When Jim Bollenbacher put aside his esteemed career as an attorney in Chicago to become a paramedic, lifting excrement-covered, passed-out music festival attendees from sweltering hot porta potties wasn’t exactly what he imagined. Nevertheless, Bollenbacher has dedicated much of his post-corporate years to providing medical assistance at music festivals like Lollapalooza, Burning Man and Electric Forest, an EDM festival in Michigan.
Being a medic for such events is “unlike anything you would ever expect or could even train for,” he tells me. “You’ve got limited supplies, you’re out in the middle of a field with a million people around you, you can’t hear because of the music and you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
As such, it’s a mix of the horrifying and absurd, the war stories of which are almost too crazy to be believed. Below, Bollenbacher, along with another fellow Chicago-based music fest medic, was kind enough to recount the wild, terrifying and truly bizarre things he’s seen while on concert duty.
‘When I Looked at His Foot, I Couldn’t Believe What I Was Seeing’
Pat, a 35-year-old Podiatrist in Chicago: I was in training at the time, and working at Lollapalooza was my first experience at a music festival. I remember it wasn’t long before I felt completely overwhelmed, starting with a young gentleman who wandered into the tent complaining that his foot was sore. He explained that he was making the rounds to all the summer music festivals, and two months prior had stepped on a smoldering fire at Summer Camp [a jam band festival in Chillicothe, Illinois]. He said he just needed some antibiotics, but when I looked at his foot, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The burn had become so infected it left a festering hole through which I could see the muscles in his foot.
Turned out, he had been pouring peroxide on the wounded area and super-gluing it shut. My colleague and I urged him to go straight to the hospital, but he insisted he’d be fine. He popped a couple ibuprofen and left, going back into the festival, against our advice.
Just as soon as he left, another guy walked in who’d been dancing barefoot in the rain with his girlfriend. He got a little out of control and stepped on a broken beer bottle, slicing open the bottom of his foot from toe to heel. We got him to the hospital as fast as we could.
While dealing with major medical emergencies like these, the tent is also inundated with people who’ve taken too many drugs or drank too much, and sadly, there are also more than a few people with suicidal ideations. We would just sit with them and talk if they weren’t with anyone.
Needless to say it was a shitshow, and I couldn’t wait for the day to be over.
‘A Crowd Had Gathered and I Remember Thinking, ‘You Cannot Throw Up in Front of All These People’’
Jim Bollenbacher, paramedic and author of Molly, Mushroom & Mayhem, a book about music festival EMTs, the proceeds of which go to The First Responder’s Children’s Foundation: Working at a music festival is really unique because you’re doing the medical stuff you’ve been trained to do, but you’re doing it in this giant park, or out in the desert like Burning Man, or in the middle of a forest — and you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
At Electric Forest for instance, my partner and I — as well as a random “security” guard — were out in the middle of the woods, pretty much all by ourselves, and we’d been called to assist this monstrously big, bodybuilder-type guy who was hugging his very small wife. Neither were responding to us, and as we tried talking him down, he just kept hugging his wife tighter and tighter and tighter. He was just in this trance and wouldn’t let go. It got to the point that if we didn’t physically intervene, his wife was going to be in trouble.
So we had to do something, but this guy could’ve kicked all our asses alone — I mean he was huge. I decided to draw up some sedative, but when I turned around from getting it, the man, my partner and his wife were all on the ground. I don’t know what happened — if my partner tackled them, or if they fell down — but thankfully the guy was very calm. I gave him some of the sedative, started an IV on him and took them to the medical tent.
Eventually, we saw them later on during the festival, and both he and his wife were the nicest people in the world — just super, super nice. He’d apparently just kind of overdone it with the mushrooms. That’s the scary thing: In the moment, you don’t know what he might’ve taken or how he’s interpreting reality, so you never know how much you can trust the information you’re given.
Which brings me to my favorite porta-potty stories — yes, there are many. This one happened to another medic I know, who came upon a kid sitting on the floor of a porta-potty, shoulder-deep in the tank. The kid explained he’d lost his sunglasses, and was trying to retrieve them by sweeping his hand around the sewage. Turned out, his sunglasses were on his head.
But my most memorable porta-potty story happened at Lollapalooza in Chicago. A young woman came to my partner and me and said her girlfriend had been in the porta potty for a long time. So we went over and somehow got it open. It was one of those large, handicapped porta potties, and there was this little lady in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt passed out on the floor. This was day three of Lollapalooza, so the porta potty was muddy, flooded and covered in basically every body fluid you can name — and again, she is passed out, laying in it. I went in to check and see if she was alive, but then I jumped out because it smelled so bad. By this time, a crowd had gathered and I remember thinking, “Jim, you cannot throw up in front of all these people.”
I kept it down, and went back in. I don’t know if she’d been rolling around in it or what, but when we tried to lift her up to put her on our backboard, our hands would slip right off of her. We couldn’t even lift her up — that’s how covered in liquid she was. Ultimately, we had to get her onto a blanket and pick her up that way, so we could get her onto the cart and straight into the medical tent.
This all happened at like 11:45 in the morning — the music hadn’t even started — but her friend said she’d “only had two vodkas.” It’s always “only two.”