After dancing at her best friend’s daughter’s wedding, Ruth Weiser returns to her table and cuts into the charbroiled steak in front of her. Still breathing hard from the vigorous dancing, she literally bites off more than she can chew. The color drains from her face as she gasps for air, a chunk of meat lodged in her throat…
“Chicago Hope”? “ER”?
No, this is really happening! And fortunately for Ruth, help is immediate. Alan Brand, a guest at the wedding and an experienced emergency medical technician (EMT), sees Ruth’s distress, her face turning pale blue. He grabs her from behind, wrapping his arms around her waist just above the navel. He presses his fist, with quick, upward thrusts, into Ruth’s abdomen. On the fifth thrust, the chunk of meat flies from her mouth like a projectile! This terrifying moment is one that Ruth Weiser will not soon forget.
For Mary Ellen Humphrey, such emergencies are a way of life. “I started with the Nassau County (New York) fire department where all the EMTs are volunteers,” says Mary Ellen, now a certified paramedic attached to a Long Island police precinct. “I knew that I wanted to do something in medicine. I found that I liked the work and wanted more responsibility, so I did the advanced training that took me to the top EMT rank, paramedic.”
“The constant challenge of the job is very exciting,” says Mary Ellen. “I really can’t see myself tied to a desk. Of course, like any job, there’s a certain amount of routine, like checking the ambulance, taking inventory of supplies. But then the call comes in and the adrenaline begins to pump. Is it a cardiac arrest? An asthmatic child struggling for breath? A near drowning? A factory fire? I hope it doesn’t sound corny, but there’s nothing to compare with the high of knowing you made a difference in someone’s life.”
There is a downside to all this. “The work is stressful,” says Mary Ellen, “and physically demanding. We often deal with tragedy, and that can be emotionally draining. Before considering EMT/paramedic as a career, I’d say to test it out as a volunteer. It’s not an easy way to make a living.”
You Never Know What’s Around the Corner
That’s the way many EMT/paramedics describe the work. While it’s true that not all calls involve a life-or-death situation, the challenge never ends. The victims can be newborns or the very old. EMT/paramedics are called to deal with every imaginable illness and every kind of trauma.
“In addition to all the technical know-how you have to master,” says Mary Ellen, “you must have what it takes on other levels: Can you take charge? Can you deal with people who are often confused and very frightened? Can you stay calm and exercise good judgment under stress? If you can’t, find another career!”
Levels of Responsibility
The basic function of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) system is to provide fast, coordinated medical assistance in an emergency. In most of the country, EMS systems are supported by volunteer workers, but in many areas, the fire or police departments provide EMS. Usually, applicants must be at least 18 years of age and have earned a high school or equivalency diploma. Although states and counties can establish their own standards and classifications, these three levels generally exist: EMT-basic, -intermediate, and -paramedic. Each level has increasingly greater responsibility and requires greater preparation in three areas: coursework, clinical experience in a hospital emergency room, and field work (observing professionals on an ambulance call). After training at each level is complete, students must pass a written and a “practical” exam, demonstrating their skills. A certificate (license) is the permit to work, and usually recertification is required every two years. All EMTs also must be licensed drivers.
Where Do I Sign Up?
Again, it varies by state, but most courses for EMTs (basic and intermediate) are offered by police and fire departments, hospitals and ambulance services, and by community colleges. Classes typically meet for about six hours a week over a four-month period. The basic program provides instruction in dealing with bleeding, fractures, airway obstruction, cardiac arrest, and emergency childbirth. Advanced training for paramedics generally takes between 750 and 2,000 hours and lasts about nine months. About 15 percent of paramedics are women. The percentage of women EMTs is considerably lower.
Although salaries and working conditions in the EMS field vary widely, one thing doesn’t seem to vary. And that is perhaps best summed up by Peter Meade, Chief of Fire and Rescue Services for Nassau County, a suburb of New York City, and home to 1.4 million people: “There aren’t many careers where job satisfaction is so immediate and so great. How many people do you know who can come home from work and say, ‘I saved someone’s life today!’?”