Maybe I should change that to the 52-year-old rookie. My, how the time flies...
But back when I first signed on with the Lake View Volunteer Fire Company, at age 51, one of my primary goals was to become an EMT - Emergency Medical Technician. That desire goes all the way back to my childhood, watching TV shows such as "Emergency!", "Medical Center" and the like. In fact, I was thrilled when a local station recently began showing "Emergency!" reruns. Good ol' Gage & DeSoto. Man, those guys did a lot, and without most of the modern tools of the trade.
Anyway, as I started responding to calls, it became apparent that our department - like most volunteer squads - was in need of more EMTs. The rules say that our ambulance can't respond to an EMS call unless an EMT is on board or on scene, and there are times when we've been forced to sit around or even miss a call entirely, just because an EMT wasn't available. So that strengthened my resolve to try to help fill the gap. I thought I had a couple of things to bring to the table: Working from home, I'm available at times when others are not. I also like medical stuff and don't get grossed out very easily. These are handy attributes which will hopefully make up for my biggest deficit - namely a lack of any prior medical training. So in September, it was back to school for a two-night/eight hours per week course to try to win the right to call myself an EMT. Just learning to be a student again took some doing, although in some ways, it was an advantage being older; age, if nothing else, teaches you to appreciate time, and the time spent on learning was valuable not only to me, but my family, which endured hardships as a result of my quest. This was also, by far, the most serious I've ever been as a student. Like the saying goes: If I knew then what I know now. And perhaps looming largest of all was the stark realization that if I didn't pay attention and learn this stuff well, someone could die. Now that's motivation.
While some of it was challenging rote memory (something that does not come easier with age,) most of it I found genuinely interesting. I've learned a lot about the human body and its remarkable systems, its limitations and what I can and cannot do to help it out of trouble. And relatively speaking, an EMT can't really do all that much in the way of fancy medical maneuvering. For us, it comes down to the ABCs: Airway, Breathing and Circulation. EMTs are skilled at keeping those three critical things going long enough to get a patient into more skilled hands. Our instructor, Greg Gill of Mercy Flight, owns a pair of those more skilled hands. A seasoned paramedic who works professionally and as a volunteer, he's seen more in his decades of service than he'd probably care to remember, but from a student point of view, what a resource that experience has been. If you're really, really sick or badly hurt, thisis the guy you want to show up. He and the other paramedics of WNY have each spent literally thousands of hours perfecting advanced life-saving skills that I will probably never learn. A seasoned medic can recognize trouble while there's still time to do something about it, and then used some pretty advanced methods to give you a fighting chance. But EMTs play an important role as well, and I aim to play it as well as I can.
Beyond the required classroom instruction centered on our 1,284-page textbook - the largest book I think I've ever owned - our training included field trips. Most notable were two five-hour stints in local emergency departments. My stay at Erie County Medical Center was particularly interesting. As the top local trauma center, ECMC's ED is a busy, fascinating place. About an hour in, Mercy Flight dropped off a 60-year-old pedestrian who had several major bones broken by a speeding car. Remarkably, the victim was not only alive, but conscious and talking, despite the fact that part of his right tibia (lower leg bone) was sticking out of his bloodied pants leg. My first in-person compound fracture. Guess I can cross that one off the ol' bucket list. Mostly, I just observed the proceedings, but what was most remarkable was how more than a dozen ED staffers descended on this man in an organized chaos, each one doing his/her job calmly and quickly. A good ambulance crew does the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale.
Generally, the ED is the end of the line for an EMT. We drop patients off there, straighten out our paperwork and, sometimes hours later, head back to the station. But it was good to see what happens later, since it can influence what we do at the other end in pre-hospital care.
Finally, six months after we started, it came down to written and practical exams. The practicals figured to be the scarier part; each of the seven we were required to go through had several mandatory points you had to cover; miss just one and you've failed. So I studied. And I prayed. And I studied. Studied & prayed like I hadn't since I made up for years of goofing off by cramming for my SATs. A nerve-wracking couple of evenings, but the studying/praying paid off with a near-perfect run.
Feeling a bit cocky after acing a practice written final, I walked into the final exam feeling pretty darned good about myself, and breezed through the first 30 or so questions…only to find out that many of the remaining 80 weren't so easy. Unlike the practicals, which are graded the night of the tests, the written is sent off to the NYS Department of Health in Albany, which will get back to you in a month or so, if you're lucky. So I was forced to sweat it out. Once I go to near to the three-week mark, I started a daily trip to the mailbox, reminiscent of Charlie Brown on Valentine's Day. Opening the box felt like pulling a slot machine handle after using my last quarter. Would today finally bring a winner? Hope springs eternal, but 'Nope' was how each mail box trip ended.
Finally, like Popeye, I'd had all I could stands and I could stands no more. Got in touch with our well-connected instructor and he placed a call to Albany.
(Drum roll, please…….)
Passed! While there was an option for one re-take of the written, it was an option I sure didn't want to take. Oh, what a relief it was!
So now I can say I'm an EMT. Sort of. While it's now technically true, I look at the little card the Great State of New York will send me as a learner's permit. Truly becoming an EMT will take experience…a lot of experience. From memorizing where all of the stuff is in our ambulance and our medical kits…to recognizing signs & symptoms without having to consult anything but my memory, much lies ahead.
And what's the payoff for a volunteer EMT? Every time I can go out there and use that knowledge to render real assistance to someone, from a kid with a sprained pinky finger to someone in full cardiac arrest, the thrill of being able to actually make a difference in that situation, whether it's just a reassuring touch, or the singular experience of prolong someone's life…well, how do you put a price on that? Of course, you don't.
I just hope and pray I'm up to the task.