EMS work has strong lure

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Eleven years ago Lisa Ford was a housewife with two kids who led a fairly normal life, one that might even be said to border on the humdrum.

Then a friend talked her into taking an emergency medical technician class. Before long, Ford admits, “I pretty much got hooked.”

“The lights, the sirens, the adrenaline, the excitement … I’ve never looked back,” she says.

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Today Ford is a paramedic with Tombigbee Emergency Medical Services at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital. And while the job isn’t all lights and sirens, it often places Ford and her fellow paramedics on the front line of life-and-death situations.

Like Ford, many of them find it difficult to return to more mundane pursuits once they’ve experienced the thrill that accompanies knowing that you’ve just helped save someone’s life.

The modern EMS movement developed around the late 1970s. Before then, according to Mitchell Snipes, director of EMS for Tombigbee, funeral homes were often employed to “snatch and haul”people needing emergency medical transportation.

“What they found,” Snipes says, “is that in a lot of cases more damage was being done in the transport of the patient than in whatever accident they’d been in.”

Today the EMS field is one of the most regulated of any professional occupation as far as competency, testing, training and continuous education requirements, declares EMS Capt. Sonny Weaver. Most people, however, remain unaware of just what it takes to wear the title “paramedic.”

“When you talk to the general public, they know what a nurse does, they know what a doctor does,” Weaver says. “But they still think all we do is throw ’em in the back and haul ’em to the hospital.”

In truth, paramedics are highly trained medical personnel who must undergo years of classroom and field rotation training. Explains Snipes, “In an emergency situation we’re authorized to do about anything they do in an emergency room.”

That includes administering heart defibrillation, starting IVs, putting in artificial airways, managing shock and “packaging” patients to protect against spinal damage. It also includes a few things they don’t do in an ER, such as extricating victims of car wrecks with the dauntingly named Jaws of Life.

While car wrecks number among the most grisly jobs EMS personnel are called upon to handle, it is those calls involving children that are often the most harrowing.

“When you get a really bad call,” Ford says, “you try to distance yourself from it to a certain extent, so you can be professional and do what you’ve got to do. Then when it’s over you let yourself think about it — but you try not to think about it too much or you’d never go out again.”

Snipes agrees, saying EMS personnel must walk “a fine line between caring and not caring.”

“If you care too much,” Snipes explains, “you’ll be too involved and you might not do everything you could be doing to help. But if you don’t care enough, that’s not any good either. That’s why it takes a special kind of person to do this job.

“Not everybody’s cut out to do it. But when you go out on a call and you’re able to make a difference in a patient’s life, you get a real lift.”

Weaver nods in agreement then adds, “It ain’t the money, that’s for sure.”

A modern ambulance can cost anywhere from $90,000 to $120,000. It can take another $35,000 or so to fully outfit an ambulance with the necessary equipment. Add to that the cost of staffing each ambulance around the clock with at least two highly trained personnel and it becomes easier to understand why the bill for having grandma transported to the hospital after her last spell was as high as it was.

Still, Snipes and his crew know better than to expect gratitude for being on-call 24 hours a day. “This is a thankless job,” shrugs Snipes. He estimates that of the 200 or so calls they respond to in an average month, only about three or four people will bother to put a card in the mail to thank them for possibly saving their lives. That’s roughly the same percentage of lepers who went back to thank Jesus after being healed.

Crews at Tombigbee pull three 24-hour shifts each week, which presents its own set of challenges. “This job has a way of taking over your life,” sighs Ford. “When you’re working 24- and 48-hour shifts it changes everything. I’m not home with my children every night like normal parents are.”

Still, she admits she’s not about to go back to a “normal” job, back to a 9-to-5, back to being just a housewife.

“Quit? Sure, you think about it,” she says. “But you don’t think about it for long. I believe this is what I was meant to do.”