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Real World Experience

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EMT class offers a hands-on look at emergency services

By Stephen Lega

Katie Elliott and Jessica Sandusky climbed in the back of an ambulance as soon as they arrived at the Marion County EMS building Thursday. Both are students in the new EMT class at the Marion County Area Technology Center. Sandusky hopes to be a nurse practitioner or a pediatrician, and Elliot would like to be a photographer. This day, however, they were assisting paramedic Mike Ferguson and EMT Stephanie Thomas with a patient transfer.

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At the dialysis clinic, Sandusky maneuvered the power stretcher into the building. She helped transfer the patient to the stretcher, pushed it back to the ambulance and loaded the patient inside.

Stephanie Thomas then asked Elliott to do a blood pressure check. Elliott needed a little guidance, but she got the reading.

"I'm really nervous right now," Elliott said after they dropped the patient off at the nursing home. "It's my first run."

The tech center started offering the EMT class for high school students as part of its health sciences program this year. Jim Thomas, the classroom instructor, has 20 years of experience working in emergency services.

During a recent class, he spoke to the students about the variety of bruises, cuts, breaks and tears that they might encounter during a run. Photos were part of the presentation. But he also explained the injuries are only part of the unpleasantness that comes with the job.

"It's going to be messy and you're going to get puke on you, but in this line of work, you're gonna get puke on you all the time," he told the class.

Theo Walker, a senior at Washington County High School, has considered going into the field right out of high school. (Students must graduate before they are allowed to take the EMT exam.)

"Since I was young, I always wanted to be in the medical field," Walker said.

Walker said he is also considering a career in computers, but he clearly enjoys being part of an ambulance run.

"You get that little bit of nervous and that little bit of 'Yeah, I'm going to help somebody!" he said.

And perhaps just as important, he realizes that doing the job right requires hard work.

"If you're not putting effort into it, who really wants an EMT who gives 50 percent?" Walker said.

Jim Thomas said the class is going well, but he also knows that classroom instruction is only part of what is required to understand what it takes to be an EMT. Every student must complete a minimum of 40 hours of ride time and have 20 patient contacts.

"That's putting 20 people in the back of the truck and transporting them to the hospital," Jim Thomas said.

Sandusky agreed that the ride time is essential.

"It helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "It makes everything more clear."

Thursday turned out to be a relatively slow night for Elliott and Sandusky. After the patient transfer, they completed their paperwork (required after every run) and reviewed their textbooks. While they waited, Ferguson took time to review things they would need to know for the exam and how actions in the field don't always go by the book. 

Ferguson said he doesn't remember his first ambulance run, but he knows that EMT training has changed since he went through the class. EMT students used to be required to spend hours in the ER in addition to ride time in the ambulance. Most hospitals won't allow EMT students now because of liability concerns, Ferguson said.

"I learned a lot from being in a hospital," he said. "It would be a huge benefit if they were able to do that."

The ride time is good for learning the basics of the job, but it has other benefits as well, such as giving students an opportunity to get to know the EMS staff. According to Jim Thomas, those interactions with experienced EMTs and paramedics are an important part of the ride time.

By sharing examples from their own time in the field, they can help the students understand the difference between the ideal situations in a classroom and what they actually encounter every day.

"It's a whole different deal when you get out in the streets or in the ditches on car wrecks," Jim Thomas said.

During the slow time, Ferguson asked Elliott and Sandusky how often they are supposed to check an unstable patient's blood pressure. According to the textbook, they should check it every five minutes.

"Do you think that's realistic?" Ferguson asked.

"No," Sandusky replied.

Ferguson said she was right. With an unstable patient, there is usually so much to do that emergency workers don't have an opportunity to check the blood pressure that frequently.

The patient transfer for Elliott and Sandusky was pretty routine, but not every run is that simple.

"There are some 'Come to Jesus' runs," Ferguson said. "I've seen students quit after those runs."

On previous runs, Sandusky has seen patients having seizures, helped EMTs put in IVs and been part of transfer runs to Louisville and back. She said the EMS staff works with the students to help them learn to do things correctly.

"They guide you through everything. They don't let you fail," Sandusky said.

When Elliott was having trouble locating a patient's pulse, Stephanie Thomas demonstrated where and how to find it.

Stephanie Thomas said the ride-alongs help students understand the hands-on aspect of the job. EMTs and paramedics typically work 24-hour shifts. One minute they could be baking a cake, and the next they may be responding to a two-vehicle collision.

"It puts us in a different mindset when we feel that adrenaline rush," Stephanie Thomas said. "It either makes 'em or breaks 'em."

She added that she wishes the class had been offered when she was in high school. Adults have to pay $700 to take the class, while the tech center students are able to take the course for free.

"They [the high school students] have a benefit and a lot of them don't see that," Stephanie Thomas said.

Although Elliott is not planning to go into the medical field, she signed up for a more personal reason for the class. She has a relative who has been assisted by EMS frequently, and that made her wonder what the EMTs go through.

"It's a whole lot different than what you learn in class," she said. She later added, "It's a whole lot harder than what I had expected it to be."

Jim Thomas knows that not every student will make a career of being an EMT, and he knows that some of them won't pass the exam. But at least some of the students see a benefit to the class, no matter what they decide to do in the future.

"The knowledge that you get in this class can't hurt you," Sandusky said. "It can only help you in life."