Editor's note: Reporter Amy Banton spent eight hours with Aiken County EMS in the middle of the Station five shift. Before she arrived, the crew responded to three calls, and they responded to two more during her time with the response team. Over those eight hours, she gained a glimpse of what the day of in the life of an EMT or paramedic is like.
A career in emergency medical services can accurately be described as stressful, at times messy, and often thankless.
But those who do it wouldn't trade the job for any other in the world. The Aiken County EMS workers who actually are out in the field see people at their worst, but also, at times, see them at their best. Some of the things that they've experienced would sound like a horror story to most – but to them, it's just another day on the job.
Two calls in one hour
On a rainy afternoon last week, Aiken County EMS station five responded to a vehicle wreck. The ambulance blasted its siren, occasionally blew the horn and vehicles swerved off the road and out of the way, except for the occasional panicked motorist who seemed unsure of what to do. Shift Supervisor Mike New was driving while his partner, Advanced EMT Matt Muse, was acting as another pair of eyes watching the road and making sure it was safe to blow through red lights and stop signs as vehicles slammed on their brakes before pulling through the intersection.
When help arrived, the occupants involved in the car wreck seemed fine. Someone else called in the wreck, but those involved in it didn't feel treatment was necessary. The team checked vitals, made sure everyone was OK and collected a few signatures. The scene was cleared, so Muse and New headed back at the station.
“Now we wait,” Muse said after the ambulance was parked. But, just as he mouthed those words, station five was called again. Someone was suffering from respiratory distress.
The trip to assist this individual was about the same, but the scene was different. New and Muse unloaded the stretcher, as they were pretty sure they would be transporting a patient to the hospital this time. When they entered the individual's home, the two responders were calm yet alert. There was a lot of multitasking involved as they diligently worked with the patient while asking questions of loved ones at the home. At one point, New warned the patient that the ride would be a little bumpy and kindly offered a pre-apology.
They handled the patient gently and with grace, safely transporting her to the hospital with one driving and his partner in the back doing what he could to make sure the trip was as comfortable as possible.
After the call, several quiet hours followed. Between answering calls, the truck is cleaned and restocked, and the workers tidy up the station and write detailed reports for each call to which they respond.
Getting into the career
New has given 26 years to the Aiken County EMS. His father retired as an Aiken Public Safety superintendent, and New volunteered as a firefighter as soon as he was old enough.
New said he made the decision to become an EMT after his grandfather had a heart attack, and there wasn't much he could do at that moment to help. New said he didn't want to experience that again. Rather than feeling helpless in a situation, he said he wanted to be the one helping.
New said that it can be a frustrating job but a very fulfilling one, too.
Paramedic and Crew Chief Justin Chaparro, who has been with the County for about three years, said the field is constantly changing, and there's a lot more training and education required for the job than there was decades before when EMS simply transported someone to the hospital. Now, Chaparro said, they're the hands and eyes in the field for the doctor waiting for the patient at the hospital.
Muse said a lot can be learned in class, but some things can only be learned in the field. Each call is different in severity, complexity and emotion.
And someone new to the job will quickly know if they're cut out for it.
“It's when that incredible amount of knowledge becomes second nature,” Muse said.
Long hours is one of the many aspects of the job in which those in the EMS profession have to adjust.
Aiken County EMTs and paramedics work 24-hour shifts and take 48 hours off before their next work day. Lately, collecting overtime has been easy since the County is a bit understaffed due to recent turnover, but six new employees should be hitting the roads soon – if they haven't already.
But during the past few weeks, Chaparro said he's been picking up extra shifts to help out the crew, which he considers a second family, and because he cares about the residents he helps. Picking up extra time can help prevent a station from shutting down for a shift when they're short-staffed.
The stations include beds for the crew to sleep in starting at 11 p.m. until about 7 a.m. During those hours, if their station is called, dispatch will send out a tone and also call the crew to wake them up. Some nights they get sleep, but not every night.
Almost everyone in the field has at least one thing that gets to them. For Muse, working with children is the most difficult because seeing them scared or in pain can be hard. Of course, he's able to keep his composure for the sake of his young patient, but being a father himself, those are the calls he said bother him the most.
In the back of the station five truck, one may notice a pair of beady, shiny eyes peering down at them. Those eyes belong to a little stuffed gorilla that's given to a child to comfort them, Muse said.
If they don't have a stuffed animal on board, sometimes they'll make balloon animals out of gloves in efforts to bring even a small smile to the face of the child experiencing a traumatic situation.
The quirky side of EMS
Chaparro said superstitions run strong in their profession. For example, if someone points out that a shift is slow, their partner will often glare at them in frustration as a flood of calls tend to follow the simple statement.
Aiken County EMS road crews also tend to avoid a certain fast-food restaurant because over the years, there seems to be an unusual trend that if someone eats at that particular establishment, a traumatic event that evening is guaranteed. Chaparro said when they take a dinner break, they inform dispatch of their location, and whenever that establishment is heard over the scanner, a moan among all Aiken County EMS workers sound off across the area.
Also, when talking with an EMS worker, they'll pause whenever they hear tones go over the scanner, wait to see what station is being called and if it isn't them, they pick the conversation back up without missing a beat.
Occasional thank you
Anyone in emergency services knows that getting a “thank you” is often rare, but when it does happen, it feels good to know that they're appreciated.
The job is hard and the pay isn't so great, but almost any EMT or paramedic will say that they didn't get into the field for praise and certainly not for money. They do it because they like to help people.
“The first time I stepped onto a truck, I loved it and I didn't want to get off,” Muse said. “You've got to have a passion to get into this job.”
For Chapparo, he said the strongest vote of confidence comes from other crew members.
“The biggest compliment is (hearing another medic say) 'I trust my family with you,'” Chapparo said. “That's what you want to hear.”
Amy Banton is the County reporter fro the Aiken Standard and has been with the publication since May 2010.