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Do You Get to Drive?

Campus Starter pulls over a paramedic for some fast medical advice.

I hammer on the horn and blast the siren as my partner in the back of the ambulance treats and reassures a burn patient. “Everything will be alright,” I can hear him say.

And everything would be alright if I could just get this truck driver in front of me to pull his semi over to the side of the road. I look down at the pavement and I'm horrified to see what lies directly in front of me — railroad tracks. But it's too late.

“TRACKS! THREE SECONDS!” I scream at my partner. When we hit, we hit hard. The jolt sends a shockwave through the ambulance and I can hear IV saline bags slap the cabinet behind me.

More equipment tumbles and spills and I can see my partner's eyes in the rear-view mirror, glaring back at me.

The semi finally pulls over to the side of the road. My foot hits the gas and I'm desperately trying to remember the route to the nearest hospital, even though I've been there a million times. I know that if I can't get it together, our patient is as good as dead.

Ahead of me is a big sign with an “H” on it, which beams down at me like some holy beacon of light. Glorious hospital dead ahead. Hallelujah!

Relieved, I bring our rig to a stop at the emergency ramp, rest my sweat-soaked body for a second and then get out. One look from my partner and I know the patient will make it. I give a snort of phony bravado and smirk at him. “I'm so damn good that I should be a stunt driver,” I say.

Welcome to my summer job. For the last two summers, I've been a volunteer paramedic in Stonewall, Manitoba. In addition to other summer jobs, I decided to work for my hometown's ambulance service to help pay my university fees.

Although I am officially considered a volunteer, each member of the local EMS (Emergency Medical Services) gets paid a very small amount of money to be available on an on-call basis for 12 hours a night. When I respond to an emergency call, I'm paid a full wage according to my rank. Since I currently rank as a lowly EMR (Emergency Medical Responder), the pay doesn't amount to much but when it comes to tuition, every dollar counts.

My situation is not unique here. Most rural townships in Manitoba depend solely on volunteers to respond to medical emergencies in their area. The exchange of so much time and commitment for so little money often creates staffing shortages, so university and college students usually enter the breach and take up the paramedic role in their community. During my initial emergency medical training class, no less than half the people there were also university or college students.

After about 100 hours of classroom instruction and ten ride-alongs in the ambulance, the paramedic is given a license and receives the rank of EMR. Ofcourse, EMRs are paired up with paramedics who have a much higher level of training, often an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).

“Do you get to drive?” is the most common question I hear from people. Except in very rare circumstances, the beginning paramedic drives the ambulance on almost every call. For some reason, people seem to glamourize the driving role. Most of the action is going on in the back of the rig — with the patient. In the back of the ambulance, my partner's medical knowledge and skill will determine whether a patient wins the battle of life and death.

But my job requires much more than driving the ambulance. When my partner and I arrive at the scene of an emergency, I work in tandem with the EMT. We gather vital signs, apply oxygen, help with immobilization or prepare equipment and take detailed notes.

The senior paramedics groom the newbies for the day when they will be taking care of critically ill patients, so we are often given the opportunity to practice as many of our skills as possible. When someone calls in an emergency, every single person in the resulting chain of events, from ambulance attendants to the hospital's emergency doctors, takes responsibility for patient care.

Despite the low pay and the popular misconceptions about the role of a paramedic, I've come to love this job. So much in fact, that I have graduated from university with a master's degree in journalism, but I've chosen to come back to my home town to train for a emergency medical career that pays. I'm starting my EMT-1 course this fall, which means that I'll have more medical skills, but also more responsibility.

I'm also constantly amazed by the amount of camaraderie that exists in EMS. Each time we respond to an emergency call, my partner and I must fluidly work together like a machine. Every time we get to a scene, we are often as scared or uncertain or just plain horrified as the patient.

We learn to trust each other, read each other's movements, reassure each other, and back up our decisions. EMS crews are forged by adrenaline, fused together through mutual experience, and maintained through the constant struggle towards a single goal — life.

After responding to over 200 emergency calls, I would be hard-pressed to say that I'm not slightly traumatized by what I've seen and experienced. I've dealt with massive casualty incidents, dead or dying children or even people who are trapped in a burning automobile wreck.

I guess the most traumatic of all is that you can often see the lives that are lost or ruined when you lose a patient. I constantly remind myself that in a rural area, the people you deal with each day could be your next patient.

This really hit home during last year's Christmas holidays. I arrived at work one day to find out that my father had just died. Before I found my mother, I grabbed one of my co-workers who had brought my father to the hospital, thanked him, and gave him a big hug. “We did our best,” he told me. But I knew it already.

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