A new EMT left her desk job to run toward the pandemic’s front lines

“What could I do sitting behind my desk?” Kat Benoit, 47, took a leap in the pandemic and pursued a lifelong dream: getting trained as an EMT

This story was originally posted on GBHNews.org and has been reprinted with permission. The article is part of GBHNews’ The Big Quit series.

Text by Liz Neisloss | Video by Maureen Barillaro

MALDEN, Mass. — On a recent day in Malden, Kat Benoit helped hoist a stretcher bearing a frail elderly man into her ambulance. The man had just fallen at home and hit his head. Benoit and her partner, paramedic Jess Batistelli, got to work checking his vital signs and readying him for transport to a local hospital.

“Here you go, darlin’,” Benoit said reassuringly, as she adjusted the man’s breathing mask.

Kat Benoit preps the ambulance she will ride in ahead of starting a 24-hour shift in Somerville, Mass., on Nov. 16, 2021.
Kat Benoit preps the ambulance she will ride in ahead of starting a 24-hour shift in Somerville, Mass., on Nov. 16, 2021. (Photo/Meredith Nierman/GBH News)

Benoit is an Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT, and she’s exactly where she wants to be: connecting with people and helping them on what she calls “that worst day.” She quit a better-paying job at the height of the pandemic to get here.

In the spring of 2020, her longtime job as a research grant administrator had gone remote. It was satisfying knowing she was helping scientists apply for research funding, but watching the COVID crisis unfold on TV made her want to rush to the front line where she could help others most.

“I felt this feeling of just absolute helplessness. I wanted to do something so bad, but I couldn’t,” Benoit recalled. “What could I do sitting behind my desk at home?”

Benoit, a self-described adrenaline junkie, decided to take a leap and train to become an EMT. But just as she was joining the field, healthcare workers were leaving it behind.

“A lot of people left the profession because of the situation with the pandemic,” said Dennis Cataldo, president of Malden-based Cataldo Ambulance Services and president of the Massachusetts Ambulance Association.

The pandemic, he said, has worsened an already existing shortage of both EMTs and paramedics nationally. Cataldo estimates that as many as 35% of ambulances in Massachusetts sit idle because of a lack of staff.

“Many of the [EMT training] schools have decreased enrollment, and also the testing process is much more cumbersome because a lot of it has to be in-person,” Cataldo said. “So the number of certified people coming out of EMT and paramedic schools over the last 18 to 24 months has been compromised significantly.”

While still working full time, Benoit enrolled in an EMT course through Bunker Hill Community College in the late spring of 2020. The program was mostly online, but it included some in-person clinical classes. At 47, she was older than most of her classmates.

“I was scared, like, am I going to fail? I’m an old lady in this field,” she recalled.

Benoit did just fine, passing her exams and, in September 2020, she landed a job with Cataldo Ambulance.

For several months. Benoit kept both of her jobs — research grant administrator by day and EMT by night. Moving between a quiet desk job to physically strenuous and at times chaotic work was jarring, and grueling.

“Working so many hours between the two jobs, I was working between 80 and 90 hours and I thought, something kind of has to give, and I just finally came to the point of: I just have to follow the passion of what I want to do now,” said Benoit.

There was no question about which one was more satisfying. Benoit couldn’t wait to get to work on the ambulance. But leaving her old job was a tough financial decision. The initial EMT pay was a third of what she earned as a research grant administrator. Last January, her heart won out over her wallet, and she quit her old job to work full time as an EMT.

The pandemic, she said, pushed her to finally pursue that “what I always wanted to do when I grew up” job. Benoit works two 24-hour shifts each week fueled, she said, by coffee and adrenaline. She’s already become a field training officer, helping to train new recruits.

In January, she plans to start training as a paramedic, which will allow her to do more complex procedures such as inserting IV lines. The pay is higher, too, but she had to take out a $13,000 loan to pay tuition.

Many EMTs burn out from the volume of calls and the stress that comes with the job, but Benoit said she’s motivated by the deeply caring community of workers that surround her.

“I can’t tell you enough about the compassion of all the people that I work with — and not just in the EMS world, but also the firefighters that I work beside and the police officers, as well,” Benoit said. “So I just decided I wanted to be more part of that.”

Benoit called her leap to a new career the best decision she ever made. “I kind of looked in the mirror and I thought, you know, I’m either going to wake up and I’m going to be 80 years old and think, ‘Wow, I should have done that,’ or I’m just going to go do it and then not have that regret in my life. So I did.”

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