Hardships, heroism and healing: Ambulance crew talks realities of the job

To be successful in this line of work you need certain intangible traits such as commitment, professionalism, reliability, a wealth of medical expertise

James Miller
Dickinson Press, N.D.

DICKSON, ND — Whether it is delivering a baby or comforting someone as they take their final breath, the men and women of the Dickinson Area Ambulance Service have seen it all, since 1981.

Ambulance crews are the ones who experience Dickinson in all its grandeur and secrets. From the bright lights and smiling faces of our public goings-on, to those things veiled from the public view behind doors and window blinds. Their service runs the gamut of emergency response, from vehicle accidents, choking children and fallen elderly to domestic violence, bar fights and attempted murder.

"The Emergency Medical Service is not for everyone. A lot of people think they want to go into this profession, but they realize quickly that this isn't for them," Penny Lewis, operations manager at Dickinson Area Ambulance Service, said. "Our classes usually start out with a bunch of bright-eyed students and end with a handful of people. This year we started with 18 students; we're down to eight and we're not close to done yet."

To be successful in this line of work you need certain intangible traits such as commitment, professionalism, reliability, a wealth of medical expertise—and, according to Lewis, the ability to compartmentalize.

"It's natural to be concerned or angry on the way to a certain type of call. I don't do well with domestic violence calls, I don't like them and have seen too many of them," Lewis said. "But, once those doors open and you're on the scene, you have to shut it all out and perform."

Lewis has been in the business since the early 1980s and has seen her fair share of the intricacies of the profession. According to her, she didn't choose this calling in life, it chose her.

"I used to work for the fire department and it was a lot of work to be a firefighter and, at the time, the only female in the department," Lewis said. "Fire was my passion, but the fire department in Gladstone (Mont.) asked me if I would take the EMT course and they would pay for the class."

Lewis, who had quit school at 15 and gotten married, said that the course was especially difficult for someone who had been out of school for more than 10 years.

"I sat at the kitchen table for hours and hours studying for that course and I would have quit if I hadn't made a commitment to the department. Hell, they were paying for the class, so I had to finish," she said. "It was in February of that year that I was doing a ride-along with the ambulance service, and the calling found me."

On that ride-along, Lewis' ambulance was dispatched out to a call involving a single vehicle rollover.

"The driver fell asleep and rolled the van, killing her husband, breaking her pelvis and causing a closed head injury for their 18-month-old infant in the car," Lewis recounted. "Back then we didn't have C-collars and longboards for pediatrics, so I had to just hold that baby's head and neck the whole way, kneeling down in that wheel well. I was talking to the baby and making sure the baby stays calm."

Lewis held that baby for the duration of the trip from near Gladstone to Bismarck.

"That was the moment," she said. "That was the hook for me, because I felt that I had made a difference with this child."

Sue Wallace, paramedic supervisor with Dickinson Area Ambulance Service, said that she was surprised that in such a male-dominated profession, the department in Dickinson was serviced overwhelmingly by women.

"We have 10 men here and 15 women, which is a bit atypical because we usually have around six men and close to 20 women," Wallace said. "I think it's because when we were hiring during the oil boom, a lot of the men were working a job and there were more women who were available."

Wallace has been in the industry nearly as long as Lewis, and she too can recall a lot of tough calls.

"This May will be the start of my 30th year," she said. "The hardest part of the job for me isn't the lack of time with friends and family, missed events or holidays, for me the hardest part are the tough calls—mostly those with kids."

Wallace said that there is a public misconception about what the Dickinson Area Ambulance Service is and what they do.

"People think that all we're here to do is to transport them to a doctor, that we're glorified taxi drivers," Wallace said. "The reality is that we are like an ER on wheels. We have the same capabilities as most emergency rooms, and there is nothing that they can do at the ER that we can't deliver in the back of our ambulance."

Wallace added, "The patients we deliver to the hospital have already had all the life-saving work already performed and the doctors can focus on long-term treatment of the patient."

Emergency medical responders are trained to provide out-of-hospital care in medical emergencies. There are many different types of emergency medical responders, each with different levels of training, ranging from first aid and basic life support to hospital emergency room levels of care.

"They don't understand that there are different levels, and that we perform care at different levels," Lewis said. "We have first responders that are taught to control bleeding, assisted ventilation and save the life. Then there are EMT's that can do additional tasks such as splinting and medicinal treatments such as nitroglycerin, narcan and epinephrine. Then there's the advanced EMT that can start IV's and run a cardiac monitor and can provide D50 to diabetics. Finally, the paramedic and flight medic can do all that stuff plus the same stuff that nurses do such as intubation and the wide range of medications."

Lewis added, "It's a lot more than being an ambulance driver."


©2019 the Dickinson Press (Dickinson, N.D.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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