EMS From a Distance: Citizen medics

You don’t have to work in EMS to make an EMS education worthwhile

In the mid 1980s, when my young daughter, Becky, had her first asthma attack, I was still six or seven years from starting an EMS career. My wife and I had just enough awareness of respiratory distress to call 911 right away.

It was middle-of-the-night scary as we waited for our local volunteer agency to staff an ambulance. Ask me now and I’ll tell you it took half an hour, but it was probably more like 10 minutes. All I know is I spent that time wishing I better understood emergent care, both physiologically and logistically.

I was seconds away from loading Becky in our car and driving her to the hospital when rescue arrived. I’m glad I waited, because the nebulized Alupent she got en route helped her a lot more than anything I could have done. That positive outcome was definitely a factor in my decision to change careers and become a paramedic, but what if I’d just wanted to learn more about medicine – a lot more? Would it have been worthwhile for me to pursue EMS training in my spare time, even if I’d be responding only as a father, neighbor or good Samaritan?

Firefighters and medical professionals provide free hands-only CPR training during National CPR Week.
Firefighters and medical professionals provide free hands-only CPR training during National CPR Week. (Photo/Los Angeles County Fire Department)

A medical professional in the family

Back in EMT school, I don’t remember any classmates saying they were seeking certification primarily to help family and friends. The closest was a volunteer who said he just wanted to take care of his fellow firefighters. That didn’t sit well with the healthcare elitists among us. Perhaps we were hasty in our judgment.

In the 25 years since I joined EMS, I’ve used my assessment skills dozens of times to counsel family members. That number is easily over 100 if I include every off-duty instance of friendly advice. I may have been short on equipment in those situations, but my most important tool was a paramedic-level understanding of physiology and pharmacology – almost always enough to distinguish emergencies from less-urgent conditions.

Even a medic who’s never worked in the field knows more than the average Dr. Phil devotee. You don’t graduate from a legitimate paramedic program without a bolus of book-learning, which counts for a lot when all the woman next door wants is to play what-if about her son’s fever. I believe that’s reason enough for some citizens with plenty of discretionary time to add EMS as an avocation.

Adult education: Recreational or really useful?

Prehospital training is aggressively promoted through EMS channels. If the public also knew about those opportunities, would adult-education seekers opt for a mission-critical alternative to, say, Picture Framing or Art Appreciation? Maybe, if prospective students remained realistic about their capabilities and didn’t feel intimidated by full-time medical professionals. That’s when collegial instructors can make a difference.

I was 26 and still years away from entering EMS when I decided to find something more constructive to do in the evenings than watch “Starsky & Hutch” reruns. I got ahold of an adult-education catalog from the local high school and narrowed my choices to Self Defense and Conversational German – the latter because I wanted to prepare for an unlikely trip to the land of my ancestors, and the former because I was tired of losing every fight I’d ever been in.

I picked Self Defense. The semi-weekly sessions didn’t immediately make me feel more confident about protecting myself or my family, because I lacked the practical savvy David, our instructor, had. He was an ex-military guy with plenty of real-world experience, but he was also patient and determined to show us what we could do, instead of what we couldn’t. I ended up with a new skill set – one much more useful, I figured, than knowing all 16 ways to say “the” in German.

A de facto EMS agency of one

Like David, the best EMS educators accentuate the possible. Their bias toward being inclusive, rather than exclusive, would be a selling point for older students with much more modest goals than surviving 20 years in our business.

Imagine the advantages of EMS training for those who just want to be better parents or neighbors. Instead of feeling clueless during episodes of illness or trauma, the citizen-paramedic could evaluate presenting problems from a knowledgeable perspective and minimize the inconvenience and expense of just-in-case ED visits. Specialize in answering one question – “Do I need a doctor?” – and you become an agent for the greater good as surely as those who volunteer daily in the field.

Becky is 36 now and a parent herself. She’s glad those community-minded rescuers helped her decades ago, but I’m pretty sure she’s even happier to have a medic in the family.

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