Is your ambulance partner safe at home?
Our concern for personal and partner safety needs to extend from scene safety to off-duty safety from intimate partner violence and abuse
EMT Ashley Scott, allegedly shot to death by her husband — also an EMT — is my most recent reminder of Kelly Wing-Schmidt.
Throughout a 12-hour shift with paramedic student Kelly, I asked her all sorts of questions:
- What is the pediatric dose of diphenhydramine for anaphylaxis?
- When will you want to recheck this patient's vital signs?
- Are you worried about this woman's blood pressure? Why not?
- Should we assist this patient off the floor or do we need to lift her?
- Why do you want to be a paramedic?
- Do you want to get a job here?
I always enjoyed having students on the ambulance and really embraced the role of instructor and mentor. Kelly answered my questions and asked me just as many questions. She was eager to learn and I was thrilled to help.
The question I never asked Kelly that day: "Are you safe at home?"
A few weeks later her estranged husband, Scott Schmidt, a full-time firefighter, fatally shot Kelly and injured his mother-in-law. Kelly was only 39 and was remembered as caring, genuine and full of life.
I made a vow to honor Kelly
I think of Kelly, her five kids and family and her potential as a caregiver — a life cut short by an abusive and violent man — each time I read news about a woman killed by a boyfriend or spouse.
I don't recall a hint, a gut feeling or notion that Kelly may have been in danger during the half-day I spent with her. But after she was murdered I made a vow that if I ever believed a friend, a relative or a co-worker was in danger from domestic abuse or intimate partner violence that I would start the conversation with this question: "Are you safe at home?"
Intuition is the powerful hardwiring that drives us to fight or flee. It also enables us to suspect and recognize internal bleeding, sepsis, stroke or heart attack before we have collected any vital signs or connected patient electrodes. EMS providers make at-the-door first impressions on every patient contact. Is the patient sick or not sick?
I received an article from a woman dating a paramedic. She wrote about his struggles with PTSD. As I read the article, alarm bells were ringing — sleepless nights, alcohol abuse and unpredictable behaviors. I reached out to her immediately, "Are you safe at home?"
She quickly replied, "Totally safe at home. I didn’t realize it read like that."
Almost no one ever asks the question, "Are you safe?" when they suspect domestic violence. So, for Kelly, I became the guy who always asks. I was thrilled and relieved the writer's answer was "safe."
Too often bad situations go on too long because no one was the first to reach out. Kelly Grayson so eloquently wrote, "peer support is the lifeline that never fails."
I don’t want to be the one that could have said something and didn’t out of fear for an awkward conversation.
Honor the dead by helping the living
My heartaches for the friends and family of Kelly Wing-Schmidt and Ashley Scott. I am sure they are worried sick about signs of abuse they either saw or might have missed. Forgive yourself, talk about it and ask for help. One of the best decisions I ever made was seeking out help from my agency's employee assistance program after Kelly's murder.
This isn't the first time EMS1 has covered an EMS provider who was known to be or might have been the victim of domestic abuse. Texas paramedic Melissa Morden was allegedly killed by her boyfriend. Ohio firefighter-paramedic Tonya Johnson was hit and killed by a car after an argument with her husband. Her family challenged the medical examiner's ruling that her death was a suicide. Connecticut EMT Lisa Infante was shot and killed by her husband.
EMS providers are constantly assessing safety in dynamic and potentially life-threatening situations. Our concern for safety is personal and partner focused. Our intuition skills don't shut down between calls or during off-duty interactions. If your alarm bells ring about the threat or actual danger of violence be willing to ask, "Are you safe at home?"
Or make your own script. Art Hsieh, EMS1 editorial advisor, recommends this approach, "I am concerned for your safety. There are people and programs that can provide you with assistance. You do not need to be treated this way."
Yes, these scripts can be used for patients, partners, friends or relatives. Trust your instincts and ask a simple question which might save a life.
If you or someone you love is the victim of domestic violence, you are not alone and there is help available. Search www.domesticshelters.org or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).