When the radio goes off, they respond at a run. It can go off anytime: in class, at dinner, while they're sleeping. And they run wherever the dispatch tells them. They run to the ambulance, or directly to the scene, if it's closer, carrying a jump bag full of supplies on their backs. They run toward destruction: chem lab explosions, car accidents, broken bones, and blood. And when they arrive, there's no time to hesitate. They simply do their job, treating injuries as they find them. And when it's all over, they return to their daily lives as college students.
Many collegiettes dread getting sick on the same day as a major exam, but for students who serve as volunteer emergency medical technicians (EMTs), they're also hoping someone else doesn't get sick. The life of a collegiate EMT is a stressful one, and walking around in an unflattering uniform is only the least of their worries. Throughout the course of a regular school day, collegiette EMTs have to be ready to respond at a moment's notice to an injured or sick patient on campus and balance their schoolwork and social lives at the same time.
So what does it take to be a member of an emergency medical service (EMS) team in college? Her Campus spoke to three student EMTs to get the full scoop on everything from an average day to the most serious medical scenarios they've faced.
(Photo Credit: Julie Elliott-Abshire)
Claire McDaniel, a junior at Georgetown University, is an acting crew chief in GERMS, which stands for Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service and is pronounced exactly the way you'd think. Despite its tongue-in-cheek acronym, GERMS is a prestigious emergency response unit with a more than 30-year history. "Sometimes you’re exhausted, and sometimes the calls are difficult," Claire says about her work as an EMT. "There’s a lot less sleep than you think, a lot more late night chart writing, and the calls are so much more vivid and grittier than I imagined." But despite all that, being an EMT doesn't seem to faze her. "I love it, though," she tells us.
GERMS is a completely student-run organization, and just like with most college EMS organizations, the members don't get paid, although they staff their units 24/7 while classes are in session. "The hardest thing is definitely balancing the time commitment and schoolwork, and occasionally trying to sleep," Claire says. Most members on Claire's unit commit to anywhere from 6 to 12 hours a week to the unit, but Claire puts in a little more time. As an officer in her organization, she spends an average of 15 hours on duty a week, and administrative duties add up to 8 hours a week on top of that. In total, it is equivalent to a part-time job.
Kelsey Hirotsu, a senior at Johns Hopkins University, is a crew chief and treasurer of HERO, the Hopkins Emergency Response Organization. Kelsey also finds the time commitment one of the most difficult aspects of the job. Her rank as crew chief means that she is in charge of the other members of the four-person team responding to an emergency, and that any decisions ultimately fall on her shoulders. It also means a larger time commitment; while crew members are expected to volunteer for a minimum of one 8-hour shift per week, Kelsey must volunteer for a minimum of 24 hours of service each week, completing three 8-hour shifts. However, many members of her rank spend more than 40 hours a week with a radio clipped to their belts. Although EMTs can attend class and sleep while on duty, they can't leave campus and they have to be ready to respond when their pagers go off. "It was hard to dedicate so much time and to not burn out over the years," she tells us of her four years on the unit. "It was hard to stay focused on why I joined in the first place and to stay above all of the drama and wearisomeness of it all."
(Photo Credit: Douglas Gomes)
Patients... Or Classmates?
Kelsey brings up an important point: there is drama involved when your patients are also your classmates. Kelsey describes being an EMT as a "reality check," especially when you're treating the same people in your classes. "You see someone that you know that was walking and talking and laughing just hours ago, in a condition where her or his health may be in jeopardy," she says. "It’s scary and it makes you realize how valuable life and health is."
Lindsey Mahoney, a senior at Georgetown and another member of GERMS, expands on how difficult it is to treat other members of the student body. "It's more difficult to objectify the situation, and it’s also difficult to see someone that you know suffering," she says. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Many college EMS units have mandatory transport protocols in place, which means that certain patients have to go to the hospital no matter what. These patients might be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, have suffered a head injury, or simply be under the age of 18. For universities, it's a way to ensure that all their students stay safe, but it can mean tricky situations for the student responders. "When it’s someone that you know personally refusing to go to the hospital, it’s a little more difficult to be the bad guy and tell the person that they don’t have a choice," Lindsey says.
Another issue that comes up frequently is patient privacy. "It's difficult to not acknowledge the incident next time you see one another," Lindsey says of tough calls that involve classmates. But it's not just awkwardness; she is referring to the HIPAA Privacy Rule, a federal law that governs all healthcare providers, including college EMTs, regarding patient privacy. Responders aren't allowed to disclose any information that could identify a patient, except to the hospital, law enforcement, or a few other special exceptions, and only under certain conditions. And college EMTs don't take HIPAA lightly: violating the law can result in fines or imprisonment. "Often patients don’t realize the strict confidentiality requirements that go into EMS," Lindsey says.