Shootings, Births and Stress: Inside the Life of an EMS Pro

Fire and police may get the glory, but EMS professionals are truly unsung heroes of our emergency services. They take calls that put them in danger and treat medical emergencies in the field, saving lives.

The radio crackles and sirens wail as we speed down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, dodging confused motorists and slowing through red lights. Few cars pull over. If there’s one lesson I learned in my ride-along with Chatham Emergency Services, it’s this: always, ALWAYS pull over when you hear a siren. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for EMS personnel in the line of duty.

“It’s terribly stressful, I’m sorry,” District Chief Mary Meeks apologizes as she deftly navigates around cars blocking our path. “People just don’t know what to do. To be fair, the law is to pull off to the right, but if I’m in the right lane trying to get around other cars, there’s nowhere to go.”

We are on our way to a call for a diabetic in distress. When we arrive, Meeks springs into action pulling gear from the back of her supervisor SUV and administering lifesaving help to a man collapsed in the doorway of a local church.

The call is pretty routine. That said, there are no typical calls for EMS professionals. “Things can get weird really fast, and it happens on calls you don’t imagine would be scary,” Meeks says. One night, she took a non-emergency call for foot pain in an affluent neighborhood on the west side of Chatham County. “My partner and I roll up at three a.m. and knock on the door. The guy pulls out a gun.” The caller gave them the wrong address.

“My partner and I roll up at three a.m. and knock on the door. The guy pulls out a gun."

They left unharmed, but dangerous situations present themselves more than one would think for people in the business of saving lives. “We’ve had our people assaulted. I’ve been assaulted – bit, hit, kicked, spit on. Family members get hostile. Thankfully, all of it has been minor. There have only been a small handful of times where I felt unsafe,” Meeks says. “People don’t shoot at us. We just happen to be there when they decide to start shooting.”

Danger is always a reality, but Meeks’ favorite type of call endears. “I love delivering babies,” she confesses. The first she delivered was born with the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. “He came out blue and not crying. I’m trying to stimulate him and get him to wake up. Thankfully, he did. He started crying, and I cried. Oh my gosh, I cried. I cry every time I deliver babies. It’s so lame.”

She jokes, but delivering babies, saving lives, and facing danger are no laughing matters. Despite everything that EMS professionals do, they are the unfortunate redheaded stepchild of the first-responder world. The new kids on the block, relatively speaking. According to the Emergency Medicine Residents’ Association, the first public ambulance hit the streets in Cincinnati in 1865. Still, it wasn’t until the 1960s and the dramatic increase in traffic accidents that accompanied that era, that the profession took off. The town doctor became the city hospital, which necessitated a way to get from here to there. Thus, EMS was born.

Fire brigades and peace officers are longer-established, far more recognizable, and their roles well defined – protect life and property, put out fires, stop crime from happening. “There’s so much more diversity in what we do,” Meeks says. “The public has this idea that we just pick them up and take them to the hospital. I make decisions for people by myself that can radically alter the course of their lives.”

Making those split-second decisions, EMTs and paramedics may not get the glory, but they are heroes to the people whose lives are in their hands.

When you need to call
Non-emergency calls are one of the biggest causes of burnout for EMTs and paramedics. People don’t regularly face emergency situations, so it’s hard to know what constitutes a true emergency. As a result, the 911 system gets overloaded and emergency crews are spread thin. Here’s when you need to call:
• Severe allergic reactions 
• Breathing problems
• Uncontrolled bleeding
• Vomiting or coughing blood
• Loss of consciousness 
• Suicidal ideation
• Poisoning
• When victim cannot move
• Chest pain
• Severe pain especially if it wakes you up
• Sudden changes in behavior like confusion or lack of responsiveness
• Changes in vision or balance
​• You are alone and in distress

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