Eva Murray: It’s about showing up. Some thoughts on EMS Week
May 19 - 25 was Emergency Medical Services week. We tend to think of the folks who show up in the ambulance as heroes. They are, sometimes, but they are also… us. These guys are not some other species of human being; EMTs are people who are willing to put their time, brains and strong backs to work for their community. Being an EMT means responding with knowledge and compassion and a certain amount of specialized gear to people in crisis, but it also means going out in the cold, confronting justifiable fear, working hard while tired, and knowing that you don’t have all the answers.
Emergency responders are a diverse group. They aren’t just the paramedics with the high-tech equipment who come running, move at lightning speed, speak in obscure codes and medical-ese on radios, heavy-laden with acronyms and yelling “stat!” because every second counts. Sometimes that happens, to be sure (although I’ve never really heard that “stat!” bit; I think that’s from an earlier time). Real life isn’t only about the drama or the speeding ambulance, the lights and sirens or the uniform. I get the EMS magazines, and to read the advertisements you would think emergency response is really all about the latest in lifesaving electronics, expensive medical gizmos, and cutting-edge technology.
Mostly it’s about showing up.
As we recognize professional emergency responders this week, we should keep in mind the many who respond when called even if that’s not what they do for 40 hours a week. Remember the many basic-level EMTs in small towns all over the place, many of whom are volunteers with other jobs. Remember the ski patrollers. Remember the game wardens and marine patrol officers and park rangers who might happen to be the first person to arrive on scene. Consider the wilderness first responders among the Maine Guides and white water raft trip leaders and camp counselors and boat captains and mountaineers. Think of the unlicensed people who know how to do CPR responding in the supermarket parking lot or on the subway.
Think of the local EMTs who respond to a scene in the next town over and find a friend among the bloodied patients.
Think of the rescuers outdoors in the worst of the weather, on steep, muddy woods trails and rocky ledges, on rough, steely-gray seas, driving behind snow plows in blizzard conditions, or parked at the edge of a terrible structure fire.
EMS isn’t normally like television. It definitely isn’t glamorous, and sometimes it isn’t as neat and structured as we’d like. Often, it is like this: the phone rings or the pager beeps or the tone goes off on the radio at 2 a.m. and the responder rolls out of bed, pulls on a pair of boots, and heads out into the rain because something bad happened to somebody, somewhere. It is often a compassionate, skilled sort of grunt work.
So, I should say “find a local emergency medical responder and thank them for what they do,” and that’s a good start, but here are some even better ideas:
* Take a CPR class. Even if you never have occasion to do CPR, simply learning to recognize a life-threatening medical emergency and making the decision to act right away is the biggest part of saving a life. A lot of people standing around saying, “Oh my God, somebody do something!” doesn’t help the patient. If you do see somebody drop, remember: the brain can only survive a few minutes without oxygen. A person in cardiac arrest needs one thing right away, and that’s oxygen to the brain. That’s what CPR is for.
* Start paying attention to where AEDs are in public places, and learn how to use one. This is part of most CPR classes now and takes very little time to learn. An Automated External Defibrillator is actually a simple “consumer electronics” type device, and does not require that you have any sophisticated medical training. The machine will actually talk to you and tell you what’s going on! It’s easier to learn to use than your new digital camera or smart phone, you are not going to get electrocuted, and you’ll see them in more and more places of public assembly. The problem is we don’t normally take notice of them. Keep an eye out for an AED in a box on the wall as you walk through the mall, the airport, or the civic center. Even if you don’t end up using it, be the person who knows what it is and WHERE it is if the need arises.
* Cultivate common sense: for example, don’t go hiking on Mount Washington with nothing for emergency supplies except a cell phone.
* Wear your seat belt, ski helmet, life vest, industrial safety glasses, reflective jacket, leathers, your Husqvarna hard hat… whatever the job or the particular fun indicates for your safety. Teach your kids to do the same, and help cut down on the number of patients.
* If you rely on prescription medications, have a list of all your medications and where they are stored somewhere very obvious, like on your refrigerator. That way, if you are the patient, professional responders or neighbors can make sure your needed meds go with you to the hospital. Some local agencies have a “vial of life” program or some similar arrangement where everybody in that community is offered a container or card that looks the same and instructions on where to put it, just for this purpose.
* Be a good neighbor: shovel out the nearby fire hydrants on your street, check on your elderly neighbors when it’s very cold or the power goes out, or offer to be a designated driver.
* Volunteer for what you can. Every volunteer firefighter started out as the new guy; nobody is born with those skills. If you’re in the area, I heard that the Owls Head Fire Department is looking for new members right now. Consider joining a search, if you’re good in the woods, or consider volunteering to be a safety person in your workplace if that suits your personality. If you swim well, maybe you could take lifeguard training and help out at your local pool or public beach. If you’re good on the telephone, perhaps you could help with fundraising or community outreach when there is a need for that. Meals on Wheels or other agencies might be looking for help. Most volunteering will require that you get at least a little bit of training of some kind. It’ll make you feel good.
* If you walk or bike along the road after dark, for goodness sakes, dude, carry a flashlight or wear reflectors! Cripes. Oh, and on that note, stay off the freakin’ railroad tracks. This ought to be easy.
* Support your local public safety and EMS agencies in whatever ways make sense: with your vote at town meeting, your letter to the newspaper or to the city council, or your contribution of money or time or effort at fundraising events.
* Remember that in the “back country,” where many of us recreate and some of us live, instant access to professional rescue is not going to happen, cell phone signal is still sometimes unreliable, response and transport times are long, and weather plays a big part in how fast help can arrive. Hypothermia, dehydration, and fear can turn a small problem --such as a common injury or a vehicle failure-- into a considerably bigger problem. If you are going hunting, kayaking, snowmobiling, fishing, hiking, sailing, whatever: be prepared. Learn a bit about the area you’ll be enjoying, bring maps, extra food, extra clothing, whatever will help if you get broke down or lost or injured. Think ahead about how you might manage if somebody in the group got hurt. Make sure at least somebody in your group stays reasonably sober. Make sure somebody back in civilization knows where you are.
* Unsupervised kids and guns don’t mix. Alcohol and guns don’t mix. Take this stuff seriously.
* Get over the attitude that “I could never do that, I’m not that brave, I could never help.” Very likely, you are, and you could. Take that CPR class.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.
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