EMS Lessons Learned Extend Beyond the Medical Field

The most important thing Meghan Connor needed to remember was where to find the gauze. In the back of the University of Delaware's student-run ambulance, the college freshman searched through cabinets and drawers trying to scrounge up whatever she could. Less than an arm's-length away, a university hockey player lay on a gurney, bleeding heavily from a cut down his side caused by a skate. The more experienced student emergency responders worked on the patient, while Connor took charge of finding bandages on just her second call.

Connor is part of a far-reaching network of student-run ambulance alumni who now find themselves working in healthcare. More than 250 on-campus EMS groups exist nationwide, and everyone associated with them agrees: It is one of the best ways for a student to prepare for a medical--or any other--career. "Even if you decide to go into business, you've acquired the skill of how to work with a team," says Dr. George J. Koenig, president of the National Collegiate Emergency Medical Services Foundation (NCEMSF). "It clearly builds your communication skills because you're interacting with people on the worst day of their lives--they're going to a hospital in an ambulance."

Although Koenig quickly recognizes the value of EMS experience in any professional field, most students join a college ambulance team with the intention of pursuing a career in medicine. And the results show. Dr. Baxter Larmon is the medical director of UCLA EMS, which produced about 100 physicians and 15 to 20 paramedics since he became involved. In the past six years, every student who applied to medical school was accepted, he said. "Is it something that helps them? Absolutely," says Larmon, who co-founded UCLA's Center for Prehospital Care. "It not only helps them get into medical school, but once they're there, I think it also makes an incredibly stronger physician as well."

Acquiring Skills Firsthand

Larmon is a mentor and counselor for UCLA EMS members interested in attending medical school, and he is also a professor at the UCLA School of Medicine. With a front-row seat through the entire process, he believes one of the biggest benefits for EMTs in medical school is the skills they acquire. "Ninety percent of what is taught in an EMT class is skills," he says. "You'll never learn in medical school how to stop bleeding--there is no lecture on stopping bleeding."

Koenig learned that firsthand upon his 1996 graduation from Bucknell University, where he worked on the Emergency Response Team. As a Bucknell EMT, he saw everything from lacerated extremities to eight-foot falls to cardiac arrests. In addition to gaining valuable experience, those kinds of stories can create a stronger medical school candidate in an interview. "It really gives you something to talk about," Koenig says. "It's not that exciting to say, ‘I shadowed a physician in an office setting and we saw patients. It was interesting, and I learned a lot.' Here you're actually the one providing the care and directly interacting with the person."

That interaction is one of the skills that translates across professions. Connor left the University of Delaware Emergency Care Unit (UDECU) upon her 2010 graduation, when she began her career as a labor and delivery nurse at Georgetown University Hospital. She applied to UDECU as a freshman, thinking she wanted to become an emergency room nurse. Her experiences do not directly carry over--no hockey players are in the maternity ward--but the communication skills do. "You learn how to deal with people and how talk to people when they're vulnerable," Connor says. "Whether they're hurt or drunk, I learned a lot about how to make sure the patients were comfortable so I could treat them the best I could."

Mentioning drunks, Connor reveals one of the common stereotypes about student-run ambulance services: Their typical patient is an intoxicated undergraduate. But municipal EMS teams respond to calls mostly for elderly people falling, Koenig says. Proportionately, the severe calls are relatively equal. "When you look at the actual critical number of calls that municipal EMS services respond to, it's not that different from the number of critical calls a campus service responds to," says Koenig. "It just so happens that instead of having an elderly fall account for a large percentage of your calls, we're responding to intoxicated patients."

Connor saw one of those severe calls with the hockey player, who was ultimately okay. Anthony Prizzi, UDECU coordinator and driver, responded to a call on Delaware's campus where a student broke a window, sliced his forearm and ruptured an artery. "He really lost a lot of blood, and it went from being very low stress when I walked in, to him going into shock," Prizzi says. "It really amped up the stress of the situation, but that's what I enjoyed about it."

Benefits Beyond Medicine

Prizzi is one of the student EMTs who does not intend on pursuing a career in medicine. He began to work with a local ambulance service in high school, but he is a psychology major at Delaware. Still, he benefits from his work as an EMT. "The people you meet on an ambulance run aren't really who they'd normally be--they're having an emergency," he says. "Patients want to see that you really care about them, and part of it is dealing with the psychology aspect of it."

Like Prizzi, Koenig began to work as an EMT in high school. He took a class in the summer before his senior year because he thought he would enjoy it--he had no idea it could continue at Bucknell. The Thomas Jefferson University Hospital trauma surgeon entered college with an open mind and considered pursuing a career as a chemist. After working as an EMT at Bucknell and the surrounding area in Lewisburg, PA, Koenig decided to remain in medicine. But had he taken another path, Koenig would still work on a college ambulance team. "I wouldn't have just stopped," he says. "There was an enjoyment and satisfaction to it."

It is an idea echoed by Prizzi and Connor. Prizzi chose Delaware because of UDECU, but Connor chose UDECU to get involved. The ambulance squad had a table at a fall semester involvement fair, where Connor and countless other freshmen sought new activities. Prizzi, a junior, calls his fellow UDECU EMTs his family. Koenig joined the Bucknell Emergency Response Team with his roommate, whom he did not know before college. At their heart, student-run EMS organizations are just that: student organizations.

Making a Difference

With NCEMSF, Koenig is a major part of ensuring that organization reaches across the country. Jon Diorio provided the impetus in 1993 for the first convention, which Koenig attended at Diorio's Georgetown campus in Washington, D.C. Diorio faded away from the organization and is now a senior project manager at Google, but Koenig promoted its growth. The first convention hosted more than 20 campus EMS teams, but more than 250 are affiliated with NCEMSF now. That number could be closer to 300, Koenig says, but it relies on self-reporting by each university.

And those universities rely on their student EMTs. "What I'm doing isn't just driving someone to the hospital, it's really making a difference in the outcome," Prizzi says. They man football stadiums that can host more than 50,000 people on Saturdays, and packed basketball arenas on weeknights. On weekends, they respond to drinking gone wrong. And seven days a week they have to be ready to drop their books and learn the best way possible: with hands-on experience riding an ambulance.

Steven Miller is sports editor for The Daily Targum, the official student newspaper of Rutgers University.

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