I’ve been on the job less than 30 seconds and already the siren is blaring.
It’s no ordinary day. Today I’m buckled into the third seat of a LifeCare ambulance, speeding down old Amherst streets with lights flashing.
Before jumping in the rig, I barely had time to shake hands with my host paramedics. As we wind toward our first call — a 90-year-old widow with sudden onset dizziness — they shout that their names are Scott and Becky.
“There is no rhyme or reason to when these calls come,” yells Scott from the driver’s seat. “Sometimes we clock in at 8 and we’re on a run at 8:01.”
It’s barely five minutes before they have the patient loaded in the ambulance, strapped to a cot and hooked up to a heart monitor.
Watching them work, I feel I’ve known Scott Maines and Becky Sullivan a long time. They’re instantly personable, eminently professional yet open.
They smile and exchange banter with their patient, working some magic to put her at ease: “Ninety? I’d say you’re closer to 60,” Sullivan tells the woman, distracting her while sliding a needle into a vein. “You look good!”
“Warm enough?” Maines asks from the front as the ambulance gets underway. Laughing, he adds: “We can always drive out west to Vegas. It’s 80 degrees out there today.”
The light tone works. Soon the woman in the cot in front of me is feeling better, even joining in by cracking a joke of her own about getting her nails done.
In no time we’re at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Lorain and Maines and Sullivan are quickly, efficiently wheeling the patient inside.
In my years as a journalist I’ve so often seen medical emergencies play out from the side of the road, through a camera lens, via the words of a police report, or from the accounts of firefighters.
It’s rare to get such an up-close peek into the daily lives of EMTs and paramedics on the job. That’s mainly because Amherst’s ambulances are run by a private company and because there are all manner of rules regarding patient confidentiality.
With this first run of the day at an end, I finally have a chance to look around.
Lining the rear of the wagon are rows of supplies: syringes, IVs, tape, cold packs, tourniquets, and flushes. Directly to my right is a control panel with oxygen nozzles, heating switches, and a radio. I jot some notes, examine my environment closely, but it’s not long before the paramedics are back.
We head back to home base, which is Amherst Station 9 on Park Avenue, across the street from the University Hospitals Amherst Health Center.
Inside, I find couches, a television, a kitchen with warm coffee. I’m offered a cup and gladly accept (I didn’t have time for my morning mug) but before it’s done brewing the radio crackles and we’re off again.
This time it’s an 86-year-old Amherst man with general weakness. Sullivan has the ambulance at his house in no time flat. Three minutes later he’s on a cot and loaded, and it’s back to Mercy we go.
This time Maines rides in the back. His blue latex gloves fly expertly over a dozen dials and wires, adjusting oxygen and IV settings. But again it’s evident that delivering emotional treatment is just as important as physical.
There are questions about cardiac history, shakiness, allergies, and medications. But they’re interlaced with friendly chit-chat and soon Maines learns he’s treating a fellow U.S. Air Force veteran.
A medic of 15 years, he formerly worked under the hoods, so to speak, of A-10 Warthogs, B-52 bombers, and KC-135 aerial refueling craft. His patient opens up at that news, relating how his USAF history goes back to World War II.
His body is shaking and he’s cold. But the patient’s mind has been shifted a surprising amount away from all that by Maines’ confidence.
They talk about planes and old days bowling at Rebman’s. A few questions about anemia and stomach swelling are slipped in, and Maines reaches for the radio. Now all the information gleaned from those tiny questions are translated into a string of code. Numbers and jargon detailing the patient’s vitals and condition are clipped out at lightning pace to hospital staff on the other end of the line.
In a flash, we’re parked at Mercy, rear doors opening and cot sliding out.
Sullivan returns quickly to truck 375. I learn she’s been with LifeCare almost a decade and is now studying to become a registered nurse. She’s thrilled to learn we’re both parents of fraternal twins, our kids born 363 days apart. Between long shifts in the ambulance and school, every moment with her children is worth their weight in gold.
While for me the entire experience is shiny and new, this is a pretty typical day for her, with ordinary calls for Amherst.
On a 24-hour shift, about 12 to 15 runs are the norm.
Elderly patients with non-specific illnesses are routine. There’s a lot of intense headaches, nausea, dizzy spells, vomiting, high blood pressure, all-around weakness, and trouble breathing. Falls are common.
There are also often calls for stubbed toes, alcohol-related vomiting, toothaches, food poisoning, and coughs. No matter how small the emergency, if you ask for an ambulance, paramedics will never say no.
Of course, calls aren’t always so (relatively) placid.
The prior night, rescue workers responded to a suspected heroin overdose where Amherst police used naloxone to revive the patient.
Drug calls are all too frequent, my hosts say. Heroin is just as big a threat as ever to the city’s health, paramedics vow, and recently it’s been laced with fentanyl, which makes it all the more dangerous. And use of spice, a synthetic marijuana that affects the brain in a far different way than natural pot, is on the rise.
There are also domestic violence calls and plenty of other dangerous situations. Car crashes are high on that list. Maines also recalled one particularly gruesome instance not too long ago where he called in LifeFlight after a man fell, hit his head on a counter, seized, and started vomiting.
LifeCare vice president Herb de la Porte says those are pressures his workers face every day, and calls for service are growing year after year in Lorain County.
He has about 17 ambulances on the road every day with steady staffing around the clock because emergencies don’t discriminate by time of day.
“It’s really something,” he says. “There is always something happening, always someone who needs help.” And that’s why, for him, empathy is just as valued in his business as medical expertise.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Paramedics Scott Maines and Becky Sullivan roll out of Amherst Station 9, located on Park Avenue, ready for anything. LifeCare Ambulance kindly gave us an inside look at what it’s like to respond to emergency calls in the city.