Thursday, January 29, 2009
A night with EMS
Underneath the Crescent City Connection
January 28th, 2009
New Orleans, La.
Dear Family and Friends,
From underneath, the bridge looks like it belongs in Gotham. Ambulances line a curbside and around the corner, there is a lot where EMS paramedics once grounded rescue helicopters after Hurricane Katrina. Nights like these, cold enough to see warm breath, are typically slow. No matter the temperature, paramedics respond to citizens' most vulnerable or embarrassing moments-sometimes they pick men up who've fallen off bar stools.
The New Orleans' Emergency Medical Services (EMS) department has 116 members. It's not so infrequent, however, that the department seems much larger because of EMT trained volunteers. They are called VIGORs, a 30-year-old acronym for the City's volunteer program, Volunteers in Government of Responsibility.
Many of them, especially the young and eager, volunteer more than 20 hours a week.
Ben Swig, 26, is one of those guys. He's a graduate student at Tulane University. A San Francisco native, he has been "riding" since age 19. "I love it," Swig says. "You learn the city really well by riding on an ambulance. You know the fastest routes and the best places to eat at 4 am."
Swig looks like a paramedic. Acts like one too. He isn't afraid to offer assistance or ask a patient a question. But he's the first to hop off the truck to unload a stretcher, a sign he knows his place. But, as T.J. Boudreaux, the lead paramedic on this truck says, "VIGORs are so valuable."
Our first call, a man is short of breath. As an on-looker, Swig, the volunteer, looks and acts like he's on the payroll. After they get the man on the ambulance, Boudreaux asks, "What was the (blood) pressure, Ben?"
Swig answers calmly and moves with Boudreaux's next orders.
The EMS-VIGOR program has been around since 1985 and many volunteers have been hired as full-fledged paramedics. Volunteers must have received their EMT-Basic credentials, which typically takes one semester to complete. They also agree to work at least one 12-hour shift every 60 days. At last count, 24 people are listed as active EMS VIGORs and paramedics rate their performance on every shift. The paramedics, who've been around long now, they like to talk about the young volunteers way back when who become powerful and prestigious doctors around the City.
Boudreaux has been with EMS for five years. He volunteered nearly three shifts a week for an entire year before being hired. "They get to know you," he says. "And I really got to see what being a paramedic was like."
They are scared, the first time.
Boudreaux was on a shooting call during his first volunteer ride. "You start out as an observer," Swig says. "But as you gain trust they give you more."
Paramedics, the men say, don't have queasy feelings regular people might have seeing tragedy. It's their job, they say, to get sick or injured people from "Point A to point B in the best condition possible."
On normal trips to the hospital, as one medic drives with red beams on high, the other works on the patient. Sometimes, if the patient is bad enough, the paramedic's options are limited.
"A VIGORs extra hands are important," Boudreaux says. "Working on a cardiac arrest, it doesn't stop. You need an extra hand, but if there is only me and the driver you have to stop doing other things."
The trio tonight includes EMT Anthony Calvin, 25, who jokes with Swig like he's a part of their crew. Swig says he knew he was in with Calvin and Boudreaux when he got to see pictures of Calvin's daughter.
"It's fun, you're always learning something," Swig says. "The friendship, we have a blast."
To inquire about volunteer opportunities with the EMS-VIGOR program, click on the EMS department's portal on www.cityofno.com