• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Life on a 24-hour shift

Working a 24-hour shift for Woodford County Emergency Medical Services requires compassion, a willingness to help other people and never knowing exactly what to expect when you arrive at a scene. The adrenaline rush begins for EMS first-responders when they’re dispatched to an emergency. The paramedic and EMT (emergency medical technician) team get into their ambulance and immediately start thinking about what they are going to do before they ever arrive at the scene. However, the information they’ve received is “only as good as what the person on the phone is telling the dispatcher,” said Freeman Bailey, director of Woodford County EMS. “Because every run is different,” he said his paramedics and EMTs “think on their feet, and they’re problem-solvers.” If it’s a motor vehicle crash, the EMS team can’t wait for help when someone’s pinned inside a car. “My guys go inside the car with them,” said Bailey, a paramedic. “So at that moment,” he explained, “they’re inside the car, working with the patients, talking to them, calming them, treating those injuries. Trying to take a life-threatening injury and slow that process down so they can get them out and get them to the hospital.” The unintended actions of patients who are dealing with a psychological issue “can harm you in a heartbeat,” so first-responders must have the skill set to “talk them off those ledges,” said Bailey. EMT Dale Gilbert has an ability to calm a person in difficult circumstances so he’s called “the charmer,” by coworkers. If no one else can defuse a situation, Gilbert typically can talk someone into making a choice that doesn’t harm anyone – just because he remains compassionate in any situation. “I always joke with people that I’m not skilled to do anything, so I had to do this,” said Gilbert, laughing. He’s been an EMT since 1989 and can’t imagine doing anything else. He and his coworkers have a passion for the job and helping people, he said. “We work for absolutely the best citizens in the entire world,” Gilbert said. “… We see them on their worst days, and we still have people” like a family who took the time to thank first-responders for being nice and compassionate to them after their loved one passed away from a heart attack. “That’s the skill set … these guys have,” said Bailey. He said he’s thankful for a group of paramedics and EMTs who care about their patients and the loved ones of those patients. “You’ve got to be passionate about people,” explained Bailey, “… because we’re not seeing them at their best, we’re always seeing them at their worst. Gilbert teamed with paramedic Kent Berry for 12 years. The longtime partners and their supervisor likened working 24-hour shifts together for more than a decade to a marriage. Working alongside someone for 24 hours every third day of your life means “you know everything about that person,” said Berry, assistant director of Woodford County EMS. “For us, it worked out great.” Gilbert said he still mourns the day he stopped regularly working with Berry, who described their time together as “a fun 12-year run.” Because the partners worked together for so long on nearly every imaginable call, Berry said, “They know what you’re going to do. You know what they’re going to do.” And it didn’t matter if they were responding to someone having a heart attack or a motor vehicle accident. Berry said there was never a question who would go into a house to “talk out” an uncooperative person. “It was going to be him (Gilbert),” he said. “And 95 percent of the time, they’d walk right out of the house with him because … he didn’t come off as confrontational.” Their morning working together again (Berry was filling-in for Gilbert’s regular partner) on a recent Thursday was quiet. It wasn’t until after eating lunch at Wendy’s when they were dispatched to Arby’s for an elderly woman suffering from a possible diabetic issue. As sometimes happens, the medical condition of the woman was different from what was reported to dispatch. Because of a more complicated medical issue their patient needed to be transported to a hospital for further evaluation and treatment. When the woman tells Berry and Gilbert that she doesn’t want to go, “the charmer” talks her into going. Gilbert stays with her while Berry drives the ambulance to the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, where she’s been treated for other medical conditions in the past. On their trip to Lexington with a Woodford Sun reporter, Berry said he doesn’t turn on the lights or sirens because he knows his ambulance will cause fewer traffic problems if he drives with the normal flow of traffic. It’s a judgment call that depends on traffic conditions, he said. Statistics show an ambulance without lights and siren can arrive at a hospital at about the same time by driving with the flow of traffic instead of creating a situation where other motorists are trying to safely pull over and stop, Berry said. He noted an ambulance can’t travel more than 80-85 mph “going downhill,” so it doesn’t make sense to use lights and sirens in all situations. Another safety consideration is the paramedic or EMT riding in the back of a moving ambulance with a patient, Berry and Gilbert said. When Berry and Gilbert arrive at UK Hospital, they wheel their patient in, then Gilbert stays with her until a nurse comes into the room to take information about her condition. Gilbert knows a lot about his patient because he talked with her for more than an hour and learned her story. She has two dogs at home. If Gilbert could talk to his 10-year-old self and tell him what he’d get to do for a living, he said, “I would high-five myself.” “We get to do what every little kid wants to do. We get to hang out with firemen and police officers. And we get to go out and help people,” he explained. Being able to make a difference in someone’s life – in small ways – leave him thankful for his career. He appreciates being able to help an elderly man who has fallen out of bed. He wasn’t hurt, but just needed help getting up. As Gilbert and his partner were getting ready to leave, the elderly man grabbed Gilbert’s hand and told him, “Thank you … Without you, people like me would not be able to stay at home. I thank God every day for you guys.” If someone’s not capable of taking care of themselves and being safe at home, Bailey said his paramedics and EMTs will call social services, but that didn’t need to happen this time. Bailey worked part-time for awhile “because this job wears on you,” he explained. “You can only see stuff so long before it starts to weigh on you. But the reason I came back is because I love what I do. I love the people. “You either love doing this to help people … and help them through that crisis they’re going through. You’re not looking for the pat on the back. …It’s just the fact when you get up in the morning, and you look in the mirror, you like who’s looking back because you know you’re doing something that’s needed.” Berry felt that same call to service during his sophomore year at Woodford County High School. A health careers class gave him an opportunity to spend time with Bailey and others in emergency medical services. By his senior year, Berry said, “I pretty much lived here.” Bailey and others became paramedics in the mid-1990s and Woodford County EMS became an advanced life support or ALS department after that occurred. Woodford County EMS currently employs six fulltime EMTs and eight fulltime paramedics. The agency also has seven part-time EMTs and nine part-time paramedics, according to Bailey. He said they’d like to have more part-timers because their availability to fill shifts is limited by fulltime jobs – typically at other EMS agencies in Central Kentucky. “You got to give them time to have a life as well,” said Bailey. He said it’s unrealistic to expect a part-timer to work a 12-hour shift here after they’ve worked their regular 24-hour shifts at another agency. “Every now and then they’ve got to have a day just to unwind and do what they do,” he explained. The same holds true for his agency’s fulltime employees who work part-time jobs elsewhere, Bailey said. Bailey said he and his supervisors are constantly evaluating their crews because of the mental stresses of the job. One of his paramedics, a history buff, traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to “de-stress.” With 14 “vastly different personalities” on its fulltime roster, Woodford County paramedics and EMTs de-stress in many different ways, said Berry. He described his family as an anomaly because they all have jobs in medical fields, including his wife, a paramedic. “So Christmas for us, (it’s) no big deal. We just have it whenever it’s convenient,” he said. His son loves it because “he gets about three different Santa Clauses … You make it work,” added Berry. When children are raised by parents in emergency medical services, Bailey said, “It’s what they know.” Bailey said he’s learned to communicate with his wife of 34 years and “let her in” about the stresses of the job – even though she’s never worked in a medical field. “She can tell by the tone of my voice when I’ve had a bad day,” he explained. “… She just knew the ones that would bother you. You’d go home at night and you’d lie in bed and you’d toss and roll and turn.” Bad days for him and other first-responders often involve kids, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a teenager who’s been seriously injured or killed in a car wreck, or a toddler who’s drowned or been shot by a stray bullet, said Bailey. “You can’t put your mind around that,” he said. “That disturbs you, upsets you. It’s the same thing for our guys. “… Some of the worst runs that we’ve dealt with are kids.” The adrenaline in those situations rises higher for first-responders because they know children cannot rationally process or understand being injured like an adult can, said Berry. He said the situation becomes even more problematic if an injured child’s mom or dad has also been hurt in the crash. “They don’t have mom and dad to go in their arms. They have to go in our arms … and most kids shy away from strangers anyway,” said Berry. That situation becomes even tougher when the parents have been killed in the crash and “they’re (a son or daughter is) screaming at the top of their lungs for mommy or daddy,” added Bailey. “… You’re not only treating that kid, but you’re trying to get them to the hospital (and) get them evaluated (medically), but you’re trying to step into that role and help them (like a parent would). And that’s the stuff they (his paramedics and EMTs) go through…” Gilbert said it’s important for first-responders to realize they are human – not superheroes. “… We don’t wear a cape,” he explained. “… You can only do what you can. And you do the best you can for everybody.” He said the child of a first responder doesn’t know when they’re mom or dad hasn’t gotten much sleep during a busy 24-hour shift, so it’s important to have someone in your life who “loves you enough” to tell you when you need to take a break or get some sleep. There’s been a lull in the number of drug overdoses in the community in recent weeks, but Bailey and Berry know what goes down will eventually go up again. Police officers and other first responders carry Narcan so they can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and help save a person’s life in most situations. On some calls, paramedics and EMTs administer Narcan to an entire family or go to a home where multiple occupants have overdosed, according to the first responders. “The drug epidemic,” said Berry, “has reworked, reshaped the entire … (landscape) of emergency services.” The drug epidemic has resulted in first responders being dispatched to multi-million dollar farms and to the side of a road where a homeless person has overdosed, said Bailey. “It doesn’t discriminate,” said Berry of the drug epidemic. “It doesn’t matter your age, your sex, your race, your nationality, your wealth. (Drugs) don’t care.” On some occasions, paramedics and EMTs respond to homes where an elderly person has accidentally overdosed on his or her prescribed medications. “So there are honest mistakes that we respond to,” said Berry. Having known a time when Woodford County did not have its own hospital, Bailey said he appreciates what Bluegrass Community Hospital’s physicians and nurses do to “change the course of a lot of lives; and (they’ve) saved a lot of lives…” “The big difference is we need a new one, we need a new hospital (facility). They know it. We know it. They’ve just got to find a place to put it,” he added. Woodford County EMS has five ambulances, with three staffed during the week including a truck in Midway for eight hours daily. Bailey said changes to the state’s retirement system for new hazardous duty employees have played a significant role in a shortage of paramedics in Kentucky. In years past, he said people were drawn to lower-paying EMS jobs in the public sector because they could retire after 20 years of service. That’s no longer the case in an environment where privately-owned hospitals pay paramedics significantly more than any county EMS agency in Kentucky, said Bailey. “… Even though you weren’t going to be making as much as you would out in the private sector,” said Gilbert, “you’d have this good retirement. And now where that’s been altered, it’s really changed people’s perspectives as to whether or not to go into” this profession. Removing that carrot at the end of a career in public service for new employees has hurt the recruitment and retention of paramedics and EMTs coming into the profession, Bailey acknowledged. Still, he and others embrace serving their community and joining this “brotherhood” of emergency medical services. “It’s our dysfunctional family. They’re with each other as much as their family,” said Bailey of his full-timers. When EMT Bryan McPhail takes a break from studying for his paramedic test to join his co-workers, Gilbert tells him, “Let us learn from your elder wisdom.” At 57 years old, McPhail said he gets great satisfaction from being able to help people. “It’s a very good second career for older people. We bring maturity to the position, and we bring, hopefully, good judgment,” he said. McPhail (who also sold insurance) was a dispatcher in Oklahoma before moving to Kentucky and becoming a part-time EMT with Woodford County EMS. “We had smoke signals,” he said of his previous job in response to Gilbert’s earlier ribbing about his “elder wisdom.” “This is how you survive EMS,” said Berry.

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