As I arranged a 4-hour ridealong with Westport’s Emergency Medical Service, officials warned: There are days when absolutely nothing happens. Be prepared to sit.
A mid-April Wednesday was not one of those days.
I had just walked into the EMS hallway, next to police headquarters, when the call came in: a 34-year-old male with chest pains, at a Post Road store.
Deputy director Marc Hartog shepherded me into his fly car. He pulled out of the bay, hit the siren — and I watched in amazement as an impatient Imperial Avenue driver tried to cut him off.
Welcome to Westport, and the unsung world of our EMTs.
Police and firefighters were first on the scene, as they often are. But the paramedics took over, reassuring their patient while taking a medical history, providing oxygen and placing him on a stretcher.
The ambulance’s interior resembled a boat or plane: well-stocked, with no wasted space. As we headed to Norwalk Hospital, a paid paramedic and 2 volunteers worked efficiently. They checked vital signs, administered nitroglycerin and baby aspirin, communicated with the emergency room, and obtained insurance information.
That saved crucial minutes. When we arrived the patient was transported quickly inside, and hospital staff took over. Total time, from receiving the call to leaving Norwalk for the trip home: 38 minutes.
I learned a lot watching EMS in action. They’ve got a very intriguing story — and it’s one not many Westporters know.
Approximately 120 others — all unpaid — comprise our Volunteer Emergency Medical Services. They are students, business executives, attorneys, housewives, retirees and more.
The oldest volunteer — Jay Paretzky — is 72. He takes 2 shifts a week, and teaches nearly every CPR class. In the 1st 3 months of this year, he worked 400 hours for WVEMS.
The youngest volunteers are 29 high school students, part of an Explorer post. They undergo the same extensive training as the older volunteers, and perform nearly all the same tasks. (It’s not all adrenaline-inducing. They restock ambulances and write reports too.)
The initial EMT certification class involves 200 hours of classroom and practical work. Re-certification — with another 30 hours of refresher classes, and a state exam — takes place every 3 years. There’s in-service training every month, too.
The paramedic program takes 2,000 hours, spread over 18 to 24 months. It includes clinical rotations in hospital settings. Every month, paramedics complete 4 hours of continuing education.
In other words: The guys (and gals) who take care of us know exactly what they’re doing.
Yves Cantin is a WVEMS volunteer. The father of 3 children, he takes a 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift every Wednesday and Friday. He spends many more hours as the organization’s treasurer.
Why does he do it?
“There a good feeling of helping the community,” he says. “It’s rewarding to deliver care that’s needed.”
Cantin has learned that despite Westport’s affluent image, our town is filled with a variety of physical and emotional needs.
He adds, “I’ve made friends through EMS. And I learn something on every call.”
EMS has 3 ambulances, 3 SUV fly cars, and a fleet of light-and-siren-equipped bicycles for staffing crowd-heavy events. EMS responds to 7 or 8 calls a day — that’s 2500 times a year — from Westport residences, schools, stores, offices, beaches, as well as incidents at our nursing home, Hall-Brooke, and on I-95 and the Merritt.
The town pays for the basics. But — in addition to volunteering their services — WVEMS fundraises for an astonishing array of equipment. They not only buy the ambulances ($190,000 each), but also an expanded $85,000 ambulance bay; the $20,000 stretchers that lift patients automatically into the backs of ambulances, and nearly everything in each ambulance, from child immobilization devices to stair carriers. (With 3 ambulances, they need 3 of everything.)
The net cost to Westport is small indeed. The value is priceless.
“Without our passionate paid staff, and the thousands of hours WVEMS puts in — including fundraising — we couldn’t do this,” Hartog says.
(What fundraising? A low-key annual letter, sent to Westport residents. No hard sell here — even though their service deserves it.)
EMS does not miss much. They rotate ambulances on every call. Reducing wear helps them last 10 years, far more than the national average. Ambulances are plugged in after each use, ensuring that batteries running the many medical devices stay charged.
Hartog — whose first encounter with emergency medicine came at Columbia University, when he took a first-aid class to get out of a gym requirement — says that every day is different.
“Some calls are really routine. The next time though, you have to make a split-second decision. Someone’s life is in your hands.”
Hartog, Cantin and paramedic Rick Baumblatt — also on duty the day I was there — recall the satisfaction of receiving a letter from a man or woman (or child) who was almost dead.
The family of a skateboarder with major head trauma sends a fruit basket every year. Another family — whose elderly relative was brought back from full cardiac arrest — thanks EMS often for giving them an extra 6 years together.
For the rest of us, there are 2 things we can do for our emergency medical staff.
We can say “thank you” whenever we see them.
And when that fundraising letter comes, we can give generously to EMS.
Because — paid or volunteer — they give very generously to us.