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Wadena’s EMS workers save lives for a daily routine

This year, National EMS Week is May 19-25. To help our readers better understand the experiences of Emergency Medical Service personnel, the PJ interviewed three EMS workers about the job. Their responses gave a glimpse into a career whose participants take pride in helping people at their most vulnerable.

Allen Smith

Allen Smith has been manager of TCHC’s Emergency Response Services for five years, and a EMS worker for 33.  He said the very idea of EMS is relatively new concept in healthcare, having only been in existence since the 1960s. Nowadays, Smith said, being a paramedic is all about using critical thinking to solve problems rather than just following protocol. He said a good EMS worker is conscious not only of the immediate problem facing a patient, but the long-term circumstances that may have led to the issue.

“We really want our medics now to be able think holistically of a patient; not just what they’re treating but what got (the patient) in that position,” Smith said.

Smith was quite proud of the 22 paramedics and EMTs under his direction at TCHC.

“They all interact very well,” he said. “Every one of our medics and EMTs... really focus on the patient and trying to give that quality of care to you or to anybody else in our service area.”   

“That quality” of Smith’s crew flies in the face of a misconception. It’s a misconception against which Smith takes serious issue: the false belief that rural health care means a lower standard compared to metro hospitals. On the contrary, he said -- it’s more important to have good medics in less populated areas than it is in the city since patients have longer to travel by ambulance in order to reach a hospital.

“Our paramedics... it’s not uncommon up into the Nimrod area (for example)  that they’re in the back of the truck with a very sick patient for 25, 25, even forty minutes -- 55 with very bad weather,” he pointed out.

Smith said the busiest time for Wadena paramedics is during flu season when people fall ill and are too sick to drive themselves to the hospital.

“(While) you would normally think we would have these huge spikes in the summer, it’s not necessarily so,” he said. “Flu season would be the worst.”

Bryan Savaloja

Bryan Savaloja splits his time between being an EMT and a deputy for the Wadena County Sheriff’s Office. He has two years’ experience with the former, and six with the latter. He said being a part-time EMT is a welcome change of pace from his main job in law enforcement, although it’s certainly no vacation.

“It’s still a stressful job, but it seems like it’s a different kind of stress,” he said.

Savaloja had some advice for anyone looking to become an EMT: communication is key.

“You have to be able to interact with people when they’re at one of the worst times of their life,” he said. “They don’t call you to just come over and visit.”

Julie Jenson

Julie Jenson has been in the medical field her whole career, but in EMS for only six years -- four as an EMT and two after receiving her certification as a paramedic. She said she’s always wanted to become one, but couldn’t pursue it until her kids were old enough to look after themselves while their mother was on the job. To describe a paramedic’s typical day in the field would be impossible, she said, because of the wide variety of tasks that they might be called upon to perform.  For example, medics already certified still train often in order to be completely up to date on medications and procedures, and they analyze past ambulance runs that they’ve made in order to figure out how to improve their response.  

Jenson is currently sifting through a stack of textbooks and notes that relate to the new concept of a “community paramedic”. The statewide program, in development at TCHC, will put Jenson and fellow EMT-P Sharon Heinen out in the homes of people with chronic ailments -- checking up on them, educating them and making sure their problems don’t turn into something that forces them into the ER. The idea is to work towards tamping down healthcare costs for people in rural areas like Wadena.

“We can help try to guide, prevent... be an extension of the doctors,” Jenson said. “If the doctor wanted us, they could write a prescription for us to go out and assess this patient after so many days -- whatever they felt was necessary -- and we can go out and be eyes and ears for the doctor...”

In Jenson’s opinion, the best part of the job is the people she meets, and the power she has to give those people aid when they’re in danger.

“To know that you’re helping somebody, and that we have the ability to do that in a time of their crisis... just is good. It’s a good thing,” she said.

Jenson said the most difficult aspect of being a paramedic is when a call doesn’t end up going the way they were trained. Even after those moments occur, she said, a paramedic dealing with emotional aftermath of a traumatic call has a de facto support network of co-workers who are always there to talk. There are also formal meetings set up so paramedics can discuss what’s affecting them.

“Any time anything bad or graphic (happens), we do have meetings where we sit around and talk about it,” Jenson said. “The hospital’s very good at making sure we have those needs met.”  

Jenson beamed with pride when the conversation turned to her kids, who are all going into medicine. One daughter is becoming a veterinarian, another is an RN and her son is training to be an EMT himself.

“They find it very fun and exciting,” she said.

Jenson shares their attitude towards the field of healthcare.  

“I -- for the first time ever --  love my job,” said Jenson.