Profuse bleeding, drug overdose, and cardiac arrest aren’t the first things that come to mind when imagining an undergraduate experience. However, that’s just a day in the life of an Emory Emergency Medical Services (EEMS) member. EEMS mainly serves DeKalb County where calls come in for anything from a paper cut to a mass shooting. The fact that it is staffed by students rather than full-time professionals does not diminish EEMS’ impact on both the Emory and Dekalb communities. However, it does raise certain concerns regarding the wellbeing of the student EMTs.
After receiving the Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society report in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed that accidental injuries accounted for the greatest number of deaths in America that previous year, with more casualties from vehicular accidents than fatalities from the Korean War. (Edgerly, 2013) Dubbed the White Paper, this report illuminated the dire need for a standardized method of emergency care in America. According to estimates, twenty percent of trauma deaths should be preventable given optimal emergency and trauma care. (Mackenzie, 2006) It was in the aftermath of this radical report that the first EMT course was created: 400 hours of class, lab, and clinical rotations meant to prepare individuals for the intense field of emergency medicine. Around the same time in 1970, the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians was created and heralded what we recognize now as the modern-day EMS movement. (NREMT, 2019)
At Emory University, undergraduate student EMTs go through the same rigorous training process as the professionals: hundreds of hours of classes and clinical experiences. (Barnhard, 2019) The only difference are the demographics. Michelle Garrison, a second-year in the College of Arts and Sciences, has attested to the additional challenges faced by EEMS providers compared to full-time EMTs and Paramedics. “It’s really about planning your activities and priorities. For me, I work the night shift because I’m in a lab all day … you try to study on-shift between calls and you’re allowed to sleep after midnight and turn off [calls from] DeKalb, but still respond to Emory.” When balancing school with extracurriculars, the most viable option for Emory EMTs often becomes the night shift. Busy schedule aside, being on-call also means being ready for any scenario to come their way, including the possibility of anxiety-inducing traumatic events. When asked about how Garrison personally responds to the trauma she experiences on-shift, she emphasized the importance of solidarity with others. “Everybody’s there to support each other and the staff, they’re all there to talk about it with you and it’s really nice because they all get [the stress]; it can be any one of us on the call.”
The typical college student is still at an age where they undergo rapid brain development. Having to face serious trauma on a weekly basis can no doubt result in negative side effects. According to studies done on EMS professionals, 68% of providers do not have enough time to recover between traumatic events. They’re also nine times more likely to use alcohol compared to the national average. (Bentley, 2013) For student EMTs, the aforementioned stressors are in addition to the stress of a normal student life, so it is no wonder that they are more susceptible to depression. With these mounting statistics, it is clear that student EMTs shoulder an enormous burden, so what can be done to help them alleviate stress and anxiety?
Counseling services are always a great resource. Support within the EMT community, as Garrison mentioned, is also an important aspect, but professional counseling and guidance may be even more effective. It is also the responsibility of the school to ensure the well-being of its students. Emory University could, for example, organize periodic mental health check-ins and tutoring/TA sessions for the student EMTs who have to balance studying with 12-hour work shifts. These systems, once implemented, would compensate for not only the emotional burden of trauma, but also the difficulties a student may be having inside the classroom due to missing a lecture while on-call.
EEMS may be self-established and student-staffed, but just like any other professional EMS agency, it operates state-of-the-art critical care for many Atlanta suburbs. As metro Atlanta observes an exponentially increasing population — DeKalb county alone is expecting more than a quarter-million population growth by 2050 (Keenan, 2019) — Emory EMS can expect a concurrent rise in trauma and medical patients in the following years as well. In the business of emergency care, patient needs can seem to take center stage, but the well-being of the EMTs themselves cannot be overlooked. EEMS provides a unique and rewarding experience for Emory students, but it should not come at the cost of a student’s mental health. Student EMTs should not be left to fend for their own lives while trying to save others.
Edited by Bushra Rahman
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