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I Love What I Do: Volunteer EMT

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What Are YOU Doing to Help via Wikimedia“I Love What I Do!” We interview women who find creative work that makes them feel fulfilled without sacrificing their personal or family lives. They’ll share what their jobs are really like and how other women can find something they love to do.

Linda, a volunteer emergency medical technician, describes the excitement and drama dealing with medical emergencies. She shares with us what it is like to balance volunteering with her family life and why she spends her free time saving lives.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you end up where you live today? What has your career path looked like?

I hail from Plum Borough, PA, an exurb of Pittsburgh, but I tell people that I come from hell. Plum has a lot to recommend it: easy access to Pittsburgh and a massive regional park with picnic groves, playground equipment, ski slopes, ball fields and more space for hiking than anyone could possibly need.

Sadly, there was also a culture extremely hostile to a girl or young woman who didn’t go along with expectations which were that she could go to college to be a teacher or nurse or get married and start having babies. The expectations were enforced primarily with verbal abuse, but no-one shirked at physical measures when words failed.

At the first opportunity, I left and have not looked back.

My career path looks a bit like that of a pinball that has ricocheted off every bumper it encountered and is now resting in the hole labeled motherhood waiting for a spring to pop up and send it rolling off again. The details of my career path are that in my freshman year of college I was hired to write educational software. This was a very new field in the early 1980s; the way in was to learn the job on your own, demonstrate interest and ability, then watch for job announcements. From there, every move in my career came when one job ended or contract expired and I found another opportunity working with someone I had encountered in a prior position. In 1995, I took what was supposed to be a one year sabbatical but turned into a long term journey into motherhood at home, including six years of home schooling my daughter.

It was while home schooling my daughter that I met the woman who recruited me to the rescue squad. I was one of three home-schooling mothers volunteering at the squad.

Why did you want to become a volunteer E.M.T.?

The short answer is that I really don’t know what I was thinking.

Before I was an E.M.T., I volunteered as an auxiliary member of the rescue squad. I was content to fill the duties of an auxiliary member, to wit, preparing dinner for the monthly meeting, occasionally preparing meals for other events, and participating in fundraising activities. These activities were organized by the woman who had been doing this for years, perhaps decades. She was happy to do it and I was happy to do whatever she asked. When her health began to fail, I fail, I had to decide whether I wanted to become a certified food handler and take responsibility for the meal planning and preparation.

I saw the situation as a choice between moving from auxiliary to operations or walking away. I never said to myself, “I want to be an E.M.T.,” it was a matter of realizing that I could either walk away from the squad or sign up for something that I was too old and out of shape to even consider. I leapt into the abyss expecting to crash but unwilling to leave the squad without at least trying. I would not say that I flew so much as grasped at every branch and rocky outcropping until I was ready to flutter a bit on my own.

How could someone else get involved with a volunteer rescue squad? What kind of skills did you need to get started? What does it take to do a good job? Is there training involved?

It’s very easy to get involved with fire/rescue–at least in Maryland. Most volunteer fire/rescue departments have websites as does the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire Rescue Association. Any of those websites will have a button labeled either, “Volunteer” or “Volunteer Now”. Of course, the best place to start is at the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad, because we are the best rescue station bar none.

Next, fill out an application, collect letters of reference, send them all in, then wait patiently. There is a lot of waiting in the process because all fire/rescue personnel undergo a background check at both the state and federal level. After the background check, candidates undergo a thorough physical complete with drug screening.

Once a candidate passes the physical, the process of becoming an E.M.T. can begin. At the station where I volunteer, the first step is called Level 1, where the candidate learns to handle equipment for moving patients, introduces him or herself to supervisory staff, learns to check an ambulance to ensure that it is fully stocked and ready for service, and learns to take orders from fellow crew members.

Finally, the candidate becomes a probationary member and can take E.M.T. training. In Maryland, this training is available through Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems. There are many sources for this training, but people most typically take the classes offered through Montgomery County Fire and Rescue at the Public Safety Training Academy.

As for what it takes to do a good job, it requires a combination of compassion, a strong stomach, and the ability to make decisions about patient care and act on those decisions quickly. There is more to it, but that’s the foundation layer.

What does a typical day look like for you? How does volunteering fit into your normal routine?

I imagine that a typical day for me involves fitting anything I need to do around taking my daughter to and from school and any other activities. I began volunteering when I was home-schooling my daughter and I chose my shift night based on the home-schooling schedule and on which crew officer had seemed most reasonable. My volunteer shift is on Wednesday night and every fourth weekend. I stayed with this crew and fit all new schedules around it because my crew is the most awesome rescue crew anywhere.

What is the best part of being involved in a volunteer rescue squad?

There are two best parts of being involved in a volunteer rescue squad. The obvious best part is the good feeling that comes from walking in on someone’s worst day ever and, while we do not provide definitive care, we start the process and get the patient to the right place to get what he or she needs.

The other, somewhat surprising, best part of volunteering is the interactions with the other crew members. At the rescue squad, I have met some of the most intelligent, engaging people imaginable. There are, of course, many conversations revolving around what we do, calls we run, training, and other things related to our duty, but the other conversations make it worth the trouble to go in every week. Among my current crew members are a rocket scientist, a pre-med student who just got into medical school, an audio/video specialist who majored in theater, and a career E.M.T. who learns computer languages for fun. The late-night conversations range from politics to the finer points of Buddhist philosophy and cover almost everything in between. In any fire/rescue station, it is not at all unusual to see more experienced people mentoring newer folk in fire/rescue topics, but on my crew the mentoring extends to homework help ranging from calculus to literature and we often lean on each other for emotional support when our ‘normal’ lives are going poorly.

The worst?

There are not many bad things about being an E.M.T., but I believe there are several worth mentioning. Not all calls go well, some patients cannot be helped and that always leaves us feeling down. Intoxicated patients may be belligerent or even violent; I have been spit upon more than once and several patients have tried to punch me. In addition to helping people who are hurt, we also help people with highly contagious diseases and always need to be thinking of protecting ourselves and our families. On the road, drivers sometimes make our job difficult either by refusing to move out of the way or driving around a road block and right through the scene of a crash where we are trying to work. Another very unpleasant situation is a call that you know will require defend your actions to a duty officer or worse, in court, such as not performing CPR on a patient with a Do Not Resuscitate order whose family did not know about that order.

The things I mentioned do not happen very often, and when they do, we talk them over with our peers and work through the upset. The one thing that we can’t work through with peers is when our peers let us down. Again, this doesn’t happen often, but there is nothing worse in E.M.S. than the feeling of knowing that we can’t get an ambulance out to someone who needs help because someone failed to show up for duty. I would rather have a shift where every bad call imaginable happened than to be stuck at the station with an ambulance that can’t be staffed.

What advice would you give to other women interested in following the same path you have?

To women who want to follow my life path, I say, “Get therapy. Seriously, you need help.”

Of course, if we’re just talking about the path to being an E.M.T., I recommend taking a hard look at their schedule thinking about how much time they have to give and why they think they want to do this. Then I recommend contacting several volunteer fire/rescue departments and requesting a ride-along on nights that would be convenient for volunteering. The ride-along experience gives a feeling for how busy that department is and what kind of people work at that department on that night. Finally, I recommend asking a lot of questions about the duty requirements and schedules and noting how well or poorly the members get along both with each other and with any career people in the station. Also note how the members interact with patients and talk about patients back at the station. All of these things change from station to station and night to night and they all can have a profound effect on the volunteer experience.

Has being a volunteer E.M.T. made you a better woman, wife, or mother? How?

It’s hard to say whether it makes me a better woman; I imagine I would need guidelines for what makes a good woman that explain how that would be different from being a good person. Using many societal expectations as a measure, I have never been very good at being a woman beyond having female form and being attracted to men. I can do things that are considered womanly, such as wearing dresses and makeup, but I do so with little enthusiasm or skill. One could argue that being a volunteer E.M.T. makes me a worse woman because I have very little incentive to behave in a manner that society defines as womanly. If a man is carrying bags for me or holding a door open, it is either because I have my hands full with patient care or because he is my trainee and must do as I tell him. (Bwa ha ha!)

As for being a good wife, again, I have to wonder what it means to be a good wife. I know that I have much less patience when my husband either can’t figure out some minor household task or when he eats out rather than cooking, thus putting him out of compliance with his prescribed diet. By the standards of my upbringing, patience with one’s husband and pleasing one’s husband are hallmarks of a good wife, so by that standard, I am a much worse wife.

I consulted my daughter on the topic of whether my volunteer work has made me a better mother; she says that it has not changed anything. I would say that my work has made me absent from my role as mother at least once a week, which could argue for the status of worse mother. On the other hand, my absence has forced her to be more independent and take more responsibility for things like getting homework done without nagging, so perhaps I needed a little absence to do the part of child-rearing where the child learns self-reliance.

But whether or not it has made me a better woman or wife, I believe that being a volunteer E.M.T. has made me a better person. Or it may be that the experience made me better able to be the person I already was.

Have you found a happy medium between satisfying, creative work and your family commitments? Share your story with us at

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