When an emergency response colleague went down, the panic and fear in his co-workers eyes was unmistakable. Yet paramedics Lt. Brandon Duncan and Richard Whatley remained calm, gently urging their law enforcement acquaintance to respond.
After an agonizingly long time that was, in all reality, a few minutes, the investigator begins to breathe at a calmer rate and communicates with Duncan, relating the events leading up to the 911 call Thursday afternoon.
Those calls are what Bartow's Emergency Medical Services technicians and paramedics wait for 24/7/365. Whether it be a serious accident on Interstate 75 or a patient needing to be transported post-treatment to their home or even from the hospital to The Hope Center across the street, EMS waits, ready to spring into action regardless of the day and time.
I began riding along with EMS with the mindset that they are in this profession to save lives and saw them as heroes flying in to save the world and rescue those in need from near-death situations -- much like how I envision firefighters and -- when the moment arises -- law enforcement.
That way of thinking was amended.
As morning shifts to afternoon and Station 1 has yet to run a call, a group of medics and EMTs stand in the bay, wiping away lingering water droplets after the routine wash of ambulances is complete. One of them turns to ask me why I'm here.
"To learn what EMS is all about," I say, as if it wasn't obvious. When they asked me that question. I froze, unsure of what to say. So, I responded with the original thought, "To save lives."
"We're not in this for the glory," one of them said. "We're not here to play hero. There's no glory in this job. We see people when they're at their worst."
If that's true, then, what is EMS all about? The answer varies on who is asked. Lt. Eddie Clark said "to postpone death." While that idea is somewhat dreary, EMS serves the county for more than to simply prolong life.
"A lot of people think we fix problems in the field," Paramedic Kevin Hook said. "We don't. We balance imbalances until we can put them in front of a doctor."
That balance comes in several forms. The ambulance itself -- with a pungent smell distinctive only to hospitals, making me see this as a miniature emergency room on wheels -- is equipped with all the necessary essentials, including syringes, tubes for intubation when a patient is in respiratory distress or failure, sterilization supplies, IV kits, oxygen and masks, backboards, a heart monitor, etc. Medicines are stored in a special bag, known as the front-line kit, and contain the more common needs in the field from aspirin to morphine, and pharmacy orders are placed at the end of the month.
Each morning, while one partner washes down the ambulance, the other may be restocking supplies, always keeping extras of every tool for every type of person from pediatrics to large adults. Supplies can be added to the truck throughout the day as needed and vary for each team based on the amount and type of calls they answer.
This is how my first morning was spent -- gathering supplies as designated by Whatley. Then the very loud, distinct, high-pitched tones blast through the station. I have my first call. Rule No. 1, don't get excited and, most importantly, carefully listen to what the dispatcher says. In that moment, you must catch the address and nature of the call. Once en route, more information -- if available -- is provided.
While you cannot immediately say, "This is what's wrong," that bit of information can help the responding unit be prepared for what they will find at the location and better act to help the patient as they mentally review a list of possibilities to the cause of the problem and how to treat the person.
We arrive shortly behind a Cartersville Fire Department team, who is already inside the home. An elderly gentleman awaits -- he is suffering from difficulty breathing. He can communicate -- but only just -- and increasingly begins to panic. Inside the ambulance, he gasps for air from the oxygen mask as his heart rate rises to a dangerous level. A barely noticeable knowing look is exchanged between the partners, who continue to talk to the man. As Whatley attempts to start an IV as a precaution, Duncan talks to the patient, trying to ease his distress. Their calm approach and professional demeanor calm the gentleman and his heart rate begins to lower to a steadier, healthy level.
That calm approach is something Larry Owens -- EMS director since 2009 who joined the department in 1973 -- requires of his employees.
"Never run. If they run, I'll fire them. You know why? It creates chaos," Owens said. "They are trained to stay calm."
As the team treats the patient, a CFD firefighter drives the ambulance through the streets of Cartersville, shouting turning directions as he races to the hospital.
"We have a great relationship with the fire departments," Duncan said after the patient was released to hospital staff. "If we have someone who's really sick, both paramedics or an EMT and a paramedic can be in the back and a firefighter will drive the ambulance. They don't have that everywhere."
Looking through the EMS staff, most employees are paramedics -- which means the people responding to calls have a higher level of education and can perform more life-saving tactics than basic EMTs.
"[Owens] doesn't want to hire EMTs full time anymore," Duncan said. "He wants paramedics to give the people of this county the best for their money."
Other efforts are in place to ensure that citizens get the most for their tax dollars as well, including heart monitors on every ambulance that can transmit the readings to Cartersville Medical Center, allowing doctors to know what to expect upon the patient's arrival.
"I ran a call out here once where a guy thought he had gas," Capt. Kevin Garren said. "He was my age, my build, and we were able to do an [electrocardiogram] diagnostic and he was having a heart attack. We had CMC confirm it. The whole issue is the least amount of time they spend with the blockage, the least amount of damage they have on the heart."
Throughout several days spent riding in the back of an ambulance, a variety of calls were placed to 911, including chest pains, back pain resulting from a vehicle accident, difficulty breathing, diabetic problem and several fatalities. While I was not with the team as they encountered losing a patient, their efforts hit close to home.
Late one evening Duncan and Whatley were dispatched to a local nursing home when a resident experienced a heart attack and internal fluid build-up likely caused in part by congestive heart failure and part by a pulmonary embolism. That patient was my great-uncle, and Whatley's words to my mother upon arrival at the hospital share a different side to the profession.
"I normally don't do this," Whatley said, approaching the distressed woman anxiously pacing near the emergency room entrance, "but you're about to be really confused when you see that doctor come out here and go back in."
The calls where a patient is lost tend to be some of the hardest ones for EMTs and paramedics as well as the family.
"The hardest ones for me are kids," Duncan, a father of two, said.
Whatley partially agreed, saying there are others that have taken their toll on him over the years.
"My hardest are the ones you work so hard on and then they die at the hospital," he said. "You put all you can into it and sometimes they don't make it."
Although some conditions are too severe to cure, success stories exist.
"Everybody that's been in it for a while has a moment that's been memorable," Garren said. "For me, it will always be a 4-year-old we pulled out of a pool. He wasn't breathing. We got him back and there was a question of if he would have any permanent disabilities from the lack of oxygen. A couple of days later he was back at home, running around, didn't have any problems, and in this business, it doesn't get any better than that. With an aging population, when you can help them out it's always rewarding. For me, personally, with a grandparent or parent or aunt or uncle, and they've taken too much of their medicine or you can get their insulin pump working, I just try to treat it like they were my family."
Whatley and Duncan spared time to go the extra mile to comfort a family member and explain that they had tried their best to save the loved one without violating the Do Not Resuscitate order that was in place, legally preventing them from performing a shock if the patient had been in cardiac arrest or intubating the patient to create an airway if the patient is in respiratory failure.
That care can stretch beyond a comforting word to be reflected in actions when the moment presents itself.
"We had a lady we transported from the hospital to The Hope Center for a pre-op procedure," Hook said. "She had had several surgeries before, but it's still scary and she would need to be transported back to the hospital after. So we called the station and said we were staying with her. That way, she had consistency from start to finish with the same team and it's less frightening."
"Medicine is an art backed up by science," Hook said, explaining the human side of EMS. "Everything has its own emotion and the heart of the art form is nothing more than the emotion of one human helping another."