Ambulances aren’t racecars, but it sometimes feels that way when sitting in one.
We haven’t gone far down Second Avenue West before we’re forced to bob and weave around a few hesitant vehicles whose drivers can’t decided where to pull over. As we approach 28th Street, one lone motorist makes a break through the intersection, cutting right in front of the ambulance.
There’s no significant danger, largely due to some attentive driving from primary care paramedic Craig Dumais. Still, it’s annoying, and an unfortunately common hazard for Parkland Ambulance paramedics heading out on a call.
“Most people don’t slow down,” advanced care paramedic Erica Stuber says as Dumais accelerates past a semi and heads for the city limits.
This is a basic life support call, known internally as a Bravo. It’s not a life or death situation (known as an Echo) but it’s serious enough to warrant turning on the lights and sirens until we leave Prince Albert.
We’re headed to one of the small farming towns south of the city. Dispatchers have already relayed the patient’s age, location and medical condition, but Stuber and Dumais won’t truly know what they’re getting into until they arrive.
The dispatchers are reliable, but the people on the other end of the conversation might not be. They aren’t always emergency room doctors, nurses, police officers or firefighters. Many times they’re just regular Joe’s and Jane’s who have little experience with medical emergencies. Sometimes they can’t give a description that’s 100 per cent accurate, no matter how badly they want to.
Both paramedics are going with an open mind, but also a laid back demeanor. There’s not shouting, crying or dramatic music. This isn’t a movie.
“It’s better for everybody if we’re obviously calm,” Stuber continues. “People look at you and go, ‘ok, they’ve obviously got this under control.”
“You might be freaking out in your head, but your plan is to stay calm and composed,” Dumais adds. “It’s easier said than done.”
Fortunately there’s little drama to this call. Dumais and Stuber don’t have to perform any medical miracles. The patient is wide-awake and aware of his surroundings. His friends at the care home wish him well as he’s wheeled out of his room, though the commons area and out the door.
“Make sure they take good care of you,” one of them shouts.
Then it’s back on the road. There are no lights, no sirens and no impatient drivers darting through intersections. It’s just the open road.
Dumais didn’t plan to be a paramedic. Originally he wanted to be firefighter. He even went to school for it, and was a member of his hometown’s volunteer fire department while still in high school.
That changed one night when he was called to the scene of a car accident. The driver was alive, but pinned inside the vehicle. Paramedics couldn’t get to him without the fire department prying it apart.
After that night, he started to think about being a paramedic.
The fast pace and the high number of calls (Parkland Ambulance can deal with more than 100 calls on a regular weekend) keeps him busy, and he likes that challenge.
“A 20 call shift is not an uncommon thing,” he explains.
Stuber’s path was different. She went to university, didn’t like it, and dropped out at age 19. She thought being a paramedic looked interesting, so she gave it a shot. She’s been a paramedic for 10 years now, all with Parkland Ambulance. It’s eight for Dumais. They’ve been a team for two.
“Something like a cardiac arrest, you’ll here us start making a plan on the way down there,” Dumais says as we head to Parkland’s second office in the East Flat. “I’ll grab bag. I’ll grab monitor. You grab stretcher … but for routine calls, it’s just easier to go in with an open mind.”
The trip south is over. They’ve dropped the patient off at Victoria Hospital, checked him in with a triage nurse, filled up with gas and washed the ambulance, all before heading to the East Flat office for a late lunch. At least, Stuber gets lunch. There’s been a switch, and Dumais is heading out with another paramedic.
On this day, Parkland’s office resembles a family reunion. There’s ice cream and cake and children running around the spacious upstairs room. It’s a special thank you barbeque from the Parkland Ambulance management. Stuber is the last to arrive.
“Parkland has so much heart,” she says. “It’s such a family here. We know everybody’s kids. We know everybody’s husbands and wives. They become such a support and become a part of the family.”
That family atmosphere doesn’t just extend to meals and events. As mental health concerns become more and more prominent among emergency services personnel, having a close-knit group is more and more important.
Stuber has never needed mental health services during her career, but she’s confident that should she every need the support, she’ll have it.
“Everybody deals with things differently,” she says. “I can’t say I’ve had that call that pushes me to the point where I need something like that. I think—mental health wise—there’s lots of resources, but people need to know that they can rely on their families and rely on their coworkers.”
“It is hot out today,” advanced care paramedic Chris Pacey says. “That’s one downfall of EMS: black uniforms.”
Lunch is over, and we’re back on the road, this time heading north. Stuber is in the driver’s seat, this time with Pacey, another longtime teammate. At Parkland, paramedics will have different partners depending on whether it’s a day or a night shift. With Dumais gone, Pacey slides into a familiar role. He’s worked with Stuber for roughly seven years.
“A lot of it comes down to trust,” he says when asked about what makes a good paramedic team. “It doesn’t come overnight, that’s for sure.”
Part of that trust is built in training or in school. The rest is built through hard earned experience. When Dumais and Stuber worked together there was no second-guessing. It’s the same here with Pacey.
“They have to build my trust, for me to let them go off and do their thing,” Stuber says.
It’s not always sunshine and butterflies. Parkland is a family, but you don’t always get along with every family member.
“Everyone does have that one cousin,” Pacey explains.
Still, everyone here is a professional. Personal disagreements and conflicts are left at the door. Everyone is here to do a job, and when things go bad, Pacey and Stuber say they trust all of their colleagues.
There’s a grim reminder of what can go bad pasted to the side-door I enter and exit every time I get into the ambulance. It’s a large sign and written in clear block lettering is “Zero tolerance: there is no excuse for abusing paramedics. Aggressive behavior towards paramedics will not be tolerated. Offenders will be reported to the police.”
So how often does abuse happen? It’s not common, but unfortunately, it does occur.
Pacey has been punched and slapped multiple times, almost always by someone who’s drunk or high. Stuber was slapped once by a patient who had problems with her medication. Neither take it personally.
“Crystal Meth and cocaine, do cause patients to become more agitated, more abusive, which puts us at a higher (chance) of being assaulted,” Pacey says. “We have seen heavily intoxicated or heavily under-the-influence patients strike paramedics, hit paramedics…. We put up the signs as a warning, but a lot of these medical conditions we don’t control.”
“And they can’t control what they’re doing,” Stuber adds.
This call is taking us about half-an-hour outside of Prince Albert. Parkland Paramedics will travel up to 118 km north of the city. Their landmark is an old confectionary site called Halfway Home. It burned down about 10 years ago, but the site is still identifiable by a pile of rotting logs.
They house isn’t hard to find, and the patient inside is easy to talk to. This isn’t a Bravo or an Echo. It’s an Alpha call. Despite the name, it’s the easiest to take. There are no serious medical concerns, although this patient undoubtedly needs medical attention.
He’ll be fine, but Stuber and Pacey take extra care wheeling him out of the house. Pacey performs a few quick tests—things like heart rate and blood sugar—while Stuber asks him questions. What day is it? What month? What medications are you on? The more information, the better.
The trip back to Prince Albert is cordial. Stuber chats in the back seat with the patient, who’s recovering from a serious injury. It’s not a life-or-death situation, but it is an example of teamwork in action.
“There’s a basic trust,” Stuber says. “Outside people don’t always get our dynamic.”