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First Person: Saving lives: It goes both ways

Notes from the life of a volunteer at an emergency medical service

Saturday, January 13, 2001

By Ann McKenna Fromm

Five years ago, I went back to school to become an emergency medical technician. I knew the stories: Paramedics saved lives. They had once resuscitated a dying baby in my neighborhood. That child is now a thriving 15-year-old adolescent. Could I do that?

  Ann McKenna Fromm is a writer living in O'Hara. 

I'm a writer, and I was also working on a project with Dr. Paul Paris, head of the University of Pittsburgh's Emergency Medicine Department. As an EMT, I could get an inside view of medicine I could get nowhere else.

But there was another reason, which, at the time, I did not acknowledge even to myself. I was lonely. My husband had died, and my children gone away to college. I missed them. Being a writer is a solitary occupation, and I could hardly make the words come out on the screen. My life seemed meaningless to me. I never exactly wanted to kill myself; but sometimes, it was hard to remember why I should get up in the mornings, or eat.

At Paul's urging, I began the rigorous EMT course at Pitt's Center for Emergency Medicine. I passed all the tests. I learned how to drive an ambulance. Then I applied to Foxwall, a volunteer emergency medical service for Aspinwall, Blawnox and Fox Chapel. I was proud when I was voted an active crew member, and I began to work regular shifts.

Almost always, the people we helped were grateful. One woman had run her car off the road into a golf course's shrubbery. "Thank you, honey," she repeated, over and over as we rode to the hospital. "Thank you." It made me feel good to hear her say that. I think I was beginning to learn how much we get back from working in EMS - at least as much as we give. We answered a call for a child having seizures, and another for a grateful, unhurt driver whose car had veered into a telephone pole.

I was part of a crew responding to a cardiac arrest patient, whom, sadly, we could not save. Even then, family members were warm with thanks that we had tried.

But one man we did help brought all my emotions about EMS into stark relief. His name is Woody Turner. He is a lawyer and a volunteer fireman. I had heard about him, and read his handwritten note of thanks tacked on our bulletin board at the base. Last month I met him at a party, and he talked to me about his story.

It was a year and a half ago, and Turner was working a fire in Fox Chapel. Nearby, Foxwall's paramedics had unloaded the stretcher, piled with oxygen tanks and other equipment from the ambulance. Turner acknowledged them and returned to his job, helping position the fire hoses and putting up lights to illuminate the scene. He was hot inside his fire helmet and heavy turnout gear. Thirsty, he finished his job and headed back to the pumper for a drink of water. At 60, Turner is healthy and robust. But while he did not know it then, his sudden cardiac death was imminent.

From the adjacent lawn, Foxwall's director, paramedic Rick Duffy, saw Woody Turner go down. He had merely fallen, Duffy thought. Turner hit his head on a mailbox as he fell.

When he did not move, Duffy approached. He checked Turner's airway, breathing, circulation. Then he called the EMTs to bring all the equipment they had.

Turner's heart had stopped. Duffy ordered him to be put on oxygen and hooked up to a defibrillator. An EMT secured the mask and began breathing for Turner. He was already turning blue from oxygen starvation.

With scissors, Duffy shredded the shirt Turner was wearing and placed the paddles on his chest. Turner's heart was "fibrillating," or beating in such an erratic way that it could not pump blood. Duffy started the defibrillator. Everyone stood back. Duffy administered 200 joules of electricity to Turner's body. He checked the monitor as the EMT moved back to continue with oxygen. Turner was still in ventricular fibrillation, a short circuit in the normal electrical rhythm of the heart. Duffy administered a second electric shock.

The squiggly lines on the monitor changed. Turner's heart had regained its normal ability to pump blood. He began to breathe again, and regained a groggy consciousness.

"I never had pain," Turner said. "No angina, arm pain, chest pain. I only remember being thirsty, then looking up and seeing Rick Duffy grinning down at me."

The ambulance took Turner to UPMC St. Margaret, where he was stabilized and transferred to a trauma center. The next day he underwent a cardiac catheterization, and later, successful bypass surgery.

"Now I'm 110 percent," Turner said. His round face beamed. He was so visibly joyful and happy to be alive that it came to me then: That is how I feel, too.

I still mourn my husband's death, and I will always ache for my children who lost their father so young. But the heaviness of grief has lifted. I recently moved to an airy new townhouse, in part to be near Foxwall. On Monday mornings, I wait at the base with my wonderful partner, Nancy Succop. Gordon Fisher, a big, kind man and Foxwall's administrator, is always watching us and teaching us new things.

Not long ago, Nancy and I took a shaken woman to the hospital who had cut her finger opening a can of tuna. The wound was bloody and deep but she would be fine, we knew. It is a good feeling to be even a small part of that lifesaving chain. Rick Duffy had joked to Woody Turner after Woody's episode, "The good Lord didn't want you yet, and neither did the devil."

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