For many, the combination of academics, extracurriculars and social life on campus is enough to fill their days in the Purple Valley. Some students, however, can also be found racing down Route 2 in ambulances, serving the community in their roles as emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
Megalan Tso ’22 and Nandini Seetharaman ’22, found themselves in this service by taking a winter study course administered by the Northern Berkshire Emergency Medical Services. Funded by the College (EMT training typically costs about $1000), the class condensed three months of material into three weeks of classes. “While all my friends were skiing and drinking hot chocolate, I was grinding away,” Tso said.
For other students, like Faris Gulamali ’21, the process for becoming an EMT was more self-driven. During his freshman year, he consulted with Barbara Fuller, director of science and health professions advising at the ’68 Center for Career Exploration, who recommended he take a series of night classes with what was at the time North Adams Ambulance. He began taking the course, which consisted of four-hour classes every Tuesday and Thursday and an eight-hour session on Saturdays, during his sophomore year.
Though their approaches were different, all three students shared a common motivation: to move away from the theoretical side of medicine often emphasized in the classroom.
“A lot of lab research you do here, you can kind of see how it helps people, but you don’t really get to see what that means for people in everyday life,” Gulamali said. “When you go into the field as an EMT, you can see how this advancement of technology … helps people in real life. I wanted to see that firsthand, as opposed to writing an abstract.”
Most people think of firsthand medical experience as working in a hospital; however, EMTs have a special place in some people’s lives. For Seetharaman specifically, the EMT who responded when her mother had an accident was particularly inspiring. “I feel like EMTs are kind of like superheroes,” she said. “They are the first person that sees a patient when they need help. They are the first point of contact. They are ones that have to immediately solve any life-threatening problem and get you to the hospital.”
At the end of a course or training, aspiring EMTs have to take two exams: one to become certified to work as an EMT in the U.S., and one to become licensed to work in Massachusetts. Training often continues with the employer.
Like the training sessions, the job itself is a time-consuming and intense experience. Shifts last for eight hours, and EMTs must cover the 10 to 12 towns around the main station in North Adams, some half an hour away. “There’s a lot of distance problems out here,” Seetharaman said. “We’re in such a rural area, so the EMTs in our company have to work very hard just to make sure we can keep these people alive and healthy if they’re in a serious condition.”
Anything can happen on the job. Sometimes, only one or two calls come in; on these days, most of EMTs’ time is spent sitting in the station, where they can relax or get homework done. On other days, things stretch on, sometimes through the end of their shift. Tso had a particularly close call on the day of his audition for the Berkshire Symphony. Though he was scheduled to finish at 4:00 p.m., he wasn’t able to get out until 5:20 p.m due to complications during transport. With his 6:00 p.m. audition looming, Tso had to rush back to campus and get ready with barely enough time to spare.
With at least eight hours a week spent in an ambulance on the roads, coupled with the standard workload for students on the pre-med track, it is hard to imagine that student EMTs have much time for anything else. Nevertheless, they don’t feel that way; rather than losing time, they said they see those hours spent as a learning experience gained.
“One of the most important things that I’ve learned is empathizing with [people],” Gulamali said. “That leads you to give the best care as an EMT.”
Tso said he felt the same way. “It doesn’t matter how much I give up time-wise because what I’m getting is getting to help people. I’m getting exposure to medicine,” he said. “I haven’t really given up much, but I have gained a lot.”