Campus Life

In the twilight zone

My experience with MIT EMS

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Orientation activities midway, 2016. From left: Michael Beautyman, Hannah Rudoltz `18, Harrison Kaplan `19, Amelia Bryan `18, Andrew Tang `17, Aria Shi `18.

The “MIT bubble” is ubiquitous and yet sometimes invisible. Even Cambridge itself can seem like an enclave, the town of the ivory tower. Students look forward to leaving it for trips home and brief jaunts into Boston, but those of us who staff the MIT ambulance live in a sort of twilight zone, half in the bubble and half out.

MIT EMS is not your typical student club. Members volunteer their time to staff our student-designed, award-winning ambulance for at least 49 hours per semester. Each member is certified as a basic EMT both nationally and in Massachusetts, a process that takes a lot of studying and practice. Most new EMTs are certified through our IAP class, which runs from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., five days a week.

In the class, we learn clinical information, like the etiology of certain cardiac problems, in the mornings and practice practical skills in the afternoons. New EMTs work with two superiors so they can get further training and confidence. It’s an intense introduction to an atypical path through MIT, where EMTs are expected to be both professionals and students.

MIT EMS exists at the edge of the MIT bubble. We have social events and meetings like most other clubs. The EMTs on the service are often at the center of campus wellness projects, like the new Mind Hand Heart initiative or our current project with Save a Life, Save a Heart (SALSAH) to increase CPR training and stroke awareness on campus. But we also reach out to the community in Cambridge — our ambulance was at The Port Pride Day, and we donated an AED (automated external defibrillator) to the Margaret Fuller House. And though most of the patients we treat are MIT students or affiliates, often with minor medical complaints or injuries, we don’t operate as students on our calls: we have to be professionals.

Working on the ambulance can get very real. When Officer Sean Collier was shot in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, our service responded. We respond to cardiac arrests, car accidents, and severe alcohol intoxication. We respond to suicide attempts and strokes. There is no escaping the reality of human lives outside of MIT’s insular culture when you work for MIT EMS.

I personally have had a few calls that completely removed me from the MIT bubble. I once transported a sick newborn, something I hope I never have to do again. It is sometimes hard as an undergraduate to imagine a time when schoolwork might not dominate your life, but a family can. I can’t imagine the fear those parents felt as we drove their child to the hospital.

Even that call is not the one I think about the most. I mostly look back on the calls that took me furthest outside the world I know best. One of my first calls on the service was dispatched for “the man down,” who turned out to be experiencing a combined opioid and alcohol overdose. We got on scene, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the smell of stale beer and urine. The patient was unresponsive to our attempts to wake him, besides a brief “Who the (expletive) are you?” Immediately concerned with maintaining his airway, I was charged with suctioning vomit out of his mouth and throat.

I thought calls like those would be difficult. I thought the physically messy parts of being an EMT would be hardest — but I was wrong. My unconscious overdose patient did not weigh so much on me as a later patient did. He requested to go to a hospital in the afternoon because he had been drinking since the early morning. The patient was clearly confused and in pain. When asked why he had been drinking, his answer was: “It’s just what I do.” A myriad of other details about this call were depressing, but that line really got to me. All we could really do was bring this man to the hospital, but he’d only be discharged in a few hours. How do you cope when a patient needs so much more than you can give?

It’s easy to keep issues like addiction, homelessness and poverty at arm’s length when the ideas are abstract. But because of calls like these, debates in classes like Health Policy or researching candidates’ positions on the opioid crisis in New Hampshire can no longer be abstract. These issues are very real — and I’m grateful to EMS for popping the bubble.

November 14-20 is National Collegiate EMS Week. MIT EMS will have a table in Lobby 10 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday, November 18th to answer any of the student body’s questions.