Learning to Save Lives

14-hour shifts? Taking care of patients during busy nights in Harborview Medical Center’s emergency room? It sounds demanding. But as a Medic One intensive-care paramedic-in-training, Sarah Driscoll, 29, can’t imagine anything more fulfilling. “Emergency medicine attracted me,” she says. “You can be more involved in your community, you’re more outdoors than in a hospital setting, and there’s a sense of thrill or adrenaline — you don’t know what you’ll see each day.”

By junior high, the Maple Valley resident had settled on a career as a paramedic. She chose college classes with pre-hospital care in mind and gained experience by working as an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Seattle for five years before applying to the Medic One program. (EMTs and paramedics both perform life-saving work, but paramedic training is more lengthy and intensive.)

“It’s one of the best programs in the world, and I knew I didn’t want to settle for any other program,” Driscoll says.

Medic One, a partnership among Harborview, the Seattle Fire Department, King County and the Medic One Foundation, began in the 1970s — part of a growing recognition that people needed emergency medical care before they reached the hospital. Today, 911 dispatchers, community members and firefighters are all part of what Medic One calls a “chain of survival.” Medic One’s paramedics and its mobile emergency rooms — the iconic red ambulances seen throughout the Seattle-King County area — are part of this chain.

What does it take to become a Medic One intensive-care paramedic? About 2,500 hours of instruction, more than double the national recommendation, from experienced paramedics and UW faculty. The intensive curriculum combines classroom learning with ambulance ride-alongs from the beginning, giving students field experience right away. The Medic One Foundation has provided long-standing support for students like Driscoll by helping fund training equipment, continuing medical education and scholarships for paramedics.

“We started riding along with the fire department on day three, so we were starting our skills and our patient contacts much earlier than other programs,” says Driscoll. “It’s fast-paced, but it’s really rewarding.”

Driscoll and her 23 classmates are split into four groups with different shift rotations. On a typical day, they’ll start by washing and inspecting their ambulance before meeting with senior medics to discuss the day’s goals. While the students wait for calls to come in, they study intensive-care techniques and strategies and perform practice drills for various patient emergencies.

When they’re stationed at Harborview, students spend their shift in the emergency room, starting IVs, observing procedures and assisting nurses. “It’s an opportunity to learn the hospital side while incorporating the field medicine that we get when we go on calls,” Driscoll says.

Driscoll has already had some memorable patient encounters. “Last week, we had a cardiac arrest that we were able to resuscitate in the field,” she says. “My partner and I were able to manage the scene together, with some assistance from our seniors. Knowing how far we’d come in the training program — to be able to handle that call — and then having a really good outcome makes us want to get back out there, day after day.”

Driscoll will begin working as an intensive-care paramedic in fall 2018. “I’m really grateful to have an opportunity to work at Medic One,” says Driscoll.