In the stuffy back of an ambulance on an 80-degree afternoon, I listen as my guides point out the gear and supplies, explaining their uses, straining to keep up.
John Rolfson, a senior sociology student, would be hosting Miranda Chadbourne, a junior nursing student, and I for the night shift.
It’s early afternoon on Thursday, and I’ll be staying overnight with the University Volunteer Ambulance Corps to — hopefully (for me at least) — accompany them on some calls.
“Forgot to ask … are you squeamish about anything? Blood, vomit, anything?” Chadbourne asks.
I admit I get a bit queasy around vomit but assure everyone that I’ll be able to handle myself. I’m not so sure it’s true.
UVAC is a 24-hour operation at the University of Maine, made up of more than 70 student volunteers.
My first lesson concerns everything about the inside of the ambulance. As we step inside, Dakota Turnbull, a sophomore secondary education student with a concentration in social studies, joins us to help simplify the whirlwind of information for me.
“It’s set up from head to toe,” Rolfson said as we sit inside the ambulance, which has turned into a sauna.
Supplies are organized in three sections. By the feet of the gurney are bandages, towels, gauze — anything that someone would need to treat cuts, burns and exterior injuries. The cardiac machine waits by the middle of the gurney, and by the head is the respiratory gear — oxygen and airway openers — as well as saline.
As the lesson continues, I am amazed by the sheer amount Turnbull and Chadbourne have learned. Listing the uses of everything in the ambulance seems as easy to them as reciting the alphabet.
“Our busiest days are weekdays because there are more people on campus — students, professors, staff,” Rolfson said.
I give them a look of surprise, thinking the weekends would be busier due to partying students, but trust his estimation.
We step outside, and Turnbull starts the engine to back the ambulance out of the garage.
“Hop inside. I’ll show you what the front looks like,” Turnbull said. “It looks just like a normal car with a few extra buttons.”
As I watch him explain what all the buttons do, I feel like a little kid, waiting for a chance to sound the siren. It takes all the self-control I have to keep from pressing all the buttons.
‘Where UVAC really shines’
We head to the basement of Cutler and find the quarters packed with UVAC volunteers — a few working on homework and some just hanging out. Hand-painted ambulances careen along the hallway walls.
We sit down to eat lunch, and I take a few minutes to try to remember everything I just learned. The crowd filters out, and I escape, too, for a little while to retrieve my overnight bag. When I return, I meet Greg Milliken, a pre-med student, and Jason Cooney, a second-year biology student with a pre-med concentration, who are accompanying Rolfson on the night shift.
Rolfson, who has been working since 1 p.m., already looks exhausted. Milliken was in class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Cooney was in class all morning, but they’re ready to hop in the ambulance without hesitation.
“From the outside perspective, UVAC is an ambulance service responding to calls — picking up sick people and bringing them to the hospital — but being that EMTs from 18 to 22 years old are responding to a medical emergency with a crew of three, that’s where UVAC really shines because we are teaching leadership, delegation and responsibility,” Rolfson said.
There are three levels of training each UVAC EMT can earn: basic, intermediate and paramedic.
“They all build on each other,” Rolfson said.
At the basic level, an EMT knows how to assess a patient’s injuries, maintain an airway, provide rescue breaths if the patient has a pulse but cannot breathe, provide CPR if a patient does not have a pulse and perform basic first aid.
“EMT intermediate is more [concerned with] looking at what’s going on with the patient internally. We start looking at more cardiac issues and respiratory issues,” Rolfson said.
The paramedic level, according to Rolfson, is the highest level you can achieve for ground EMS units. They have the ability to use more medications relating to severe respiratory problems, cardiac problems and pain.
Whenever UVAC is on duty, there is an attendant, driver and crew chief in the ambulance for all calls.
“It’s incredibly dangerous,” Milliken said. “You’re seven times more likely to be in an accident with the lights and sirens on than if they were off.”
The attendant position is what makes UVAC different from other ambulance services, Milliken said, since it allows for an observer to learn by watching others in action. The crew chief proctors what goes on in the ambulance and gives the attendants advice.
“It’s really beneficial because it keeps you on your toes, it keeps your knowledge up and you keep learning the current thing. Medicine is one of those fields that changes every day, and even going one year to the next, we see some pretty major differences,” Rolfson said.
The silent bell
Suddenly the boys are all taking off their boots.
“EMS myth: As soon as you take your boots off, you get a call,” Rolfson said.
They move to the couches to watch TV. As the clock ticks away minute after minute without a call, a few UVAC members filter through the corridors. At 11 p.m., Milliken calls it quits and heads to bed. As he makes his bed, he and Rolfson show me the bell that sounds to wake them up if they get a call at night.
“When I’m in the quarters, the bell is [loud] enough to scare the s— out of me. I don’t even bother bringing a radio,” he said.
Rolfson chimes in and said that the first time it went off, they both woke up screaming.
After Milliken and Rolfson hit the hay, Cooney and I stay up a little longer watching TV as I impatiently wait for the bell to ring. Cooney said his interest in the ambulance service started at his high school in Falmouth where they taught an emergency response course.
“It doesn’t pass you without affecting you. You chose whether you want it to be positive or negative,” he said.
At 1 a.m., I’m struggling to stay awake. Cooney and I say goodnight, and I head to my bed ready to get some sleep, still hoping the bell will sound.
As I lay on a bed in the basement of Cutler Health Center, I ponder how the others fell asleep so quickly when the ringing of the bell could surprise us at any minute.
As morning approaches I jump out of my bed ready to race to the scene of the call, when I realize it was just the 7 a.m. wake up. I’m sure the others were happy to sleep through the night.
“John Rolfson is used to receiving calls at 4 a.m. It’s not because his friends are drunk-dialing him or he has a girlfriend abroad; Rolfson is an emergency medical technician (EMT). He works for University Volunteer Ambulance Corps (UVAC) and the calls he receives are emergencies…”
“The University of Maine’s Voluntary Ambulance Corp (UVAC) has a new tool in its life-saving arsenal. The volunteer organization is the state-licensed medical emergency service on campus, and it recently received about $200,000 for a new ambulance and new equipment. Two grants from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation and Consensual Health Services and concerted budgeting funded the ambulance and equipment. Based at the Cutler Health Center, UVAC serves the campus, Orono and Old Town…”
Image Description: New ambulance with lights flashing.
“The University of Maine’s Voluntary Ambulance Corps (UVAC) recently received an upgraded competency rating from a consortium of emergency care and health organizations in Maine, recognizing the 30-year-old service for its advancement…”