Celebrating National EMS Week and coping with stress
They see one another across a crowded ambulance bay on the campus of Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
For Gilberto Aviles, it’s love, but he’s always been a sucker for a fur coat and four paws.
Skye, the new therapy dog at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, seems to like Aviles just fine, but the breakfast sausage sizzling in a pan at the far end of the garage has captured her heart. She’s hoping one of the emergency medical professionals scooping it onto a plate might just this once miss the usually precise aim they employ to land helicopters and save accident victims and drop one link within her reach.
Both the dog and the breakfast had arrived that morning in honor of Aviles, a paramedic, and the dozens of other first responders as part of National Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Week May 21-27. Launched in 1974, the seven-day celebration recognizes the work of paramedics, emergency medical technicians and other professionals who work on health care’s front lines, where they respond to often perilous situations to save lives.
The job dives between highs and lows and occasionally veers into frustrating banality. Aviles, who has been doing it for 40 years, has seen it all.
“I think it’s really important that once a year we recognize how hard our pre-hospital providers work,” said Dr. Jessica Mann, an emergency medicine specialist at Penn State Health, who had also dropped in for the pancakes that morning. “It’s been shown especially since COVID that burnout and stress for EMS providers is on the rise. This is just a small token to let them know that we appreciate all their work.”
All five of Penn State Health’s acute care hospitals have gotten in on the act. The day before Aviles’ and Skye’s breakfast, Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center and Penn State Health Hampden Medical Center served walking tacos at their EMS entrances. Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Reading offered a barbecue lunch, and Penn State Health Lancaster Medical Center gave EMS workers a chance to compete in a fishing derby in the stream that runs through its campus.
But also coursing through the week, among thank you signs planted at the edges of ambulance bays, pancake breakfasts and online seminars, is a conversation about self-care.
The topic even came up during the seemingly casual chat between Aviles, Skye and Skye’s handler, Chaplain Kelly Fuddy. Self-care is a foreign concept to professionals whose instincts focus their care outward. It’s even more so for emergency responders, for whom few seconds pass that offer a moment to think about themselves.
It’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s a therapy dog
But that’s a big part of Skye’s job. Hershey Medical Center is one of a very few hospitals in the country that offer staff-focused chaplains. Fuddy and her partner Laura Ramsey make rounds, work with hospital administrators to develop strategies, help perform ceremonies and simply listen to health care personnel. For most, the rewards of a job in medicine are innumerable, but so are the tolls.
In early May, Fuddy and Ramsey went to a farm in Georgia to meet Skye, who is specially trained to work in a health care setting. During off-hours, Skye is disguised as a mild-mannered golden retriever in the Fuddy home, with another dog, two cats and three kids.
But five days a week, Skye becomes Skye the therapy dog. Soother of nerves. Calmer of pulse rates. “What’s cool about dogs is they’re so much better than humans at consistently being able to calm us down,” Fuddy said. When someone meets Skye, often they’ll stop, rub her blonde fur and look into her soulful eyes. For a moment life pauses.
Aviles is on his way to starting a shift when he stops to talk with Fuddy and Skye. On his smartphone, he scrolls through photos and pulls up a picture of a sturdy dog with perky ears. It’s Cooper, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, who for Aviles is like “Skye: The Home Edition.”
Aviles is a story-teller with a big library of material. He has two dogs. Cooper is the big boy, and then there’s Railey. “Railey is a special story,” he says. A friend one day found a puppy wandering down a highway in New Jersey. After a little digging, the friend discovered a whole litter that needed homes. All of them happened to be part Staffordshire Bull Terrier ― the same as Cooper. What are the odds? So of course, Aviles rescued one. “I would have rescued them all if I could,” he said. He called her his little Rolly Polley Olley. That became Ray Lee Ann and eventually Railey.
He laughs with Fuddy over dog lover stories, like “you know how you give them a little spot on a couch and next thing you know, you’ve only got a little corner and they’re taking up the whole thing?” Eventually the conversation comes around to home life and stress.
Aviles has a Joe Pesci accent and a huge smile. He started out working an EMS job in New York. He still works in Florida as a paramedic and trains others. He’s done the job on helicopters and in the backs of speeding vehicles.
Nothing beats the good days. “I still jump up and down when I actually make a difference,” he says.
On a recent call, for example, a patient who had just been released from a hospital had normal blood pressure, but their pulse rate was incredibly slow. Because Aviles is trained in Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support by the American Heart Association, he was able to figure out what the problem was – over-medication – and knew what medication to use to fight it. By the time he brought the patient to the hospital, their pulse was back to normal, and he’d saved a life.
That was a good day.
Paramedics and emergency medical technicians stay with their patients until they’re sure they’re safe. Bad days are when anything – paperwork and red tape, for example – gets in the way.
The worst days drive him to tears. “I feel like it’s related to depression,” he said.
But when he arrives at home in the evenings, his dogs wag their tails to greet him. They lick his face. They take up all the room on the couch. And he can think about them for a while.
EMS Week is important, Aviles says.
“We’re finally being recognized for what we do,” he said. “We’re not just medical taxi drivers, which a lot of people to this day still think. They realize now that we do have a level of training that’s designed to save lives.”
Aviles loads his plate with pancakes and sausage and walks off past Skye, who drools. He sits at a table with his comrades and laughs. Soon he’ll be back on another call, and later – good day or bad – he’ll wrestle with Cooper and Railey over ownership of the couch.
“Every day coming to work can be stressful, but EMS workers support each other, which is amazing,” Mann said. “Things like this keep your spirits up.”
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