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Ambulance Man: Staying Compassionate in the Chaos

With over 30 years as an emergency medical professional, Chris Fitzgerald, director of EMS at West Feliciana Hospital, has been on the scene in his patient’s biggest, scariest moments.

Spend an hour with Chris Fitzgerald, a former U.S. National Guard medic and helicopter pilot with thirty years’ experience as an EMS responder, and he could tell you enough gory stories to make a bona fide horror-film buff pause for breath.

As director of Emergency Medical Services at West Feliciana Hospital, Fitzgerald has certainly seen it all. But during decades spent caring for the victims of car crashes, gunshot wounds, and cardiac arrests, Fitzgerald has learned that, oftentimes, the most important instrument in a first responder’s medical bag is a sense of compassion—the ability to provide comfort and kind words on what is often the most difficult day in a person’s life.

Split Second Decisions Can Change Everything

In Fitzgerald’s line of work, every 911 call might be different, but regardless of the situation, the critical skills for a first responder remain the same: an ability to stay focused and to think on one’s feet. For instance, Fitzgerald recalled one situation—a domestic dispute—that involved five separate shooting victims. In that case EMS personnel needed to work closely with the local sheriff’s department to ensure the safety not only of the victims, but of the medical staff and other hospital patients and personnel, too.

For calls involving violence, first responders and law enforcement must work together to de-escalate the situation. They act quickly to separate parties after the initial incident, Fitzgerald says, so they can administer medical care without putting others at risk.

“Every shooting call is chaos, because it starts with a fight and it’s hard to tell who’s on what side,” Fitzgerald says. “You have to make sure the patients who started the fight aren’t in the same ambulance, or going to the same hospital, because they may continue the feud there. At that point, you’re considering the safety of everyone at the hospital, too.”

When an emergency occurs, time is of the essence, and since West Feliciana’s rural setting encompasses several far-flung communities, patients often spend longer in the ambulance than they would in the average urban setting. Fortunately, the ambulances in the hospital’s new EMS fleet are equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment, meaning quality, comprehensive care can begin the moment EMS responders arrive on the scene.

“It’s all about transport time,” Fitzgerald says. “In a city, where you have a lot of hospitals, you’re looking at a five to ten-minute transport time. Out in West Feliciana, you might be forty-five minutes away from the hospital you need to drive to.” In a rural community, having locally based EMS matters. Based out of the hospital’s St. Francisville campus, West Feliciana EMS can reach the scene of an accident quickly, with the necessary equipment and expertise to stabilize injuries and care for patients during longer travel times.

Sometimes You Just Need Someone There

Emergency response isn’t all high-speed heroics, though. Fizgerald’s years of experience have taught him that serving as a successful first responder requires more than just medical expertise and a cool head under pressure. Sometimes Fitzgerald’s most important skill is his ability to provide emotional support to people in distress. A major component of every call, he notes, is comforting patients and their families, and explaining complex medical situations in terms that frightened people can understand.

“It’s pretty common for something to look worse than it really is,” Fitzgerald says, noting that EMS personnel go to great lengths to reassure worried family members that a situation is under control. At other times, first responders find themselves the sole source of comfort for someone struggling to come to terms with having just lost a loved one.

People occasionally call EMS even when nothing more can be done, “…because they don’t know what else to do.” In these situations, emergency responders provide comfort and kind words to families in the midst of grief and shock.

“There’s not a lot you can do at that point, so we’re there to comfort,” he says. “It’s not always guns blazing, we’re not always saving the world. There are times we’re there, mostly, to be compassionate.”

EMS is there for West Feliciana residents in day-to-day life, too, responding to what they deem “public assist calls,” which can include everything from assisting elderly patients, to showing up to youth sports games in case of injury. Even when it’s not a life-or-death situation, first responders offer a friendly face for people when they need it most.

“I’d want and hope for someone to treat my family that way,” Fitzgerald adds. “I’m glad I can do that for other peoples’ families.”

West Feliciana Hospital participates in LERN, (the Louisiana Emergency Response Network). For more information about this and all the hospital’s emergency care services, click here.

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