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Student Volunteers Offer Medical Aid to Peers

By Sally Rubenstone '73

An ordinary evening at Smith? For most students it means several hours of studying, a break to chat with friends, perhaps late-night pizza. For Melisa Ruiz '98 it can also mean the sudden interruption of a beeper and a hasty journey across campus that transforms the college senior into a health-care practitioner.

For more than a year, Smith College Emergency Medical Services (SCEMS) has responded to dozens of campus crises. Founded in September 1996 by Ruiz and Emily Singer '97, SCEMS is made up of about 30 student volunteers. Eight of them--including Ruiz and Katy Tierney '99, who serve as the group's supervisors or "chiefs"--have undergone a rigorous training course to earn Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification. The remaining SCEMS members are "First Responders," who play a subordinate role to the EMTs but have also been trained in CPR and other forms of first aid. Two-member SCEMS teams-one EMT and one First Responder-are on duty from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., Mondays through Thursdays, and around the clock on weekends, with one of the two chiefs always on call as well.


Co-chiefs Katy Tierney '99 (left) and Melisa Ruiz '98 check the equipment of the Smith College Emergency Medical Services, a service organization founded just over a year ago. By mid-November, the group had responded to 35 calls for emergency help.

Whenever the college's Department of Public Safety receives an emergency call, a SCEMS team-along with Public Safety officers-is dispatched to the emergency scene. The more serious cases also require ambulance support. Typically, says Tierney, SCEMS staff respond to incidents such as broken bones, sprains and dislocations, asthma attacks and drug- or alcohol-related problems. In some circumstances, she notes, the dispatcher is required to also call an ambulance, even if the situation does not seem life-threatening. Cardiac and respiratory ailments and drug reactions or overdoses fall under this mandate. Ambulances, Tierney explains, are staffed by paramedics, who have more training and access to sophisticated equipment.

One of the aims of the program, notes Ruiz, is to avoid unnecessary ambulance calls. Ambulance services can be costly, but there is no charge for SCEMS assistance. The group is funded by the Student Government Association and the college Health Services; its staff receive no pay.

The biggest plus of having this sort of emergency medical organization, suggests Tierney, is that students are often most comfortable receiving help from their peers. "An important part of giving care is making the patient comfortable," she maintains. For example, although substance abuse is not the rampant problem at Smith it is on many other campuses, it's common, says Ruiz, for SCEMS to receive calls from concerned friends of a student who has had too much to drink. Both Tierney and Ruiz suggest that, especially in cases of alcohol-related incidents, students are more willing to be assisted by other students than by "adult" medics.

Sometimes, concedes Ruiz, their student patients are briefly baffled to be getting help from other Smithies. "But," she reports, "when we tell them that we're EMTs, they say that's cool. The patients respect our training."

In fact, Tierney, from Yellow Springs, Ohio, already has four years of EMT experience behind her and is a firefighter as well. Ruiz, who grew up in Costa Rica and Amherst, took EMT training in the summer of 1996, after laying the groundwork for SCEMS that spring. The organization operated for 26 weeks in 1996-97 and responded to 37 calls. This year, however, by mid-November they had already answered 35 calls. In addition, SCEMS teams attend events such as rugby games and Rec Council concerts, in case medical problems arise.

The Smith staff members who work most closely with SCEMS have high praise for the group. "They do an excellent job," says Director of Public Safety Sharon Rust. "They've established a strong relationship with this department, which enables our staff and theirs to work cooperatively at emergency scenes."

"SCEMS members know the campus well," observes nursing coordinator Elaine Longley. "They often reach emergency scenes before other personnel and are able to assess whether patients can be treated at the site or at Health Services or must be transported to Cooley Dickinson Hospital. The after-hours nurses especially appreciate having them out there, serving as liaisons between Health Services and the campus."

Leslie Jaffe, college physician and director of Health Services, says, "The SCEMS leadership have been very responsible in developing protocols that are prudent and adhering to them. This fall, at the Combined Annual Meeting of the New England and New York State College Health Associations, Ruiz and SCEMS cofounder Emily Singer presented a workshop outlining these protocols, "Student Emergency Medical Service: Why Your Campus Needs One and How It Can Be Started."

"There's really no down side to an organization like this one," Jaffe maintains. There have even been parents visiting campus, he notes, who have been treated by SCEMS volunteers or seen them in action. The parents, Jaffe says, have been extremely impressed by the students' capabilities.

"The Smith EMS could never have started or been so successful without the cooperation of the Public Safety officers and night nurses," Ruiz stresses. "I also want to thank all of the other EMTs and First Responders who rarely receive recognition but have donated so much time."

Of course, such commitment does have its price. Melisa Ruiz, for instance, admits that so many on-call hours take a toll on her social life. As for those many nights when her sleep or study schedule is interrupted, "I'm used to that," she concedes, "and so are my housemates. They hear me running down the stairs and they just laugh and say, 'There she goes again-off to save the Smith campus!'"

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