UCLA's Emergency Medical Services program offers undergraduates a learning experience like no other
By Tyson Evans
DAILY BRUIN SENIOR STAFF
Dialing 911 from a campus telephone may bring a surprise: the medical professionals who respond could also be your classmates.
For 25 years, the UCLA Emergency Medical Services team has been saving lives in addition to igniting the careers of undergraduates who hope to gain spots in the competitive world of professional medicine.
Students working as emergency medical technicians and applying to medical schools have enjoyed an impressive 100 percent acceptance rate, according to the program's manager, Kurt Kainsigner.
The odds are hardly universal. Last year, nearly 36,000 students applied for about half as many openings at medical schools around the country.
But for roughly 15 UCLA undergraduates, the 20 to 40 hours they spend each week responding to emergency calls around campus gives them an extra boost of confidence in an otherwise uncertain process.
Pedro Contreas, who is currently completing a postbaccalaureate program at San Francisco State and is applying to medical school, said his time as an EMT facilitated and catalyzed his plans.
"Dealing with patients and being exposed to the hospital atmosphere definitely solidified my decision," he said.
Contreas explained the most powerful thing he learned while working with UCLA EMS wasn't even related to medicine.
"There was a call at the medical center in which a 24-year-old mother's baby passed away," he said. "The mother didn't speak English, so no one could make an accurate assessment."
Contreas was able to speak to her in Spanish, and said his impact during that emotional moment opened his eyes and made his future in the medical profession seem tangible.
Brad Knox, who served as an EMT until he graduated in 2004, said those who have not had an experience like EMS may be unprepared for the professional world. "I have a friend who, after four years of medical school, has never been in a situation where he has had to manage a code blue situation.
"I think, 'Wow, I've done that. I'm ready to go. Throw me in, coach.'"
This spring, UCLA's Emergency Medical Services celebrated its 25th anniversary. The program was launched in 1979 to meet the needs of the growing campus community.
Originally staffed by university police officers, students began running the ambulance in the early 1980s, and it has since become one of the most respected student-run programs in the country.
Students provide service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and are the first responders to any 911 call from a campus telephone. Last year, they responded to more than 1,000 incidents ? all while juggling the typical pressures of undergraduate life.
The allure of EMS is so strong, it pulled one student out of Melnitz Hall in the northernmost corner of campus. Third-year theater student Shane Petrites made the decision to join at the end of his second year.
"In the theater major, there's not a lot of opportunity to keep up on your South Campus knowledge," he explained.
Petrites didn't want to abandon his interest in science or his experience as a lifeguard.
"I hate being told I can only do one thing with my life," he said.
Kainsinger said he thinks some of the best EMTs are non-science majors.
"Students with backgrounds in science tend to be more analytical," Kainsinger said. "Those in the humanities and social sciences often have more compassion."
Depending on their level of experience, technicians work between 10 to 60 hours each week. Compensation is comparable to many other campus jobs, with even the most veteran technicians making just over $10 per hour.
Gaining a spot in the EMS program is difficult ? often less than 10 percent of those who apply are admitted. Applicants must pass several exams that test their medical knowledge, familiarity with campus geography and physical agility.
"The application process is flat-out hell," Petrites said. "The anxiety of not knowing if I would make it to the next step was horrifying."
Once accepted, students are required to complete 300 to 400 hours of training over an eight-month period before they are permitted to take the lead during a response. And the type of situations EMTs respond to vary greatly.
"Some of the cases have been really tough. I've seen the whole spectrum, from paper cuts to dead on arrival," Petrites said.
His first call was in November 2004. Petrites and his field training officer, recent graduate Jenn Sickles, arrived at Dykstra Hall to respond to a student's suicide.
Sickels said it was the most shocking incident she had experienced. "You don't expect something like that on campus. But it was something I could put under my belt; it made me a better EMT."
Petrites feared he wouldn't be able to cope with the experience.
"I was worried that I would be depressed," he said. "But I actually got a boost. I realized I have the chance to save lives."
Though the job certainly has climactic moments, students spend most of their time with more mundane tasks. Mountains of paperwork, training, evaluations and stocking and washing the ambulance demand much of their attention.
Knox said with all the miscellaneous tasks, such as picking up food in Westwood for university police staff, sometimes the gravity of the job is forgotten.
"As you hang around here, you'll realize some people think EMS stands for Emergency Meal Service," he said.
Student technicians also said they appreciate the job's small perks, such as parking the ambulance in red zones while on break and speeding through Westwood Village with lights and sirens blazing.
"When you go back and drive your own car, you have to remind yourself you can't park anywhere you want and you don't have a PA system to direct traffic," Knox said.
Many EMTs, past and present, emphasized how unique an experience the program offered them. Compared to other basic life support ambulance services, which mainly transport patients in non-emergency situations, UCLA EMS offers undergraduates the rush of working in a unpredictable and constantly changing environment. And because of the program's strength, students rarely stop working until they're forced out due to hourly limits.
"I'll be there until I graduate," Petrites said. "Or even longer, if they let me stay."
Web Address: http://www.dailybruin.ucla.edu/news/articles.asp?ID=33312
Copyright 2005 ASUCLA Student Media