Georgetown’s dark knights: GERMS’s 30 years of keeping the community safe

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By Julia Jester
The Georgetown Voice

“It’s [an] amazing thing to look back on your college career and realize something you were part of in the early days is really still something that is still important to the community today.” Not many people can say that, but Chris Callsen (COL ‘85), a founding member of Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service, can.

Callsen was a student when Robert Doherty (COL ’83, MED ’87) started the collegiate EMS program in 1982 after, according to Callsen, a student fell from the fifth floor of Healy Hall and the D.C. Fire Department arrived on the scene 25 minutes later, but not in time to save the student’s life. “That [incident] crystallized the thought that had been brewing in some people’s heads that something needed to be done,” Callsen said. The Voice could not find the student’s name or verify any details of the incident.

According to Callsen, DCFD’s lengthy response time “was potentially a life-threatening problem for the Georgetown community.” The tragedy sparked the founding of GERMS, which has grown to become a vital part of the Georgetown community.

Over the years, however, misconceptions, stereotypes, and misinformation have plagued GERMS—tainting its image and muddying its mission. Having evolved from a desk and a golf cart at its inception 30 years ago this week, GERMS is a unique and often misunderstood organization. Earlier this semester, GERMS offered the Voice a chance to ride in on one of their ambulances for a night to see the personal and operational dynamic of the organization.

8:00p.m.—The GERMS night crew finishes dinner and the day crew officially transfers the radios and ambulance key to the night crew, led by GERMS president Taylor Miller (COL ‘13). As we climb into the ambulance, the dim lights and hip-hop music blaring through the speakers essentially turn it into a party bus.

“That’s what people say, it’s true, they do use the word ‘nerd,’” Lindsay Kolowich (COL ‘13) said of the impression that EMTs take themselves too seriously. “I think it’s funny because everyone at Georgetown is a nerd to some degree. … I don’t know how to defend that [impression] other than that we have a freaking fantastic time, all the time.”

These Georgetown students volunteer their time to care for other students whose party habits go awry.

The typical crew consists of an acting crew chief (the 80), driver (the 81), and two assistants (the 82 and 83). An elected board consisting of a president and three vice presidents, who then appoint other leadership roles, oversees the over 100 GERMS members. Volunteer crews are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and receive approximately 1,000 calls per year.

9:30 p.m.—“So, I have an important question for you guys. What movie are we watching tonight?” asks Miller as they enter the Village C office. The on-duty and standby crews decide on Finding Nemo. During the film, after Marlin and Dory barely escape the jellyfish swarm, Miller cracks an EMT joke: “Oh look, Marlin is checking Dory’s level of consciousness.” As the EMTs piled on the couch laugh, the sense of camaraderie among the
crew instantly becomes apparent. Yet, soon after the movie ends, the radio tone goes off and the mood suddenly shifts.

“Honestly, GERMS is one big family,” said Avery Alatis (COL ‘14), a member of the standby crew that night. “There is a certain degree of bonding that is inevitably going to come out of two of you being puked on by the same person at 3:00a.m. on a Saturday, so you end up making a lot of really close friends.” However, the lighthearted character of GERMS is frequently overlooked.

“What people may not realize is that the friendships that are formed within GERMS not only last the four years, they also sort of come back every now and then there’s a GERMS marriage or GERMS baby,” said alumni and former GERMS president Colin Brody (COL ‘11). “Adults who met through GERMS will have the ambulance at their wedding ceremony at Dahlgren.”

“Before going into GERMS, I thought they took themselves way too seriously, and that’s completely not the case,” Eric Jepeal (COL ‘14) said. Kolowich admires the ability to see both the candid and professional sides of members. “It’s really cool to be in the office joking around … everyone’s really great, and then the tone goes off and everyone is super serious and you go out and you get to see people be really professional.”

GERMS’s professionalism would translate well into the medical field—although only just over 50 percent of GERMS EMTs are pre-med. “You can kind of tell who the pre-med kids are, but there’s no divide at all,” explained Kolowich. As a government major planning to enter foreign service, Kolowich sees GERMS as beneficial to any student. “I’m going to have medical skills for the rest of my life, so if someone collapses in the middle of an auditorium 25 years from now, I’m going to know exactly what to do. It’s invaluable.”

11:30 p.m.—The crew arrives at New South in response to an alcohol-related call. The members assess the patient and decide it would be in her best interest to be taken to the hospital for observation. They get in the ambulance once again, except this time there is no music or revelry—only lights and complete focus. The ambulance arrives at the hospital by midnight, and the GERMS crew thoroughly looks over the patient one more time before leaving her in the hands of the medical staff at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

“I personally love the idea of students helping students because we’ve all been there,” Jepeal said. “Especially when the freshmen come inand they go a little crazy at first. … I think it’s more like the Georgetown family overall that’s taking care of each other.”

“Whether the problem was too much to drink at the Tombs the night before … or something as acute as a student falling through a plate glass window and had an arterial injury, students felt comfortable that students were there to help them,” Callsen said. “I think that’s what created that initial foundation of trust that has grown and been the core of university acceptance.”

Yet while the organization receives many calls, GERMS fights the perception that its quality of care does not match 911-dispatched EMTs, despite undergoing the same training process. “We have literally the same skills as all those other people,” Kolowich said. “Just because we’re college kids, does not mean that we cannot do the job just as well.”

Additionally, GERMS has the benefit of knowing campus inside and out. “If we get a call to Darnall 523 or something, we know exactly how to get there,” Miller said, “whereas D.C. fire has to sit there and wait till DPS tells them how to get to Darnall, and then figure out how to get to whatever room I just said. So I think from an operational standpoint, it’s just quicker response times.”

Although GERMS EMTs have the advantage of being able to directly relate to their patients, Kolowich sees this as a potential hazard. “I think it depends on the issue because if I had an embarrassing emergency, and I knew that students that are in my classes could respond, that’s where the danger is,” she said.

Alatis, however, thinks the benefits outweigh the dangers. “Sometimes it seems like GERMS is all about the weekend nights and the drunk kids, but we do see a lot more than that,” she said. “For example, somebody who’s been sexually assaulted, they probably don’t want to talk to some big, beefy stranger. It’s going to be a lot easier to talk to somebody their own age.”

While D.C. Fire and EMS charges on average $400-$500 per ambulance ride regardless of the distance, GERMS care and transportation to the hospital is free. Treatment once students arrive at the hospital, however, is not. “People don’t know that GERMS is free, but the ER is not … If it comes with the misconception that the ER is also free, then GERMS gets blamed,” Alatis said.

1:00 a.m.—Just as GERMS approaches campus, they receive a second call from Village A. This time the patient is a student visiting from another university. At first reluctant to cooperate and intimidated by the presence of a DPS officer who accompanies GERMS on every call, the student calms down once the EMTs explain what GERMS is. Once the fear of getting in trouble disappears, the patient becomes compliant and the EMTs determine that he does not need to go to the hospital. He even says that GERMS should talk to his university to get a similar EMS program installed there.

Georgetown’s EMS program is the only one of its kind in the greater D.C. area, though in 2008, George Washington University created a similar EMT service called EMeRG. According to GERMS medical director Dr. Kori Hudson, “GERMS has been around a lot longer and is a little bit more established. Because Georgetown is a closed campus, it’s easier for us to be responsible for all EMS calls within our boundaries. GW being spread out kind of integrated into the city a little bit more makes it harder for them to do that.”

In addition to logistical restraints it faces, EMeRG has a tainted reputation. “There’s a really negative stigma with them on campus at GW because when they have alcohol or substance abuse-related incidences, they report it to the school, and the school gets the frats and sororities in trouble,” Jepeal said.

American, Howard, and Catholic Universities all lack student-run ambulance services altogether.

“I think that the biggest misconception among the Georgetown community is that GERMS will get you in trouble, which is not helped by the fact that DPS comes with us to calls,” Alatis said. “But … DPS doesn’t come with us to get anyone in trouble, they come with us to make sure that we’re safe. Because if we get a patient who is swearing at us or spitting at us, we don’t really need to be dealing with that.”

Even The Hoya perpetuated this myth of DPS intimidation in an Aug. 30, 2012 editorial: “It has become standard procedure for Department of Public Safety officers to accompany the Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service on calls–which would be fine, except that DPS reserves the right to report students for what they discover at the scene. In potential matters of life and death, students should not hesitate to phone for help for fear of being caught drinking underage or using illegal drugs.”

Miller emphasized the danger of propagating this mistaken belief. “If someone was to be in trouble, and someone didn’t call because there was underage drinking or drug use or someone just breaking the law and got hurt breaking the law or something like that, then I think that would be crazy just because of a rumor going around.”

1:30 a.m.—The crew gets back to the office, where the EMTs work on charts for 20 minutes before the radio tone goes off yet again. The third, and final, call of the night comes at 1:45 a.m. and they head to Darnall. After going through an almost identical process as during the first call, the patient is cared for and left at the hospital overnight for observation purposes. Shortly after 3:00 a.m., the crew returns to the office, debriefs, and catches a few hours of sleep before the day crew arrives in the morning.

This weekend, GERMS is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and it has been around for so long for a reason—it has become an essential part of Georgetown life.

Miller attributes the success of the organization to the fact that the EMTs are volunteers rather than paid workers. “I think the biggest [reason] is just the way it fosters volunteerism in students and a sense of ownership that it gives students in that as students, GERMS is our organization,” said Miller. “We can’t fall back and blame a faculty member who’s in charge. If something goes wrong, then students deal with it.”

Despite misconceptions and stereotypes, GERMS has cemented itself into the Georgetown community. From its beginnings operating out of a converted hearse, the service has treated countless students and exhausted nine ambulances.

“We’ve definitely come incredibly far from when we’ve started. And part of the really cool part of the 30th anniversary is that we’ve been interviewing a lot of alums, many of whom were here the very first year GERMS started,” Alatis said. “And they come here to this office, and they see our new ambulance, and they just say, ‘Wow. We had a desk and a golf cart. You guys have a dedicated office, and two ambulances, and so many more members, and so much standing in the community.’ It’s very cool how much we’ve been able to do.”

Over the past 30 years, GERMS has used every expansion to better care for students at Georgetown. During the 2008 norovirus outbreak, GERMS treated over 100 patients in four days. GERMS has even sent EMS crews to help with the previous three presidential inaugurations, which has improved both GERMS’s and Georgetown’s reputation in the district.

“GERMS as an organization, and all of its members, are widely respected for the services that they provide to the University Community. I don’t even think they always realize that there are people in the University Administration as well as in the Department of Health, the DC City government, and DC Fire/EMS who all have great respect for what the GERMS are doing,”

Hudson said. “These officials often can’t believe that such a well-run organization is entirely managed by its student members. It makes me proud to be a part of what they are doing.”

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