When Saving Lives is More Than Child's Play

June 25, 2006

New York Times

AS David Acker greets the class of aspiring emergency medical technicians on the first day of the summer session at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, you're not exactly sure if he's welcoming them or trying to run them off.

''You get disrespected so much in this job,'' Mr. Acker said, leaning on a lectern in his blue paramedic's uniform at the hospital's Emergency Medical Services Institute. ''At least now it's good we have doctors riding with us in the field, so they can see what it's like when you're lying in the puke in the snowbank at 3 a.m. trying to intubate someone, or when you're bouncing down the highway, going 65 and trying to start an IV. I've been called every name in the book.''

He added: ''I've had 14-year-olds spit in my face. So you're going to get slapped every now and then, but it's O.K. It's a good time out there.''

Well, maybe this didn't sound like everyone's idea of a good time. But, looking at the rapt faces in the auditorium, no one seemed the least bit put off. Not David Hammer of Darien, who is not yet 16. Not Katie Becker of Wilton, Liz Johnston of Westport, or Ben Klingher of Weston, all 16-year-olds from Connecticut's comfortable Fairfield County suburbs. Not any of the high school and college students who made up about two-thirds of the class of 30 students.

Instead, they seemed thoroughly jazzed at the thought of spending much of the summer in 29 sessions on topics like Cardiac Emergencies, Bleeding Soft Tissue Scenarios and Musculoskeletal Head/Spine Lifting and Moving. The goal is to gain E.M.T.-Basic certification, so they, too, can respond to car wrecks, heart attacks, choking infants and the rest, and perhaps end up being vomited on in snowbanks.

''It's not like being a robot in school,'' said Tyler Prince, an alert-looking 17-year-old from Staples High School in Westport. ''You really get to do something. There's real action. I know some kids want to do it because it looks good for college, but if that's why they want to do it, I always try to talk them out of taking the class. It's a great thing to do, but it's way too much work to do unless it's something you really want to do.''

In the fuzzy web of clichés and stereotypes we carry around in our heads about teenagers, being eager-beaver first responders tends not to be the first thought that comes to mind. But the real world for an increasing number of teenagers at suburban high schools these days includes riding around in ambulances, jumping onto fire trucks and doing a lot of the volunteer work their elders are either too busy, too tired or too intimidated to do.

And many then go on to join the campus ambulance corps that are becoming popular at colleges as well. ''You see so many young people getting into this field, it blows me away,'' said Mr. Acker, 51. ''Can you imagine being 16 and wanting to be the one going to car crashes and cutting people out of cars? When I was 16, that kind of blood and guts was the furthest thing from my mind.''

THE Oxford and Cambridge of the youthful emergency volunteers' universe can be found almost four exits up I-95, in Darien, in a rambling two-story building just off the southbound entrance ramp that houses what is almost certainly the most remarkable outfit of its kind in the country.

In other communities, youths help adults staff the volunteer ambulance corps. At Darien Emergency Services Post 53, they pretty much are the volunteer ambulance corps. The 58 young members, ranging from 14-year-old candidates to 17- and 18-year-old crew chiefs certified by the state as emergency medical technicians, provide staffing for shifts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, sleeping overnight in dormitory rooms at the post. They drive the corps' three $100,000 ambulances, operate the radio room that responds to calls, and coordinate an operation with an annual budget of $200,000 that responds to about 1,400 calls a year.

There are about 25 adult members as well. They provide the permanent memory and serve as trainers and mentors. And it is the self-described ''day ladies'' who make up the first crew when school is in session. During that time, two of the ambulances are parked at Darien High School, so students can dash out of class to respond to calls if the other ambulance is in use.