Emergency medical service (EMS) personnel work for a minimum of 12 hours in a typical shift — and sometimes up to 24 — according to a 2021 study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some stick with the role for decades, while others use it as an opportunity to gain experience as they prepare for another job in the medical field. Along with the grueling schedule, EMS personnel struggle with mental health issues, separating work and home lives, frustrating coworkers and more. These are the stories of EMS personnel in the Evanston and Northwestern community, told in their own words.

Eleina Salgia is a Weinberg second-year on the pre-med track. She completed an accelerated EMT certification program in Ohio the summer after her senior year of high school. In January, Salgia began working for an inter-facility transport company in Skokie. Salgia works 12-hour shifts about twice a month during the school year. I spoke with her over the phone.

It was kind of on a whim, my decision to be an EMT. I really wanted to know what I wanted to do before I started college. Hospital rounds are great, where you’re shadowing a doctor, but when you don't know what to do, you have a lot of people in the hospital [to fall back on]. But being an EMT, there's really no safety net. You have to know what you're doing.

The program was at Cleveland Clinic [and] lasted five weeks. Most people were already pre-med or med students for a few years already. I was basically the only one who had no experience in the medical world. It was like seven hours a day, something awful. Every day I was like, “I want to quit,” but at the end of every day, I loved it.

I remember a time I messed up. It was the biggest guy in class: 196.25 pounds. And I was the smallest person in the class. We were supposed to do a stair chair, which is basically bringing someone up and down stairs on a chair. I chose the biggest guy in class because I wanted to prove that I could do it. I got up two steps and I was like, “OK, I need help. Can someone else fill in here?” Instantly, I apologized to the instructor, and he was not mad at me at all. He was just really impressed with me. It was nice to have someone recognize that I was trying.

The instructors were great. One of them overheard me on a phone call with my dad in the hallway. I told him, "I don't think I can be a doctor. This is so fast-paced. It's really stressing me out. I just don't think I'm cut out for this." [My instructor] pulled me aside afterwards and he was like, "We've noticed you in class. You're doing incredible. And don't think you're falling behind anyone." He told me I would be an incredible doctor, and the world needs more people like that. It was just nice hearing from someone who has seen a lot of students before. It felt like I was being recognized and that there was someone who really wanted me to succeed.

I did work briefly in Ohio. This was when I was doing my ride along, so I wasn't even a trained EMT. We were called to a case of someone who was expressing suicidal ideation. It was two guys and me working. [The patient] was sitting in bed refusing to talk to any of us. She wouldn't respond to our questions, wouldn't say anything. [The patient’s] mother was called, and it was clear her mother wasn't really expressing that much care for her. She was yelling at her daughter like, "Why did you have to bring police into this?" It was a friend who called the police, but [the patient’s mom] was pretty mad.

The police came, and the other EMTs went to talk to the police, and they asked me to just watch her and help her get to the hospital. Once they left, I sat down with her and instead of asking, "How are you feeling?” or telling her, “You really need to get to the hospital right now," I started talking about her cat in her room. I was like, "Oh my God, I have a cat, too, she’s the love of my life! She's my best friend." And she finally started responding to me.

This is the thing that made me realize I needed to be in the medical field. We were able to talk as two women without these other men in the room. I told her going to the hospital was going to be a lot easier if she agreed to go with us, because if not, then unfortunately, the police were going to have to take her in their car. I told her I would ride with her in the ambulance. I would be in the back with her. We don't have to fully strap her in, and I can just talk to her the entire ride. And she started crying and finally started packing and getting ready to go.

Something that I love about the community of EMTs is that I've never been treated differently as a woman [by my coworkers]. It teaches you very early on that if you prove yourself, nothing can stop you, and there aren't people out to get you. That was something I was really scared about [in the beginning]. I'm the smallest one here. I'm 5 foot 1 inch and a woman of color going into this field where stereotypically it's always been big white men. But once I got in there, I realized I wasn't going to be treated any differently. It wasn't that I had to prove myself as a woman, I just had to prove myself as an EMT.

I've worked in the hospital, and it's a little bit harder to understand where [patients are] coming from, because a lot of them are already annoyed. They've had their vitals taken in the ambulance. They don't understand why it's happening again. But seeing the version of them who has to call an ambulance and needs help is a lot more humbling and makes you realize that it's their worst day. For us, it's just another day. You need to treat them with the compassion that you would want to be treated with, which I think sometimes gets lost in a hospital setting.

[Working as an EMT] is the one part of my day where I'm not thinking about school stress or anything else. Even when I'm working out, I'm still thinking, “I should probably be back home right now studying for bio.” Or when I'm out in Chicago or out with my friends, I'm thinking, “I have an assignment that I really should have started.” For some reason when I'm working as an EMT, even if there's downtime, I'm never thinking about schoolwork. I think that the change in location is one of the biggest things. As an EMT, I'm so far out from campus. When I take off the uniform, I'm just like another kid again, just going to school.

Greg Young is a 43-year-old firefighter/paramedic who has worked with the Evanston Fire Department (EFD) for nine years. He began his EMS career as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown southwest of Chicago, where he still lives today. I spoke to him at Evanston Fire Station 1, 10 hours into his 24-hour shift.

I leave home at 4:15 in the morning to get [to the fire station] at quarter-to-6. I get here an hour early because that's a big part of our culture, trying to relieve the crew before us so they don't get a last-minute call, and then their 24 hours turns into 25.

When I was 27, I decided that I wanted to do something else that was comparative pay to what I was currently doing. I had kids real early, and I owned my own drywall business. I decided that I probably don't want to do that the rest of my life, abuse my body. So now I just abuse my mind [laughs].

I tried volunteer [firefighting] because I didn’t know if I could handle it. By the time I was 33, I started getting job offers. [EFD] is the first full-time department that offered me a job. I've had other offers since, but I really like what Evanston has to offer. It's just a little bit of everything.

Children are the cases that stick with you — or me, anyway. I don’t wanna say it’s easier, but it’s different with older adults as opposed to what you view as a defenseless, innocent person.

This one was probably three or four years into my career. I ended up assuming care in a paramedic role for a kid that was the same age as and went to school with my daughter.

It was in the morning before school. The kid was a passenger sitting in the back of a minivan in a captain’s chair. His mom was driving. A [driver] in his 20s blew a stop sign going 60 miles an hour and the timing was just … wrong. They were T-boned. When I got there, [the kid] was pinned in between the sliding door and the captain’s chair from impact. That was a particularly tough case because he was in a real bad way. His legs were pinned up behind him, rotated backwards, and he was sitting there screaming, “My legs! My legs! My legs! I’m gonna die!” We had to cut him out, and as soon as we got him out, I had to take him to the ambulance and take care of him until the helicopter showed up.

He ended up OK — different, but OK.

He played soccer with my daughter, and I saw him at a game probably two years later. I could tell he was running a little different. His mom recognized me and came and found me and said, “Thank you.”

It took me a while to get over that case. I dwelled on it a little bit, thinking, “How is he? What happened to him? Did I do everything right?” You know they’re terrified, and your instinct –– or my instinct anyway –– is to say, “You’re going to be OK. We’re going to take care of you.” In the moment, that’s the right thing to say, but then you question it later.

[Seeing him two years later] brought a lot of those feelings back. It was emotional — I didn’t cry, but I teared up. It was a big weight that I didn’t feel at the time, but it kind of felt like it went away when I saw him.

Situations [like that] proved to me that [being a paramedic] was something I could do and [that] I was built to do. I'm not denying that it doesn’t affect me in a negative way, but there’s always the next call. You have to realize you didn't create the situation; you're doing what you can to help.

When I worked in [my hometown], we ran four calls a day, and five was a busy day. We would go on 1,200 calls in an entire year. You felt like you were doing really good all the time. In Evanston, we did 11,300 calls last year. Once you get into a higher frequency all the time, what I started to notice, and I'm not afraid to say it, is that I had to go talk to somebody, a psychologist.

To think about the job is harder than to do it. The graphic doesn't bother me, but it's just the stress of the job that eats away at you slowly over time. So it's important for medics to be cognizant of that. For a while, it's easy to deal with. But as you start to develop a family and outside responsibilities, it takes time for you to realize it's weighing on you. And it's just important to do something about it.

It's very hard to separate work life from home life. [The department] is almost like a second family, but it's a totally different dynamic. When you're that entrenched here and then have to go home, it's hard to separate the two. And [work] is the one that sticks, more than home, because it's so much more dramatic. You get caught in this weird thing where there's two separate existences.

[My psychologist] has taught me techniques. Like on the drive home, you don't make any phone calls about work. Tell yourself, “You're going home. You're going to a different environment. Whatever is going on there is OK.” And also more self-reflection, like, “I'm justified in the way I feel,” but now thinking about why I feel that way.

[Mental health] is becoming talked about more and more. For the longest time, it definitely was not. It was, "We're tough guys. We're firemen. We don't show weakness." And it's still that way. We'll have trainings where people make light of it, you know, but that's how we cope with it. We all joke about it. But if somebody was really having an issue, you will not see an outpouring [of support] more than from this group of people. Everybody in this department is willing to help and do whatever you need if you're really, really struggling. I want every firefighter to be OK seeing somebody.

I could choose not to be as busy as I am, but I choose to be at the station because I like the people here. It’s like another family. We're all good friends and get along really well. We have a routine. I like being busy, too. As much as it is a stressor, I do enjoy it. A lot of stories come from there. A lot of your positive experiences come from there. I'm very thankful I got the job and chose this career path.

Medill third-year Anna Bock is a pre-physician assistant (PA). When Bock was 18, she completed her EMS certification in her hometown of Denver, Colorado. Every summer since, she has worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for a Denver-based inter-facility transport company, which moves patients between medical facilities.

I originally got [certified] because I wanted to see if I was squeamish, if I could handle blood and if I should pursue pre-med. My instructor brought pictures from his calls over the years so you saw all the stuff you were likely going to see in the field. There was a slide once of people that had been impaled, there was a guy who had gone into a boat dock and had the wooden things sticking out of his stomach, and another guy had a steel pole that had gone into his leg. I remember being like, “This is so crazy — not good, but kind of cool!”

It’s definitely a job where you have to get down and dirty. You get thrown up on, peed on — various bodily fluids that you might not necessarily enjoy bringing into your daily routine [laughs].

I had a dementia patient once who took off all his seat belts while we were driving in a snowstorm. I remember trying to gently go around the guy and buckle him back up and flip the belts so he couldn't reach them. Especially with psychiatric patients, they're not functioning normally, and you can't expect them to do so. Getting frustrated or concerned isn't going to help in the moment.

In those situations, even though you naturally [feel] wildly uncomfortable, I take a deep breath, I push down that rising panic and I’ve found that I'm able to function anyways. That's almost something that drove me into the career in the first place — I noticed that when things are going totally awry, instead of panicking and freezing, I am able to control and modulate that panic and then act and help control whatever I'm facing. It's still very difficult. I don't want to make light of it, but in a way, it's fulfilling, being able to act in those moments when you're needed most.

I once had a patient that was schizophrenic and had a history of being aggressive with emergency responders. I was also pretty new at the time. My partner was a paramedic and I really wanted her to take the patient because she can sedate him if needed, but my partner [wanted to drive]. I was nervous. I don't think I took a deep breath the entire call. I checked his vitals when I could. He wasn't really cooperative, and I was just like, “I'm going to sit behind him.” There's a chair where you can sit behind the patient if you need to, and they can't really see you or reach you very easily. I remember sitting there and waiting to be done with the call.

I went home that night and I was so exhausted. I never wanted to feel that way again, where I felt like my life was in danger while I tried to help the person.

I had a best friend pass away by suicide a year ago. At the moment it happened, I was with a [suicidal] patient. I can still [treat those patients], but it's really hard for me. I don't particularly like to hear the details of their story unless it's pertinent to their medical care because it does definitely bring me down. I try my best, especially after what happened to my friend, just to show them that I care. I just try to show there are people out there in this world that want them to be there.

I've found that I don't cry in the moment. I'm really good at bottling it up for the day. But there's something about the second I walk into my home and I realize that it's all real life happening around me.

I do occasionally have the day where I just have to cry. I'll go curl up in my parents’ bed and I will talk about why I'm frustrated that something happened and how unfair the world is. And then the next day I'll wake up and I'll go back.

I feel better knowing no matter what’s happening in this world, I’m coming home knowing that I was a good part of [someone’s] story, and I spent time taking care of someone. It is so impactful. Talking to patients and hearing their stories and knowing that you at least tried your best to make them feel like someone cares and someone is there for them, I think, is really cool.

I can't think of a job I would rather do. It's an incredible career. It really changes your perspective on the world. I really enjoy interacting with people and hearing their stories. I am never bored with this job. Every day I go to work and it's different. And I love it.


Writing Audrey Hettleman

Editing Emma Chiu and Noah Coyle

Print Design Iliana Garner

Web Design & Development Elizabeth Casolo