Unofficial partnership benefits county EMS, university students

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Merritt Groh is one of eight students from the University of South Dakota volunteering for the Vermillion-Clay County Ambulance Department.

Vermillion’s ambulance department responds to approximately 800 calls per year, and is staffed 24 hours a day with two ambulances on duty at all times.

About half of the roster is made up of university students, said former Emergency Medical Service Director Lee Huber.

Groh discovered a passion of medicine by working for the department.

When he was an undergraduate student at USD, his degree was secondary education in history with a minor in physics. His master’s degree was for public administration. Now he is finishing his clinical rotations to be a physician assistant, a career he did not think about when he started.

Huber calls the job opportunities a revolving door. Students come in their first year and are typically trained in Vermillion as an Emergency Medical Technician. He said many move on to medical school, physician assistant school, nursing school or their career at their end of time as an undergraduate.

“Rather than looking at that as one of the obstacles, the last couple years, we have embraced it,” Huber said.

While there is no official partnership between USD and the city of Vermillion for an EMT program, many students who are planning on attending graduate programs in medical areas choose to volunteer with the department, said Huber.

Senior Nicole Gulley plans on attending medical school next year, and she is also an instructor for the EMT class held at the Vermillion Ambulance department and is the president of the Vermillion/Clay County Ambulance Association.

“It’s really beneficial to start getting patient contact and actually interacting with patients,” Gulley said. “You get a little more experience and you get to know, yes, you want to be in the medical field.”

The department provides emergency medical services for the majority of Clay County including Vermillion, said Huber. Students play a vital role in the department’s success. There are not enough Vermillion residents to provide the medical care that is needed. The position provides students with experience and residents with the emergency medical services.

“It has shown me what my true passion is, and has given me the ability to think quick on my feet and how to handle emergency situations,” Groh said.

Some students have built up an understanding with professors at USD to allow them to take calls during class, said Huber.

“There are a lot of instructors and professors that are very understanding of the role these students are playing as a first responder in the community,” Huber said.

Some students are allowed to have their pagers on during class and can miss classes to respond to calls if needed. Students are told they have to keep up with class work, said Huber.

He also said a number of volunteers are staff members at USD.

During snowstorms, or when all three ambulances need to be activated, USD staff members can respond thanks to their supervisors.

“Supervisors are very good at allowing them to take some calls so they can be active during daytime,” Huber said.

The skills learned during a student’s tenure at Vermillion EMS provides skills not always learned in the classroom, said Groh and Gulley. Communication is one of the biggest assets gained as an EMT.

“It has helped me to work better with people in the health care field. I think it is important to learn how those relationships work,” Gulley said. “It will help me become a better doctor.”

Students also get the experience of working with real people in the worst moments of their lives. They learn how to have a calm demeanor when a situation is stressful and to handle the initial contact with the patient and family members, Groh said.

“Just today (Tuesday), even, we went through an EKG lab (in physician assistant school) and I was really familiar with that because we have been doing it on the ambulance,” said Jordana Lamb, a physician assistant student and EMT.

It’s an experience many of the volunteers like Gully and Groh believe is helpful for a career in health care.

“If you have seen blood and you can handle an emergency situation, it shows (medical and physician assistant) schools that you have a passion, you know what you’re doing,” Groh said.

Students also staff community outreach events to education residents of Clay County on blood pressure and other health concerns. They also work approximately 25,000 hours per year as standby for fires, athletic and community events.

USD students can receive training to be an EMT through the Vermillion EMS department. Students of the training course receive three credits, which can be used as equivalency credits at USD. Typically, four students are hired by the department every year, said Gulley, which is held in the fall.

“Being an EMT is just amazing,” Lamb said. “There are not words for it.”

Groh was a student seven years ago in the class. He took the EMT class after volunteering for the North Sioux City Fire Department and hired as an EMT and discovered his true passion: medicine.

Groh credits his experience at the Vermillion Ambulance department as vital for him to attend school to be a physician assistant.

“It has shown me what my true passion is,” he said.