Essential Labor: On the Job with A La Crosse EMT

We spoke to Dylan Wedyke, who works as an EMT in the Coulee Region, about his work, how it’s been impacted by COVID-19, and how the crisis has raised the profile of frontline workers, from grocery store clerks to EMTs.

Can you give an outline of what a shift is like for an EMT around here?

A shift for me generally goes something like this: You get to work at around 7 a.m. and do what’s called a truck check, which is basically us going through a checklist and making sure we have all our equipment (backboards, medications, IV stuff, Intubation cric and suction stuff) as well as making sure the lights and sirens work and all the tires are good. Then we usually set up our bunk room the way we like it (sheets etc.) as we work 24 hour shifts at my station. From there we go about our day at the station waiting for calls to come in.

After you do your chores the day is mostly yours as long as you stay within running distance of the station and keep your pager on you. I generally do my homework for paramedic school as well as train on the mannequins, then just relax and wait for a call to come in.

How many calls come in is anyone’s guess. Some days we get none other days we get 10 and it can be anything from a simple fall to a multi-car collision to someone lost in the woods or crushed by a tractor. It’s generally a crap-shoot. We also do inter-facility transfers (transfers between hospitals) that tend to keep us busy.

At night we go to sleep and keep our pagers at the ready. When they go off at night it makes my heart race. We have to be out at the truck at the drop of a hat so we often sleep dressed, or with our stuff laid out in a way that we can throw it on very quickly and go. In the mornings we wash and make sure the truck is squared away for the next crew that comes in at 7 a.m.

What’s it been like to continue working throughout the lockdown?

Honestly, other than us wearing a ton more PPE on calls (gas mask, face shield, gown, on top of our usual gloves) it has been more or less the same. We still go to all the calls we used to but now we get more sick person calls and have to be much more careful. The area I work hasn’t been hit hard, thankfully. I work in a generally rural area, but we are being very careful.

Do you think the crisis has changed the way people view truly essential workers, like EMTs, grocery store clerks, nurses etc?

I am a pessimist, unfortunately, and believe that a lot of the essential workers are sacrificial pawns for the bosses who just want to keep the economy afloat. For sure what they do IS essential but I don’t believe they are being treated as such. Instead, they are having trouble staying healthy and getting proper PPE and the bosses have written them off as acceptable losses. In some cases, they’ve even canceled their “hero pay,” which is just hazard pay but without all the legal connotations.

As for healthcare workers we are just doing our jobs. Pandemic or no pandemic, it is our job to take care of the sick and ill. And, generally I think that healthcare providers in the Coulee area have been pretty good about making sure we have all the equipment and PPE we need to do that. I know other parts of the country are not so lucky.

As for society changing their view of essential workers, I think slowly but surely we’re getting there. It starts with increasing class consciousness and building solidarity, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.

The health care system is fragmented and complicated in the U.S., with so many issues around cost and access, how does that play out on the front lines for an EMT?

I personally am a big proponent of Medicare for All and believe it will fix a lot of the problems with access to care in the United States. I work in a poorer county and while anyone can call an ambulance in our area and expect to get one, I know many people don’t out of fear that an ambulance bill will tip them over the edge financially. I know of at least two cases were people died and I was told that the patient didn’t want to call an ambulance earlier because they were afraid of the bill. I think it’s completely unacceptable that as a country we could let that kind of situation happen.

If you live in a remote rural area, you may not even get an ambulance. There are volunteer ambulance services that are staffed with EMT-basics and EMR’s and while they are great providers in their own right sometimes there is just no one who can come in when a call goes out. It’s rare but it does happen.

Dylan Wedyke

What are pay and conditions like for EMTs in this area and across the country?

In the Coulee Region I believe pay varies, but we are pretty average for the state. We have health insurance as well as other standard benefits. Nationally, that’s a tougher question. We tend to be an underpaid profession for a lot of reasons. One is that the job doesn’t require a four year college degree, although educational requirement are being changed. It used be to be that a one-year certificate was sufficient to become a paramedic but now a two year associate’s degree is required. We also don’t have a national organization or union to fight for our rights specifically, like the nurses and firefighters do.I believe that needs to change.

What would you want the general public to know about the job you do?

In general, it seems like the public does not really know what we do. I have been called everything from a sheriff’s deputy to a firefighter to a nurse. And when people do know what an EMT or paramedic is, they think we are all just ambulance drivers. Paramedics and EMT’s are highly trained professionals that can do everything from ACLS algorithms to reviving a person, to a surgical  cricothyrotomy to open an airway. I know of no other medical profession that lets you do that outside of being an actual doctor or maybe a physician assistant. There are also four levels of EMS provider in Wisconsin – Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), EMT- advanced, Nationally registered Paramedic (NRP) and Critical Care Paramedic (CCP), who tend to take the most critical of all patients in ambulances and helicopters between hospitals and from scenes. 

Interview by Eric Timmons. Edited for clarity and length.

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Featured photo credit: publichall/GFDL