Newark EMS Answers Calls, and Questions

Under specter of an offensive prank, UMDNJ crew goes on saving lives


 
 

Ted Sherman | | Tuesday, August 5, 2008


NEWARK, N.Y. -- On an unbearably hot day last month, an emergency vehicle raced up Bloomfield Avenue into Newark's North Ward, weaving sharply through slow-moving noontime traffic oblivious to its wailing siren and flashing lights.



Paramedics responding to a call of a woman with chest pain found the address in minutes, pulling up to a brown brick apartment building with an iron security fence and locked gate that gave it the appearance of a long-neglected prison.



"Of course the elevator's not working," muttered paramedic John Cahill, a big man in a blue Emergency Medical Services shirt, as he glanced at a sign taped to the elevator door. Joined by another EMS team and a supervisor, Cahill and his partner lugged equipment to an apartment five flights up.



It was one of 306 calls Newark paramedics received that day in late July, calls ranging from breathing difficulties to motor vehicle accidents. Seven were coded as immediate life threats. One involved a drunk passed out on the street.



For EMS crews working out of University Hospital, it was just another typical day in a job that suddenly came under public scrutiny last month following an incident that few will talk about in public.



Three paramedics, who have since been fired, allegedly pressured two trainees to don white sheets suggestive of Ku Klux Klan robes. In photos of the incident, one could be seen holding a wooden cross held together with surgical tape and gauze. The students, both from Northeastern University in Boston, were coerced into taking part, officials said. They were on clinical rotation with University Hospital EMS crews as part of a certification course.



None of those involved was a person of color.



The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which operates University Hospital, informed authorities and began its own investigation after the photos surfaced. Officials say others may face disciplinary action.



The university's top administrators say it remains unclear whether the incident was a hazing, an initiation, a rite of passage or "just plain old stupidity."



For those in UMDNJ's emergency services, however, the episode is likely to continue to reverberate internally for some time.



"It's been rough. It's been really rough," said Nancy Hamstra, who heads the 237-member unit that has served the city since 1979.



On the streets of Newark, though, there is no sign anyone has taken much notice. Indeed, on a day spent with an EMS supervisor, the issue never came up at all. Those calling for help only wanted reassurance they were all right. Victor Mendez, 51, who has been with the squad for more than 30 years, talked about it only when asked.



"The reputation we've had is good, and then all of a sudden, this?" Mendez said. "Poor judgment. Poor judgment on the part of those guys. I don't know what led to that."



After the photos came to light, several former EMS members came forward, complaining of fewer opportunities for minority employees. A demographic breakdown shows 30 percent of the EMS squad is black or Hispanic, and 68 percent white.



Others still there who did not want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs said there is a culture of hazing trainees, in an organization with a traditional command structure that counts among its members police officers, state troopers and firefighters who split their time in other jobs.



One recounted an episode in which students had their heads shaved. Another was allegedly forced to dry-shave his face, on threats of infractions for having too much facial hair.



Mendez, who expresses anger at what transpired, is from Puerto Rico and said he was unaware of any hazing. He discounted any undercurrent of racism in the department. Still, he said, responding to life-and-death situations in the state's largest city can be a hard job with the kind of stress many would never understand.



"A lot of people can't take it," he said, as he drove a white Dodge Durango carrying the orange-and-yellow livery of University Hospital's EMS. "They work one day, two days, and they're out."



Mendez has seen it all.



"You get burn victims and kids struck by cars. When you see someone burned to a certain degree . . ." he said, his voice trailing off. "Yeah," he finally says. "It's stressful. Some people cope with it. Some people, they can't get used to it."



On this day, the shift begins with a slow drawl of a morning that that would eventually reach the high 90s, putting breathing problems at the top of the call list.



"A day like this triggers a lot of asthma," Mendez said. "A lot of senior citizens get hit with heat exertion. Hopefully they'll all stay inside today, stay cool."



Moments later, a call came in. A woman was having difficulty breathing. Mendez hit the lights and accelerator, heading across the city. Few cars maneuver out of the way and Mendez shook his head. "I guess everyone has their air-conditioner going full blast. They can't hear anything," he said.



Much of the day went like that. Breathing problems. A minor accident on Market Street. Three calls canceled before anyone got there, including a report of a major accident in Port Newark that police concluded was a false alarm.



A call on Broad Street of a man collapsed on the sidewalk turned out to be an old friend that every EMT and paramedic knows by name. With a plastic bag full of empty cans next to him, he lay on the sidewalk near the Newark light rail station, barely coherent. An alcoholic ex-boxer, he turns up on the street at least two to three times a week. Ambulance crews take turns hauling him to the hospital.



"Time to get up, Mal," said one of the paramedics.



"I'm out," he said in a slur.



"No, no, you're not out. Come on. Get up. We'll get you into a nice cool place."



They got him into an ambulance and headed back to University Hospital. Mendez never consults a map. He knows every street in the city.



HITTING THE STREETS



The calls vary, but the drill doesn't change.



On the fifth floor of the apartment where Cahill and others have climbed the stairs to respond to another woman with breaking problems, they found a heavyset woman who said she felt sick and was clearly in discomfort. Paramedics patiently went through a medical assessment, taking blood pressure and attaching leads for an electrocardiogram. Finally she agreed to go to the hospital, but insisted on walking down the stairs herself.



"There's a lot of big guys here," Cahill suggested gently. "We'll get you down."



She shook her head and began the slow climb down, two paramedics on either side of her.



"Take your time, mama," one said. "If you want, just take a break."



It took a long time, but they finally reached the ground floor.



"You see," she said in triumph. "We made it. All of us."



As they put her in an ambulance, Mendez got another call for aid in another part of the city.



He hit the siren.



Ted Sherman may be reached at tsherman@starledger.com(973) 392-4278.




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