Administration and Leadership, Columns, Training

Medic Overcomes Seemingly Insurmountable Obstacle

Issue 6 and Volume 40.

Where does one find inspiration these days? The greats of past generations could usually pinpoint an inspiration. Claude Monet was inspired by the changing of light. Museums around the world are now covered in amazing portrayals of scenery or objects bathed in multiple types of illumination. Alexander Graham Bell was inspired by his deaf mother and wife. He invented the telephone as a result of attempts at creating a hearing aid. My inspiration was discovered at the 2015 JEMS Games while watching an extraordinary competitor.

Andrew Ecker can tell you exactly when he decided to become a paramedic. Just prior to his 18th birthday, Andrew was at the beach with friends enjoying a day like any normal teenager.

Andrew dove into a wave and struck a sandbank, causing a C5 burst fracture and instant paralysis. He remained underwater completely alert and aware, but unable to raise his head to breathe. After his friends finally realized he was in trouble and scooped him out of the water, he was taken by ground ambulance to Atlantic City Regional Medical Center by Chris Miller, an AtlantiCare paramedic.

While lapsing in and out of consciousness, Andrew was comforted by Chris and his ability to console a newly paralyzed 17-year-old. It’s something he’s not seen any other medical professional able to replicate–and it was his inspiration to become a paramedic.

Andrew was flown to Jefferson University in Philadelphia where he was diagnosed with a spinal hemitransection. He was suffering from textbook neurogenic shock, making the prospect of spinal fusion surgery risky and terrifying.

The first attempt at surgery was interrupted as Andrew went into cardiac arrest. He was revived, and the doctors waited nine days for his vital signs to stabilize before attempting the procedure again. This time surgery was successful, with C4–C6 fused. Andrew was now on the road to a very long, arduous recovery.

Andrew struggled while rehabilitating, throwing multiple pulmonary embolisms and having several seizure episodes. He spent six months as a complete quadriplegic, but he never gave up. By nine months he was beginning to walk, and at the end of the year he had recovered to a point that he could be considered a medical miracle.

Put in Andrew’s place–experiencing a lifetime of events crammed into a single year–many people would understandably want to rest and “take it easy.” But not Andrew; he was inspired. He went on to become a paramedic and obtain his FP-C and CEN, and after that became an AHA and PHTLS instructor, eventually earning his bachelors in EMS management from George Washington University.

And he didn’t stop there. Two years ago Andrew became a registered nurse and is currently pursuing his masters as a nurse practitioner. Of course, his most important accomplishment is being the very proud father to two sons, 5-year-old Jack and 2-year-old Sam.

While watching Andrew and his team from Virtua Health in South New Jersey compete in the 2015 JEMS Games advanced clinical competition, it was Andrew’s unusual gait that first caught my eye. But that soon became an afterthought as I and the other judges watched in awe as we observed Andrew’s outstanding clinical competence and amazing teamwork that allowed his team to complete the course in an impressive fashion.

Despite suffering from Brown-Séquard syndrome and deficits to both hemispheres of his body, Andrew displayed impeccable critical decision-making and stayed consistently cool under pressure.

After his team completed the preliminary course, I learned the incredible story of this humble young man and was struck by the depth of his dedication to those around him, and to his career. He’s now one of my biggest inspirations.

Andrew Ecker, left, pictured here with JEMS Technical Editor Carolyn Gates and VirtuaHealth teammates Mike Hoopes and Steve Laramie. Photo courtesy Carolyn Gates

Andrew Ecker, left, pictured here with JEMS Technical Editor Carolyn Gates and VirtuaHealth teammates Mike Hoopes and Steve Laramie. Photo courtesy Carolyn Gates.

 

“It’s important for me to be able to pay forward my experience for others,” Andrew told me. “It’s easy to accept things for the way they are, but I’m hoping when someone reads that it’s possible to overcome difficult circumstances it will empower them to fight through it. In our job we struggle mightily with things like burnout, stress and identity issues. As hard as it is sometimes, I love my job more today than I did yesterday because I remember how much it is worth doing.”

He attributes a great deal of his professional success to his mentor, supervisor, and friend Chris Sharpe, “He has shown me what it is to truly value our role as a paramedic, to push myself professionally and personally, and I would never have the same outlook on success and perseverance if it weren’t for him. He taught me that we are more valuable than the easy decision, that while it may not always be popular to do the right thing, the right thing is the most important thing for our patients, our co-workers, and our communities.”

Although I’ll never be able to paint like Monet or create like Bell, I do hope to someday emulate the determination, drive and tenacity that paramedic Andrew Ecker displays every day. He truly is a modern-day inspiration.