PWW XI Leadership Conference Kicks off With Keynote by Record-Setting Astronaut

As the Exclusive media sponsor for the PWW XI Leadership Conference and abc360 Conference, we’re excited to bring you in-depth coverage of the week’s events in beautiful Clearwater Beach, Florida.  The XI Leadership Conference kicked off on Tuesday with an incredible keynote from Jerry L. Ross, on Key Values for EMS Leadership.  A US Air Force Colonel (Retired), Jerry was the first human to be launched into space seven times (also known as “NASA’s record-setting frequent flyer”). 

Over the course of his incredible career, Jerry spent 1,393 hours in space.  He is one of three NASA astronauts to support the space shuttle program from its inception through to its end.  He took part in seven space flights, designed tools for the international space station and is a member of the “Silver Team” — NASA’s first pair of space-walking grandfathers.

Ross began his talk by drawing several powerful parallels between EMS providers and astronauts. “Like astronauts, you are a unique corps of individuals closely bonded by common experiences and the stressful, demanding environment in which you work,” Ross noted.  Both are organizations that are dedicated to preparation, practice, teamwork, and holding the entire team accountable to keep one another — and patients — safe.   

A Career in the Sky

In 4th grade, when the Russians launched Sputnik and the U.S. launched Explorer 1, Ross he decided he was going to become an engineer and work in the space program.   He said, “If you’re going to be in a space program the best place to be is at the top of the rocket.”  Ross spent his days launching rockets from his backyard, before he went on to school at Purdue, where as a Master’s student he worked on navy-funded missiles and, as he states, “created more noise, smoke and fire.”  This was the start of his path toward space flight.

In 1985, Ross took his first space flight and spacewalk, where his primary objective was to investigate how to build structures in space.  This work would become the foundation for the construction of the first space station. 

In a powerful illustration of the risk involved in each mission, Ross shared with the audience that his very first crew was supposed to be on the Challenger flight, but last-minute scheduling changes resulted in him not joining that flight.

When asked about preparation for medical emergencies Ross noted that the astronaut crew learned how to perform first aid, basic suturing and dental work so that they could remain well for the duration of a flight, but he never encountered an emergency that warranted terminating the mission. As space travel looks to the future and possible flights to Mars (a 9 month trip one way), space flight crews will need to become well-versed and trained in more intensive medical care. 

Leadership and Teamwork

Throughout his wide-ranging career, Ross witnessed effective leaders and was part of several teams,  all tasked with doing difficult, risky, technical and critical work — much like work done by EMS providers.  Ross shared with PWW XI attendees the common threads through these great leadership experiences:   

  • Always work hard.  Getting ahead takes work.  Go the extra mile and serve as an excellent role model. 
  • Never give up. Ross shared with the group that he wasn’t selected to be an astronaut the first time he applied.  Focus, perseverance and always remembering his calling were key factors in his success as an astronaut.  Improve your areas of weakness and further develop your strengths. 
  • Never hesitate to ask for help and seek feedback.  Overcome perceived roadblocks and learn from your mistakes.  When his first application to NASA was unsuccessful, Ross requested feedback on his performance and the best route for a career in flying.  As a result of this request, NASA asked him to work for them in a non-flying role, which provided him with an incredible amount of experience and knowledge that allowed him to eventually become an astronaut.   Ross added, “Leaders open to constructive criticism are more likely to learn from their mistakes.”
  • Always lift up others.  Ross emphasized the importance of mentoring others — whether in the space program, EMS or other areas of healthcare.  Ross added, “When we are in positons of responsibility, we have an obligation to help and others and to nurture them to do their best.” 
  • Live a balanced life.  When asked how he does this, Ross said “It’s not easy, but it makes you a better leader.”  When everyone else went out, he went home.  There is no simple answer, but he made deliberate decisions that supported a balanced life. 

Ross concluded his session by again drawing parallels between NASA and EMS providers. At NASA, it was important that everyone in the organization could be trusted to do their job and do it right.  For Ross, this means that honesty and integrity are key, as they are in EMS.  Everyone including first responders must be trusted to do their jobs well to achieve a successful outcome.

In NASA and EMS, these values must be built through demonstrated commitment from leadership, with teamwork, hard work, perseverance and dedication.  “We must continue to build ever-stronger teams and a permeating culture of honesty and integrity,” Ross stated. “Honesty and integrity need to permeate everyone and everything.” 

What does the future hold for space travel?  Ross would like to see another trip back to the moon focused on research and development of reliable systems and infrastructures to support human life.  “We need to have other places in the solar system where human beings are living. “

At the conclusion of the session, Steve Wirth and Doug Wolfberg presented Jerry with an award, recognizing his participation in all of the XI Leadership Conferences over the last year. 

EMS Billing Services, who sponsored the event, generously provided signed copies of Ross’s book Spacewalker:  My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer for all attendees.  Ross has also written a children’s book called Becoming a SpaceWalker.  Lesson plans are available on his website that can be used to teach this book in the classroom. 


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Sarah joined JEMS in 2017, where she oversees the development of content for and EMS Insider. She previously managed the end-to-end publication process for several high-profile scientific publications. Sarah is trained as a project manager and Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, and she has led projects in the areas of process analysis and optimization, change management and continuous improvement. She has a bachelor's degree in writing from the University of San Francisco and a master's degree in literature from the University of California, San Diego.

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