ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
Seeing lights blazing in the middle of the night at the Larsen home in Peabody is nothing new.
Both Karen and Larry Larsen are ambulance crew members who cover the on-call schedule in the wee hours when most people are sound asleep.
Between them, they have 27 years of service to Marion County Emergency Medical Services. Yet their work for the county is a part-time job, above and beyond the full-time jobs they hold in Wichita.
Larry is a lieutenant with Sedgwick County EMS and Karen is an emergency room and flight nurse.
She is also crew chief for the Peabody base and does the scheduling.
“We have two people on 24/7,” Karen said. “Shifts are 4 a.m. to noon or 6 p.m., then 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.”
Shifts are divvied up among the 12 crew members in Peabody.
“We have four people who cover the majority of the days and the others fill in at night,” she said.
Working the night shift
Since the Larsens both work days, they often take night call for the ambulance.
“I’m on call every Tuesday night, every Thursday night and I generally go on call at 6 p.m. Friday and go off at 4 a.m. Monday morning. So I do almost every weekend,” said Larry.
Getting a full night’s sleep is a questionable proposition at their house.
“Every night’s an iffy situation,” Karen said. “You pretty much train your body to wake up. We just throw jumpsuits on and go.”
“It is automatic,” Larry added. “You don’t even have to think about it.”
Although some of the runs are prescheduled patient transfers, the majority of runs are unpredictable, Karen said.
“It’s either feast or famine,” said Karen. “We have as low as eight calls one month and 24 the next. It just varies.”
A crew member is on duty as long as it takes to get the patient where they need to go.
“You can typically plan on being gone an hour and half at the least,” she said. “There are times when you are going to Newton and they say they don’t have those capabilities today, so you go on to Wichita. Then you’re looking at two and a half hours round trip.”
Types of calls
The types of calls they respond to also vary greatly and are just as unpredictable.
“There’s no one thing more prevalent than another-it’s a variety,” Karen said. “We do a lot of medical calls. And as far as trauma calls, we run more car wrecks because of (U.S.) Highway 50.”
“Because of the elderly population in Peabody, we also see a lot of falls and broken hips,” Larry said.
When they get a call, the dispatcher gives them basic information about what they are facing. Then they get a more complete report when they en route.
“Any time you go to a call, there is an anxiety level because you don’t know what to expect,” Karen said. “What’s nice is we have a very good back up system.
“If there’s any kind of potential of being bad, they automatically put the chopper on standby for us. You can cancel them at any point in time with no charge to us or the patient.”
In the case of a motor vehicle accident, the police and fire departments also provide invaluable assistance.
“A lot of times they get there before us because they are already out and about,” Larry said. “They may call us on the radio and say something or physically help us lift or carry or hold something. It’s a whole complete wonderful combination of effort.”
On especially tough calls, other EMS crew members may also show up at the scene. Karen said many crew members keep their radios on 24-7 in a case another crew needs help.
They are a close-knit group, she said. To decompress after a call, Karen said crew members often discuss it with their partner or other crew members.
“A lot of us are fortunate, we can talk to our spouse,” she said.
The Larsens are one of three sets of married crew members on the Peabody service.
For the worst calls, crew members participate in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing.
“We don’t do it on every fatality wreck, but we do it on bad fatalities and child deaths,” Karen said. “They’ll call a team in for us. It’s not a critique, it just gives you a chance to verbalize your feelings.”
“Generally we have a chaplain and a mixed bag of people with varied skill level so you can really address people one on one,” Larry said. “It helps to talk to somebody who’s in the same line of work who has experienced it before themselves.”
The Larsens agreed that child deaths are very hard, as are emergency calls for people they know well.
“It’s harder running calls here than it is in Wichita simply because you’re either related to them or they are close friends or somebody you are always saying hi to at the grocery store or the bank,” Larry said.
“But it is also a good feeling to know you are the one taking care of them,” Karen added. “That’s what you’re in it for is to help people. And if you can help someone really close to you, that is what it’s all about.”
Rewards of service
The Larsens agreed the benefits of EMS work far outweigh the disadvantages.
“The good and the bad tend to even out,” Karen said. “You have a hand in beginning of life, the end of life and everything in between. It’s really rewarding.”
Larry has delivered six babies in his EMS career.
“One of them in the front seat of a car here in this town, and one on the way to Marion,” he said. “There’s nothing scarier because you’re trained to know what can go bad. But there’s nothing more rewarding than when you hear the baby cry and it pinks up, warms up and moves.
“By the same token, there’s the same reward when somebody having a big heart attack and you stop the damage,” he said. “There are wonderful positives out of all kinds of calls.”
Transfers are as important as the trauma calls, Karen added.
“Some of my neatest memories of the job are going to the hospital and taking somebody back to the nursing home,” Larry said. “I look them in the face and say, ‘What’s the neatest thing that’s happened in your lifetime?’ And I just let them talk.
“Their faces perk up and they become alive because somebody’s caring about them. They have a lot of neat stories to tell that people in my generation and younger don’t know because they don’t take the time to visit with people in nursing homes. I love it.”
When asked how she got interested in emergency medicine, Karen smiles.
“My mom was an EMT,” she said, “but if you want the truth it was because of Johnny and Roy from the show Emergency. That’s what I wanted to do. My senior year in high school I took night classes. Once you start, you always want more.”
Karen started her career as an EMT and then became an EMTI (intravenous therapy EMT) and then a paramedic. She later got her nursing degree.
It was a different story for Larry
“I had no desire to do this,” he said.
Then, 15 years ago, two of his daughter’s best friends were in a tragic car accident where one girl lost her life and the other was critically injured. The accident had a huge impact on him.
“I worked in town and lived in the country, and the ambulance department put out a cry, ‘We’ll have to shut down the ambulance service if we don’t get help,'” he said. “I had no intention of taking care of people, but because I had been in the military and lived on the farm, the sight of blood doesn’t bother me and I can drive anything.
“I had to take a defensive driver’s course, and that happened to be the second and third night of an EMT course, and the instructor said, ‘Stick around for a couple classes, you live out in the country-what can it hurt?’ I was sucked in and I enjoyed it, and here I am. It kind of gets in your blood.” Larry said.
Although people not involved with EMS may wonder what life is like to be constantly on call, it’s just the status quo for the Larsen family
“Our kids have grown up with it all their lives,” Karen said. “It’s just second nature.”
They recalled one time when they were not on call but the ambulance was out and they got a call to respond to another emergency
“We put the baby in the car and he went with us,” Karen said.
“Lucas was 2 weeks old when he went on his first ambulance call,” Larry added.
Because the Larsens have three young children, they generally schedule themselves at different times unless they have a baby-sitter lined up.
“It’s hard at times because you might want to go out to dinner, to a show, or out for a ride but you can’t leave town because one of you is on call,” Larry said.
“But I will say our crew is one of the best for covering each other,” Karen added. “If we want to run to Newton and one of us is on call, we call one of the crew members and they will take call until we get back. It’s very rare that you can’t find somebody to take call for you.”
Becoming a crew member
Although there are currently no physical requirements to be an EMS crew member, Karen said it helps to have upper body strength.
“This career is very hard on your back,” she said. “You have to know how to lift with your legs, because if you ruin your back, you’re done.”
“The largest patient I’ve had weighed 850 pounds. The smallest patient was a baby I delivered that weighed 3 pounds, 8 ounces,” Larry said. “What people don’t realize is that you may carry somebody out of the second story of a house. You may put somebody on the cot and take them off my front steps. Four steps don’t seem like much, but when the patient weighs 300 pounds and it’s icy or rainy outside, it’s a lot.”
Even more important than physical strength is the desire to help people, they said.
“If you’re in it for the red lights and sirens only, you won’t last long,” Larry said. “You have to be in it because you’re a people person and you want to make a difference in people’s lives.”
“It’s not a glorious job,” Karen added. “You’re out in the mud and the blood and the beer and the guts and there’s nothing glamorous about it. You just have to have that desire to help people. You have to be dedicated and committed to your position if you want to make a career out of it like we’ve chosen to do.”
Karen said she would be happy to talk to anyone who is interested in becoming an EMS crew member.
“The thing to be the most proud of is we have definitely made a positive outcomes on people’s lives in this county,” Larry said. “That’s what keeps you going.”