Holly Erickson, a junior at Clemson University, took advantage of the UNM-LA EMT Basic class while back home in Los Alamos for the summer. Courtesy/UNM-LA
Life-sized manikins, piles of medical equipment, and extensive checklists filled the testing room during the last day of UNM-LA’s EMT-Basic class last week as students endeavored to diagnose and treat their “patients.”
They were taking practical and written tests to finish the 10-credit core course that enables them to sit for the National Registry Exam to be certified Emergency Medical Technicians or EMTs.
The EMT certification is a stepping stone to become a paramedic or other medical professional, and EMTs can work in prehospital environments such as patient transport, fire departments, and police departments. EMT-Basic is a core class of UNM-LA’s Associate of Science degree, and also serves students pursuing bachelors and medical degrees, or individuals who need emergency responder skills.
“My test scenario was a man with shortness of breath having an anaphylactic reaction,” said student Holly Erickson, a junior at Clemson University in South Carolina, describing her final exam in EMT-Basic. “I found out he was allergic to peanuts and gave him epinephrine.”
Erickson, a Los Alamos resident, is home for the summer and took EMT-Basic to gain more clinical experience with emergency medicine to support her pre-med degree in Bioengineering. In the summer session of the class, many of the students enrolled are in Erickson’s position—science and pre-med students who are working on their degrees at other universities, and are taking advantage of the convenience of attending EMT-Basic while they are in Los Alamos for the summer. Erickson had heard about the class from others who said it was “difficult but enjoyable.”
“It’s probably the most interesting class I’ve taken, actually,” she said. “It’s a lot of hands-on, practical skills. We learned to give medications to people and how to splint injuries—things I’ve discussed in my classes but never had the opportunity to do myself.”
Joseph Candelaria, Department Chair of Fire Science/EMS at UNM-LA, helped create the Fire Science program in 2011 after recognizing a need for more training opportunities for Los Alamos firefighters. In 2013, an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) concentration was added. Candelaria and his fellow instructors of the UNM-LA program currently work for the Los Alamos Fire Department, adding valuable perspectives and sharing varied field experiences with classes.
“We have students fresh out of high school going after degrees and others who work at LANL or other professional jobs who want to be emergency responders,” Candelaria said. “Another student I had lived rurally and wanted to be a volunteer responder. The pool of students in EMT-Basic aren’t a specific age or on a specific career path, but most have a passion for it.”
By offering an intensive, short course during the summer that meets for 16 hours a week for eight weeks, UNM-LA gives students who might not otherwise take a full semester class the opportunity to be certified EMTs. “The summer course is a huge commitment for students, and for instructors, but it’s been very popular,” Candelaria noted. “Students do clinicals, a didactic portion, and laboratory at the same standard as the full semester course. Not only do they have to pass a written test each week and a final examination with 80 percent or above, they are also tested on various hands-on, practical skills.”
During the class, Erickson role played the patient and rode in an ambulance, allowing her the perspective of the patient as well as the medical expert. Having instructors who are professional paramedics currently working in the field deepened the experience with their “real life situations” shared with the class, she and other students said, while presenting different career options available to students in the program.
Although she loves Clemson University, Erickson said they don’t offer EMT-Basic. “I didn’t know of another place offering it nearby there either, so I’m glad it worked out that I could take it this summer,” she added.
RoseAnna Archuleta was also thrilled to be able to take the EMT-Basic course this summer at UNM-LA where she is double majoring in Biology and Emergency Medical Services. The fall EMT-Basic course conflicts with another core course she needs for Biology and she’s eager to finish her coursework and apply to the physician assistant program at UNM main campus.
“This class was amazing,” Archuleta said. “I learn better with the hands-on methods, and once you do something yourself, like the C-spine immobilization we just learned, it’s muscle memory—I know that if I had to do one, I absolutely could.”
Archuleta, 32, formerly worked in the detention center in Albuquerque, but one day decided it wasn’t what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She commutes from her home in Chimayó to attend classes at UNM-LA. “EMT-Basic skills are important especially in the emergency room as a PA—you want to know the prehospital care was right before the patient gets to the hospital.”
Archuleta appreciated that the instructors had been through the same coursework and career progression that the students were experiencing. “All the classes here are challenging,” Archuleta said. “The instructors were hard on us, but they had confidence that we could do it.”
The UNM-LA EMS instructors are certified through the EMS Academy at UNM main campus and through the State of New Mexico. A standardized curriculum developed by main campus and that’s governed and regularly updated by the Joint Organization on Education is taught by both campuses. Candelaria added that the UNM EMS program is governed under the UNM School of Medicine, “So a lot of our students aren’t just looking to become paramedics, but rather nurses, doctors, and physician assistants.”
Cindy Rooney, Ph.D., UNM-LA interim Executive Director, noted Candelaria’s dedication to bringing the program to Los Alamos students and community members alike, with a high level of commitment. “Joe worked directly with the EMS Academy at main campus to get the program started, and he continues to do outreach in the high schools and local fire departments promoting the available courses.”
For Marisa Chavez, EMT-Basic was her first class at UNM-LA where she is enrolled in the paramedic program. “I found my calling, and it’s awesome getting a taste from the beginning of what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life,” she said. “I’m addicted. I can’t wait to move on and finish the program.”
Chavez currently works in the emergency room of Holy Cross Hospital in Taos where she checks in patients with every kind of ailment. With the EMT-Basic class and as a paramedic, she’s excited to be able to help diagnose and treat patients and not simply register them as they enter the ER. “All the symptoms we’ve learned to treat, we see every single day in the ER,” she added.
The test scenario thrown at her during the final exam was a three-year-old patient with abdominal pain. “I determined that she’d ingested Tylenol so I had to administer the proper medication to reverse the affects,” said Chavez. “It was nerve wracking, but there’s a formula that we follow for medication ingestion and thankfully I happen to be pretty good at it.”
This summer’s EMT-Basic class had 12 enrolled, enough to warrant hiring an assistant to keep the ratio of students to instructors low. “The interest has grown as word about the quality of instruction students are receiving here has spread,” said Kay Willerton, UNM-LA Associate Dean of Instruction.
Both the EMT-Basic class and an EMT-Intermediate class will be offered in the fall semester. Registration is now open and classes start Aug. 17. In addition, new infrastructure and technology are in the plans to continue to build the program and offer an expanded schedule of coursework in 2016.
UNM-LA offers 21 Associate Degree programs and six Certificate programs. For more information or to enroll, visit losalamos.unm.edu or call UNM-LA Student Services, 505.662.0332.