emergency services

The EMT Who Sees the Opioid Crisis Firsthand

Photo: Richard T. Nowitz/Getty Images

Michelle Redeye, 30
Emergency medical technician
Gowanda, New York

When you first start out working on an ambulance, a lot of things are scary.

I work in EMS for Gowanda Ambulance. I’m a field training officer and I drive the ambulance for the paramedics. I train all the new incoming EMTs to get them ready for the job. And I am actually a volunteer EMS Chief on the reservation where I live. The reservation is Seneca Nation, Cattaraugus territory.

This was not what I wanted to do when I was younger, but when I lost my best friend in a car accident, I knew I wanted to help people. Her rescuers did everything they could to help her. I was 18. It was a couple of days before graduation. I wanted to be a preschool teacher before that. I prefer this to preschool.

I am an EMT Basic. You’ve got your Advanced, where they can push a little bit more stuff than the EMT can. Then you have your paramedic who can push all your medications.

Right now, I am pretty satisfied. I’ve got a couple of crew members that want me to advance, but I work back-to-back, so it’s kind of tough. I work overnights for Gowanda Ambulance and then I go straight to my day job as an emergency manager for part of Erie County and Chautauqua County. If anyone is affected by power outages or flooding or any natural disaster, I get them the resources they need. The money is better than when I work my overnight ambulance job. That doesn’t pay well, at all. For making life-and-death decisions, I make $11.75 an hour, with no benefits. Without a second job it would be difficult to make ends meet.

I work 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the ambulance three nights a week. We cover a few small towns. There are about 20 paramedics and about 20 EMTs. There are two trucks, one’s on for 24 hours, and the other is on for 12. They can’t afford to crew two ambulances for 24 hours.

When I clock in, I check the ambulance to make sure I’ve got all the prep equipment on there from the last shift. We check that the monitor has battery life, that we have all our stuff in case we get a cardiac arrest. Check all the levels on the tanks, make sure you’ve got your battery readers and nasal cannula. You make sure you’ve got all your medications and they are up-to-date. Make sure you’ve got your linen, your sheets and blankets.

It can be busy all day and super dead at night, or it can be dead all day and super busy all night long. It’s totally random. You never know when it’s going to go off. While we wait for a call, we just hang out. We’ve got Netflix and cable.

There’s only two of us in the ambulance. Most of the calls that come out are for a higher level of care, so that’s how I got stuck driving. I can drive fast, and do it while being cautious and watching everything going on around me. We have to follow most of the traffic rules, unless we have a critical patient. We’ve gotta obey the school buses and mail trucks, stuff like that. We have to stop at red lights. But if it’s clear then we can go right through it.

I train all the new EMTs coming in and make sure they can drive under stressful circumstances. You have to show them how to back up the ambulance in a small driveway so you’re not going to put it in a ditch. You take them out and let them run lights and sirens.

You never know what you’re going to find in Gowanda. Gowanda has the prison, the national homes, a lot of the state homes. I would say there’s a lot of poverty. There’s a main apartment building in Gowanda that just got condemned, so all the low-income people that were living there had to find other places to live. A lot of them came because their family got sent to prison. A lot of the people in Gowanda don’t work. There aren’t a lot of job opportunities, and if they don’t have a car, Buffalo is 50 minutes away.

I grew up in this area. The drug situation here has gotten a lot worse with this heroin epidemic going on. Before then, you didn’t see too much of it, but now it’s real common. Kids from the age of 15 and older. I’ve heard that they are smoking patches first, fentanyl patches, but the patches are so expensive and the heroin is so cheap, they’re reverting to heroin.

Last year, we had 121 overdoses and 6 fatalities. We respond to about three heroin overdoses a week. When you get there, you’ve got to watch out for what’s on the floor because you don’t know if you’re going to get pricked by a needle. You give them a dose of Narcan. You put it up their nose and it reverses the effect and brings them back. Otherwise, if they are down too long, they’re going to die.

Narcan is about 12 vials for $1,000. We keep it locked up.

We see the same people overdosing multiple times. Sometimes when we pull up to house I’ll think, We’ve already been here. All we can do when we get there is to bring ’em out of the overdose and then tell ’em, ‘What are you doing with your life? There’s more out there.’ Most of them are upset and crying, or they don’t even know why you’re there. They haven’t even realized that they overdosed. If they’re crying, they’re saying they didn’t mean to do it, it was an accident.

I’m not a judgmental person. I feel bad for those people. I have a couple of friends who are lost in that and I know some people would say, let them die. Me, I’d rather see them have another chance. I try and see the good in everybody. I wish I could help them more than what I do, but my help stops when I deliver them to the hospital.

It’s the first initial high that they get. They want to go back to that. But they’ll never be as high as that first high. When addicts hear that there’s a bad batch going around, they want it more than anything in the world. A bad batch can kill people — there were seven deaths in 24 hours two weeks ago. They don’t want to die. But they think it’s going to give them a better high. When there’s a bad batch around, we get more emergency calls. We might get five calls in one day. We’ve had two deaths in one day.

On the reservation, it’s about the same as the rest of the communities around here. We did a candle vigil back in October, handed out pamphlets and held candles and released balloons for people that have been lost. It makes me sad. I’m afraid for the young people I know. I don’t know what it’s going to be like five years from now.

The hardest part about the job is having to tell a family member there was nothing more you could do. That sucks. It’s common for there to be family members at the scene. A lot of the time, a lot of them don’t even know what’s going on. Someone will be dead and they’ll be like, Oh, tell them I’ll meet them at the hospital. And then I have to tell them their loved ones have passed away.

We get a lot of medical issues, diabetics, cardiac issues, just general illness. I used to get excited when we got car accidents, but that changed when I had my bad call. We went to a head-on collision, and when we got there, one car was in two pieces and the baby’s car seat was still attached to one piece of the car. I had the baby as my patient and the baby didn’t make it. I don’t get excited about car accidents anymore.

This was in 2012. I can remember everything about that day. The mother still reaches out to me every now and then. I think for her it’s about closure, comfort. One day she asked to stop by to just sit in my ambulance that the baby was in. Her baby was only 7 months. She was hit by a driver under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The driver got 15 years, but that amount of time isn’t long enough for the loss of an innocent life.

Not many people can do this job. All the traumatic scenes you see, everything you’re exposed to. You see mangled bodies. It kind of stays in your mind. But you keep pushing through day to day.

It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. My colleagues feel the same. Sometimes we’ll sit around and talk about the bad things we’ve seen. Some people develop PTSD from it. Normally when you reach that point, it’s time to get out. A lot of them get into heavy alcohol use. I’m thinking about stepping back. I’ve been doing it a long time. I could just go to my emergency-management job.

Sometimes you’re missing out on family dinners, being home at nights, special occasions. I work a lot of holidays. It’s hard on relationships. I have one kid. He’s 4. I miss him when I’m at work. My son knows what I do. He thinks I’m like a superhero. He compares me to Batman and Captain America and stuff like that.

I wouldn’t mind it if he wanted to be an EMT. He’d be out helping somebody. I just want to give people a better chance. For some, they could turn their lives around. I was always told I have a big heart and I think it’s true. I’d do anything for just about anyone.

The EMT Who Sees the Opioid Crisis Firsthand