Keith Humphrey stumbled out of bed and pulled on his boots at 2:40 in the morning on a recent Saturday. His partner did the same.
“Dom is naturally a big guy, tough as titanium,” said 20-year-old Humphrey, who spoke over a cup of coffee about his experiences as an Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT. “But Dom’s a gentle giant who will always go beyond what’s asked to make a patient feel a little better.”
Humphrey, who has short blond hair and blue eyes, has been an EMT in Alameda County for two years.
What awoke Humphrey at the emergency services station where he and his partner were asleep was the radio’s sudden bark about a woman having trouble breathing at a nursing home. As Dom fired up the ambulance and drove, Humphrey did paperwork, recording the who, what, and why of the call.
“Most people feel a sudden jolt of adrenaline when faced with an emergency,” Humphrey said, “but over time on this job I’ve lost that kick. To help me wake up, I drank a Monster energy drink.”
Soon the ambulance pulled up to the nursing home. After unloading a gurney and a bag of medical equipment, Humphrey and Dom entered the lobby.
“My mind quickly ran through how to handle this call,” Humphrey said. “Few things in life are as scary as being unable to breathe.”
According to Humphrey, patients who can’t breathe often panic, which quickly uses up available air in their lungs. This can lead to respiratory failure, which can then lead to heart failure.
“It’s a snowball effect that can happen as quickly as five minutes and usually once it begins, it’s hard to stop,” he said.
Encountering a questioning nurse, the EMTs stated the patient’s name and were nodded through, the nurse holding open the door.
“In the movies, emergency medical service workers sprint to the victim,” Humphrey said, “but in real life this doesn’t happen.” Running down a hallway with heavy equipment doesn’t bring the needed calm to the chaos of an emergency, he said. In fact, arriving at the room, Humphrey found a scene far from calm.
“As soon as we walked in, I knew this was going to be a rough one,” he said. They found an 85-year-old woman gasping for breath and almost unconscious. Severe dementia kept her from answering questions and knowing where she was. Humphrey placed an oxygen mask on her face and checked her vital signs.
“The woman’s low blood pressure and high heart rate screamed heart failure to me,” he said. “Her heart was trying to get oxygen-enriched blood to her body. She was minutes away from full cardiac arrest.”
Humphrey recalls looking into the eyes of this tiny woman who probably only weighed one hundred pounds. “I saw a lost and frightened soul,” he said.
Then, as she was loaded into the ambulance, Humphrey made a critical discovery as he listened to her lungs with his stethoscope. “I heard what sounded like a washing machine in her chest. This lady’s lungs were full of water,” he said. In other words, she was drowning internally.
After a full lights and siren race to the emergency room, the partners wheeled their patient through the automatic doors. “I looked around for someone to talk to, but everyone was busy at their computer screens,” Humphrey said.
In a few moments—which seemed much longer to Humphrey—a nurse said she would be with them in a few minutes.
“I boiled inside,” Humphrey said as he quickly told the nurse, “No, you don’t get it. She has fluid in her lungs and respiratory failure.” This got the nurse’s attention. As doctors converged on the patient, the two EMTs quietly slipped out.
Later the same evening, a routine call brought Humphrey and Dom to the same emergency room. The fragile woman was sleeping peacefully in the bed where they'd left her.
“The nurse noticed me looking at her,” said Humphrey, “and asked if I'd brought her in.” Not looking away from the sleeping woman, Humphrey nodded. The nurse told him the woman was lucky the nursing home called when it did. Another half hour and she wouldn’t have made it. “You get the save for that one,” she told Humphrey.
“I smiled because that was both true and false,” he said, staring into his now tepid coffee. “I didn’t push the drugs that flushed her lungs clear. I didn’t take the chest x-ray. I didn’t start the IV line. All I did was recognize her emergency and get her to the hospital as fast as we could.”
Humphrey said EMTs are just one link in a chain that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t when it comes to saving lives. As far back as he can remember he admired emergency service professionals. In one of his favorite photos as a little boy he wears a helmet and a firefighter jacket his grandmother made for him.
“Although most days are routine, I love getting up in the morning to go to work,” he said. “It’s an honor being there when people need us most.”