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Not all Lights and Sirens: In Front of and Behind the Scenes

Hannah tim

In Nova Scotia, there are over 1,100+ paramedics who dedicate their lives to public service. To help better understand what daily life is like on the front lines of health care, we went behind the scenes, capturing the experiences of these first responders in their own words and photos.

Monday Afternoon in Truro

It’s a Monday afternoon and Tim Colburn, Operations Supervisor in EHS Operations’ Northern region, is checking in on his crew at the Colchester Regional Hospital, making sure their shifts are running smoothly. A half dozen paramedics are here continuing to care for the patients they brought in by ambulance. At the same time, they wait for the charge nurse to have a physician do a health assessment and, if needed, find a bed here or at another hospital.

Among them is Hannah Mertin, who spent five years “in and out of hospitals” caring for her mother, who had cancer — an experience that piqued her interest in a career in medicine and eventually paramedicine. She’s quick to dispel common misconceptions about her chosen profession.

“I don’t think people realize just how vast our scope of practice is. People think it’s a ‘you-call, we-haul’ type of thing. We are so much more advanced. We are our own clinical staff. Our decisions matter.”

She notes that advanced care paramedics (ACP) can start IVs, dispense medications, administer narcotics and that the profession is continuing to evolve and expand, supported by continuing education.

Hannah is joined in the hospital hallway by colleagues Gwen and Chris Landry, husband and wife of four years who met when they were students at Medavie HealthEd’s paramedic training program (Chris is now studying to advance his skills as an ACP, while Gwen returned to school in the fall to study nursing). It’s one of the rare times the couple are on the same 12-hour shift at the same location. They laugh as they recall a shift when they drove their ambulances past each other on the highway at Oxford. Instead of waving hello, they both flashed the lights of their ambulances. The couple rarely talk shop at home, but when they do, they are grateful to have someone to listen and lean on with the same lived experience.

Chris and Gwen Landry, Colchester Regional Hospital

Bringing them Home

Down the hill from the Colchester hospital is the Truro base where Tim began his day helping paramedics get on the road. Now he’s focused on returning them to the base, or as Tim puts it, “bringing them home.” Overtime hours are not uncommon due to the nature of their work, but Tim tries his best to limit them. He’s supported by two initiatives designed to improve access to care under Nova Scotia’s Action for Health plan: Clinical Transport Operators (CTO) and SPEAR (Single Paramedic Emergency Advanced Life Support and Basic Life Support). Both aim to match the right resource for the right patient at the right time.

In 2022, EHS responded to 189,000 calls — an average of 500 per day — about 30 per cent of which were non-emergency, meaning they did not require medical during transport. That same year, EHS completed more than 48,000 patient transfers.

CTOs handle routine patient transfers to help reduce pressure on the ambulance system and allow other paramedics to focus on responding to emergency calls. They include Rob Dove, who, until a year ago, was a Deputy Sherriff.

From Transporting Prisoners to Patients

He chuckles when asked what it’s like to go from transporting prisoners to patients. To illustrate, he tells the story of a 90-year-old patient who was so grateful for her transfer that she blew kisses at him when he returned her home from the hospital ― something that never happened when he escorted inmates from the courthouse to jail. “I got some gestures, but no kisses,” he laughs.

Rob wasn’t ready for retirement when he stepped down as a deputy sheriff last year, so when he saw the job postings for CTOs, he readily applied. He has no regrets. “I like coming to work now. Every day is different and you meet so many different patients.”

It’s late afternoon, and Rob is taking a break between calls at the Truro station with his colleague Diane Turnbull, who transitioned from paramedic to clinical transport operator when she turned 65. “It’s a really good gig for the geriatric group,” she quips. Diane was a stay-at-home mom before becoming an emergency first responder, first joining her local fire department after watching helplessly as her neighbour’s house go up in flames. She got that same feeling again when a victim of a fire died before her eyes. That’s when she decided to equip herself with the medical skills necessary to respond to situations like this as a paramedic.

Single Paramedic Units

In addition to CTOs like Diane and Rob, a single paramedic operating a SPEAR (Single Paramedic Emergency Advanced Life Support and Basic Life Support) unit also responds to the least urgent 911 calls. In contrast, fully staffed ambulances respond to urgent ones.

Justin medavie

At the same station that morning, Justin Hingley, who answered a dozen low-acuity calls the shift before as a SPEAR paramedic, chats about his role over coffee with Mike Kiley, another paramedic-turned-CTO. “You try to make it a better day every day for your patients and your co-workers,” he says of his work.

The nicest things you can do almost always don’t involve paramedicine,” adds Mike. “You hold their hand. You talk to them. You make them feel better.

The comfort and care paramedics provide are the services Nova Scotians count on every day to keep them and their communities healthy and safe. Clinical transport operators and SPEAR paramedics are but two examples of the new, innovative ways that EHS Operations ensure that the best, most immediate and appropriate resources are available to Nova Scotians in their time of need.

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