Saturday, September 19, 2009

Three years old

This time of year marks my middle child's third birthday. It is also the 3rd birthday of my firefighter's paramedic license.


This may not seem like an anniversary worth celebrating to most. But anyone who's been through paramedic school, Mt. SAC specifically, will understand. Fellow blogger Hydrant Girl is embarking on paramedic school soon, and it makes me think back to my firefighter's experience with it three years ago.

There are paramedic programs, and then there's Mt. SAC's paramedic program. A few facts about Mount San Antonio College's paramedic course:

-If you get below 80% on a test, you fail out. End of story. No re-taking of tests.

-If you miss a day, you fail. If you have the flu and are vomiting all over the place, you still have to be there.

-Tests and quizzes usually occur twice a day. That's a lot of opportunities to fail.

-The course is 37 credit hours, crammed into the span of a few short months. That's roughly 8 very solid hours of instruction and labs, with an additional 2 or 3 hours of studying every day, plus weekends.

-You don't just learn what you need to know--you become a walking text book. There's a reason why my firefighter literally read his text book three times by the end of his internship.

-Students are not allowed to hold any sort of job while in the program--not that they would have time to! Ha!

-At least 50% of the students who start the course fail out. At least. Only 9 of the 26 that started the class with my firefighter were still around at the end. My firefighter failed out his first go 'round, too.

-If you do pass, you will earn respect and a lot of wide-eyed, sympathetic "oh DUDE!" remarks from other paramedics in Southern California.

-Getting into the program is merit-based instead of a lottery, which is why we chose Mt SAC. That, and it's the gold standard. And, looking at 4 months without income was a lot easier to stomach than one or two years. And it's a very cheap program. (Of course, it ended up taking almost a year anyway since he had to re-take the course, but it was still worth it for the other reasons.)


That year my firefighter quit his job to go to paramedic school was one of the most stressful years of our marriage. We had to live off of loans and thin air. I was 15 months pregnant; or at least, it felt like it. Every morning that my firefighter left for school, I knew that this huge investment could very easily be for nothing and he might get a 79% on a test that day. I hated tests, almost as much as my firefighter did. I lived with constant, intense anxiety. I dreaded the though of him having to walk in the door, downcast, and explain to his wife that he failed out of the program.

He had the weight of this major investment on his shoulders (literally--his books weighed in at just above 80 pounds--he had to carry them in the huge rolling duffel bag pictured below). His career and the very livelihood of his family depended on him passing. We couldn't afford for him to take any more time off of work. He had to go back to work, either as a paramedic or not.


I remember one particularly horrible day. My firefighter called me--which was, at that time, always a bad sign. I could barely understand him over the panic in his voice. On his way to class that morning, while driving on the freeway through Pasadena, he had to swerve hard to avoid hitting someone who didn't look when he merged into my firefighter's lane.

My firefighter didn't think too much of it, until another car came up along side him, waving frantically for him to roll down his window. They yelled and pointed to the bed of his truck. My firefighter, with a sickening realization of what had just happened, looked in his rear view and saw that his 80 pound bag--the one with all of his $600 worth of books, his three inch binder of homework to be completed by the end of the course, which was half way done, all of his equipment--was no longer in his truck.

He broke every traffic rule and prayed, between the expletives, for cop-free passage as he flew down the next off-ramp. He sped back through the city to re-trace that section of freeway where his bag was laying. Not only did he absolutely need that bag, but a bag of that magnitude could cause a major accident.

As he drove along the 210, he found no trace of the bag itself; all he could see was the white shreds of what was left of its contents, scattered across the freeway and stuck in the bushes on the embankment. Everything was violently destroyed. It must have been a bus that hit the bag, since there was no sign of an accident. There was no chance of recovering anything.

He went through the stages of grief as he drove the rest of the way to school. He was somewhere between bargaining and depression when he was able to find a phone to call me. He asked the girl sitting next to him if he could borrow a pen and paper; she looked back at him in horror as she learned what happened. The story quickly spread through the class. His kind classmates offered to help him buy a new set of books. It was very touching; they understood the magnitude of what had just happened.

Meanwhile, I called in reinforcements. I found someone to watch my daughter for me and I headed out to the school. I needed to find out as soon as possible if I would be able to get a copy of all of the binders and books for the course. After several hours of pleading with the bookstore and the copy center, plus an emotional breakdown or two, I was able to scrounge together most of the materials.

My firefighter spent the next weeks re-doing the hours and hours of homework that he had already done, on top of trying to keep up with the current load and pass the tests at hand. He was utterly exhausted at the end of each day, physically and mentally. I helped him memorize indications for drugs, counter-indications, dosages, classifications, alternate names... it was my dream, too, to get him through paramedic school.

Thankfully, that dream came true, and he officially became a licensed paramedic 4 days before my second child was born.


This is a picture of my firefighter on the last day of his internship.

For anyone considering paramedic school, I can tell you this--it's worth it. The time, expense, exhaustion, and 180 miles my firefighter had to drive round trip to his internship every day was worth it. So many doors opened once he had that license.

I'm rooting for you, Hydrant Girl!


Bill Hess said...

My brother lived and died in Riverside. He died as the long-term result of a motorcycle accident that broke his neck and then left him paralyzed for the last 11 years of his life.

I had never thought too much about the paramedics that picked him up and transferred him to the hospital, but now you are making me wonder about them.

Carol said...

at least from the outside we never saw the great stress that you and Kip carried. Makes me feel bad wishing there could have been something I could have done to help. I'll be more attentive now to what others are going through. Thanks for sharing this great experience!

katie said...

I am so thankful that I met my firefighter AFTER he finished paramedic school. He was apart of RCC's first paramedic program, class #1 (then, it was a MUCH different program than it has turned into now). They had all of the same requirements as Mt. Sac and the 80% rule and 50% success rate! They were allowed to work, and he still worked his 40 hour work week, working graveyards Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I still honestly don't know how he did it!

He went thru it as as single man, without a family or any other obligations. I could only imagine the MAGNITUDE of going thru a program like Mt. Sac's, and having your family depending on you. It's so amazing that thru it all, you guys made it thru (and had a baby 2 days later!!!!). I have such an amazing amount of respect for you and your husband, for going thru such a program while having a family to raise.

(man, I thought I had it rough, since he's up in Sacramento for the next 6 weeks going thru his engineers academy, and can't come home! man I'm not feeling much sympathy for myself anymore!!!! =)

Anonymous said...

Looking back on the experience (time numbs pain) it doesn't seem like it was that bad. That is until I really analyze what it was like. Mt. SAC was the single most stressful thing I have ever done. Given the choice, I'd do it again. It helped to make me the medic I am today.

Katie's firefighter

Hydrant girl said...

Awwwwwww thanks!! That made me feel so much better, especially after a weekend full of A and P!!

supernummy said...

Congrats to your firefighter for completing his long hours and intensive studies!! When I was 18 I almost bled to death had it not been for the quick action on the part of the paramedics that showed up at my house. My dad used to be a cop, so they knew him... I guess after they got me stabilized in the ambulance, they told him I was the closest they ever came to losing someone. I owe them my life and will forever be grateful for men and women who are willing to deal with such stress and critical, life or death decisions.

Anonymous said...

Hang in there Hydrant Girl. A&P is tough but study hard. It will set up a great base from which you will be better able to understand what is going on with your patients and how to treat them.

Supernummy, glad we could be there to help. It's nice to hear from the people we treat after they get better.

Katie's Firefighter

Anonymous said...

your story brought me to was like I was reading a story of my life, but with a happy ending...I hope that if it is the Lords will we will share the same happiness. We are about to embark through the same journey starting October 24, 2009.

Katie said...

Good luck, Anon!!!

Anonymous said...

Firefighter wife - PLEASE get your "facts" straight about our program! The first two are FALSE! While it is nice to ultimately hear your compliments, the first two items were horrifying...and not true.

Fire Wife Katie said...

Anonymous, I appreciate that as someone who is tied to the program in some way (or so it seems from the way you worded your response), that you want to portray it correctly. However, as far as my husband's experience was, this is accurate. Any facts about it came from him. The program may be different now than it was when my husband went through. he had a lot of input on this post and all I can do is convey what his experience was. From what I understand, there were days when people excused themselves to go vomit in the middle of class because they didn't dare be sick. And as far as the tests go, I'll let him explain. The smaller quizzes, if I remember off the top of my head before consulting my husband, were a different story - there was more wiggle room there. But the tests? I'll leave any further explanation of his experiences to him -- he's the expert on what HIS experience was.

An excellent program -- my husband got a top-notch education and his knowledge has been commended everywhere he's worked as a medic -- so at least you and I can agree on that. But as far as the stress of being a student and the expectations placed on the students? You and he might have a different view on that. Which is expected, a student and a... whatever you are, an instructor, or an administrator, or possibly a skills instructor, or even another student, are bound to have a different perspective. Especially experiencing the program at a different time.

I'll alert him to your comments and then you and he can figure out where the disconnect is.

Anyway, thanks for being respectful when disagreeing, I appreciate that.

Firefighter/Paramedic said...

Anonymous- It's probably better to hear it from me since I went through it. If we got below an 80% (85% on some) on a test (not the daily quizzes, those we had to maintain an 80%average) we failed. I have the syllabus that clearly states that. We were allowed a day, 1, if we had an interview with a fire department. If we had 2 interviews, better enroll in the next class. And just about everyone in my class got sick and was throwing up but they still showed up because we couldn't miss.

Mt Sac was a brutal program but I'm glad I went there.

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