The Pennington First Aid Squad in curly text

Pennington First Aid Squad Volunteers Launch Medical Careers

by Joan Schwarzwalder
March 29, 2013

The youngest certified EMT on the Pennington First Aid Squad, Anuja Patel, is only 17 but she plans to follow the footsteps of her parents, who are both cardiologists. Patel's story is common among the hundreds of volunteers trained by PFAS. A recent survey of current and former PFAS members reveals how life enhancing experiences inspire many local EMTs to choose careers in medicine.

Tom Krisanda vividly remembers responding during the 1970s to local and mutual aid calls all over the area, including a middle of the night, twin engine plane crash near Trenton. The plane had run out of gas, tried to land on Route 1, and ended upside down on railroad tracks near Perry Street. Krisanda and his partners improvised the rescue of the injured pilot, whose back was broken, by splinting him to his seat, then unbolting and removing it from the wreckage. The same crew also used their training and teamwork when a state records building collapsed in Trenton and several people were killed.

Always interested in emergency medicine, Krisanda became a PFAS EMT in 1975, then a paramedic three years later. Now an emergency physician at a Baltimore, Maryland hospital, Krisanda states that "lessons learned from his EMT experience laid the foundation for his medical career," which also included serving as a U.S. Army flight surgeon and pilot.

Jacob Goertz once planned to study theoretical physics, but in his application for medical residency, he wrote: "When I was 16, I answered a desperate plea for volunteers, and I ended up falling in love with the chaotic rush and bustle, with the intellectual challenge, not knowing who or what was next when the siren over town hall blew. We picked the patients up, provided care to those who needed it, and took them to the emergency room at all hours."

PFAS extrication drill 1974

In this vintage 1994 photo, PFAS members prepare to use the Jaws of Life to take a car apart for an extrication drill. In background at ambulance: Kirk Schmitt. From left to right: unk, Richard Bailey Jr, unk (possibly Jim Consolloy), Dick Butterfoss, Jacob Goertz, and unk (probably Dan Walker).

Now an ED physician at Beth Israel Hospital in NYC, Goertz clearly recalls lessons taught by two of his former instructors, Dick Bufterfoss and Dick Bailey, both Pennington residents. One cold, late fall weekend, their class learned extrication with the Jaws of Life on a useless vehicle belonging to Bailey, and then improvised chopping apart an old Yugo with a mallet and a lawnmower blade. (Today, entrapments are handled by fire departments.) Goertz still remembers his first call, two tractor trailers in a minor accident on Rt. 31; his first cardiac arrest; and his first save, who was not the same patient.

High school classmate and fellow EMT Kate Aberger responded with Goertz to a tragic call during their senior year at HVCHS. A few months before their graduation, a high speed motor vehicle crash resulted in the death of a classmate. That night, Aberger did CPR on her severely injured classmate, who had been trapped in one of the wrecked cars, not recognizing him at first, while Goertz treated another patient. Aberger now works as an ED physician at St. Joseph's MC in Patterson.

Goertz maintains that working as an EMT made him a better emergency physician. "Often the basic things that EMTs do so well make such a difference. Like remembering that oxygen is a drug and can make people better, the importance of good inline cervical stabilization, or the importance of placing a nasal or oral airway to maintain an airway - something my residents often forget."

The Medical Director of PFAS, Dr. Stephen Vetrano, agrees with Goertz about the positive influence of EMT experience. He is "so pleased to be reconnected to my former instructors" and be "the Medical Director of the very squad that started my EMS career". Vetrano currently also serves as an ED physician at St Francis Hospital in Trenton, and provides medical direction for Hopewell Valley Emergency Services, as well as the Titusville and Hopewell squads and many other squads in Mercer County. He concludes, "Many people take EMT class to improve their medical school application. I can proudly say I took EMT to make me a better doctor!"

Dr Vetrano at awards ceremony

Dr Vetrano shows off his Physician EMT uniform at the NJ State EMS Awards Ceremony on Nov 4, 2011.

Two of Vetrano's instructors, Dick and Jessie Bailey, fondly remember a cardiac arrest drill they conducted in the 1970s at a three story home in Pennington. The house was owned by the grandmother of EMT student Michael Achey, now an internal medicine specialist in Maine. Bailey sent his apprentice crew up to the attic, where they found their "patient" - a recording Resusci-Anne. who had to be quickly assessed and moved down to the waiting ambulance. The student EMTs did CPR while the ambulance rapidly circled Pennington three times, to simulate the ride to the hospital. Afterwards, they checked the printout tape for timing and depth of their chest compressions, plus the amount of air administered with a bag valve mask during ventilations.

After his training, Achey recalls "...numerous times we performed CPR carrying arrested patients on flimsy aluminum stretchers down narrow stairways of three story homes in Trenton, on 100 plus days." His experiences with PFAS nearly 40 years ago still resonate with him. After being the "superstar" in ER rotations, he worked full time there for two years, then decided his skills were better suited to adult family medicine. Now he feels he has the best of both worlds. "When a patient with a bleeding hand walks into the office, I sew him right up, much to the amazement of my staff."

Two of the Baileys' EMT students, their daughter Heather and son Richard Jr., each started the first rescue squad at their respective undergraduate colleges. Heather is now an ED physician at Duke University Hospital. Her father recalled that she preferred medical emergencies as an EMT, but is now "a trauma junkie", with special clinical interests in trauma and critical emergency care, plus acute resuscitation.

Early EMT experience at PFAS was also a motivator for Dr. William Sproule, a familiar face in the new Capital Health - Hopewell ED. He liked the challenges, complications, and complexities of treating the sickest people he encountered as an EMT. Wanting to be able to do more for his patients, and know more about medicine, he became an emergency physician.

Dr Sproule C-spine lecture

Dr William Sproule, of Capital Health-Hopewell conducts a PFAS drill on emergency treatment of cervical and spinal injuries.

Another PFAS squad member, Mike Orland, is currently an Emergency Medicine 4th year resident at the University of Pennsylvania. He credits his father, Joel, for encouraging him to become an EMT, and "It's one of the best things I've ever done. The experience I gained in the one- on-one patient interactions was what drove me into medicine. It was inspiring to work with a group of people, in all stages of life, with a common dedication towards helping others in their time of need." In July, Dr. Orland will begin work as an attending physician at the U. of Maryland.

The latest PFAS physician-in-training, Anna Weingart, especially likes pediatric calls. She has been accepted at two medical schools and will begin her studies in August.

The nursing profession is also well represented in PFAS. At least six current or former members work as nurses, and five more study nursing. Betsy Bell Combs, RN, grew up in Pennington as the daughter of squad members/instructors Ellen and Weldon Bell, who were active from 1975 to 1995. Combs recalls "Marching in parades, attending squad meetings and drills, my recollections are colored with the sights, sounds and smells of ambulances, antiseptics, and plastic Resusci-Annes. Watching my parents leap out of bed in the middle of the night to help others, I became accustomed to the notion that we all have a duty to act when someone is hurt." Combs is now working on her B.S. degree in nursing, and considering a focus on public health.

Betsy Bell Combs

Left: Weldon, Betsy, and Ellen Bell march with the PFAS in the 1979 Memorial Day Parade in Pennington.
Right: Betsy Bell Combs starts her review of oxygen equipment during a recent EMT refresher class held at the PFAS.

Several other medical professions are represented in PFAS. Morgan Zang completed an accelerated program, earning her BSN, RN, MSN, and is now an adult nurse practitioner. She "...definitely felt that PFAS was a terrific experience and helped me gain skills and positively influence my training." EMT Kristen Orlandi "learns something on every call", which inspired her to enroll in paramedic training. She wants to do more for her patients, and learn more about disease processes and treatment skills. Orlandi "likes to get to the patient first and provide definitive pre-hospital care." EMT Richard Gordon also sought more understanding of paramedic procedures, so he recently studied phlebotomy, achieving state and national certification. Still other PFAS members have found employment as a hyperbaric therapist, ED technician, home health aide, ambulance driver, 911 dispatcher, and professional EMT or instructor.

Thomas and Gordon studying

On-duty EMTs Rhiannan Thomas, currently studying nursing, and Richard Gordon study in the squad room while awaiting 911 dispatch calls.

The medical careers of our former EMT are not limited to just the traditional. In a postcard from Ghana, a former EMT Avery Dorgan wrote:

I’m about half way through an MPH (Master’s of Public Health) at NYU and am currently in Ghana where EMS doesn’t really exist.
Having spent so long on the squad and having met such incredible people, you have helped shape my thesis. I’m investigating using EMTs and medics as primary care providers in areas where there is little access to [medical] care.
It's because of all of you that I think it can work. Your dedication to the public is the only way this can work. You all have shaped me so much and I cannot thank you enough. I only hope you got even half as much from me as I did from you.

postcard from Ghana

Postcard from Ghana

Veteran EMT instructor and paramedic Julie Aberger explains why volunteering with the PFAS has led to so many careers in emergency medicine. "The job of caring for people in an emergency situation brings with it a remarkable sense of purpose and satisfaction, no matter what the age or station."