"The Unsung Heroes"
  • The Unsung Heroes

The Unsung Heroes

Not every college has its own group of dedicated students who are certified Emergency Medical Technicians. This elite group was invaluable during the norovirus health crisis, but they are on call during every semester. 

Story by Ellen Cosgrove Labrecque ’95

Ursinus is one of only 215 colleges or universities nationwide to have an all-volunteer, student-run, Emergency Medical Service (EMS). Led by Dominique Saturno, ’16, the team played a critical role in assisting the college with the recent norovirus outbreak, making sure the 200-plus sickened students got the care and help they needed. They are on call year-round, too.

EMT Tom Holt, ’17, was studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) in his dorm room on a Tuesday evening last February. He was simultaneously on call for the Ursinus College Emergency Medical Service team (UC EMS). On a typical weeknight, Holt may get one call while on shift, but usually, none at all.

“I had said to a friend earlier, ‘Well this will be a quiet night. Nothing ever happens on a Tuesday,’” says Holt, a biochemistry major who plans to attend medical school. “Looking back, I guess that was a really poor choice of words.” 

Holt’s first call came in around 5:45 p.m. from a student suffering flu-like symptoms. Holt didn’t think anything of it, figuring he’d be back to studying soon. Then, another call came about fifteen minutes later. Soon after, three more calls came, all from students with the same symptoms.

Holt has been a member of UC EMS since his freshman year. He is one of the three primary providers who are certified by the state and has enough experience to respond to calls alone. He ended up fielding over 18 calls that night, never getting a minute of sleep.

In the morning, Dominique Saturno, Chief of UC EMS and also a primary provider, took over for Holt.

“We aren’t normally on duty during the day because the Wellness Center is open,” explains Saturno. “But we decided to keep 24/7 coverage during the incident to take care of campus-based triaging, which eased the stress on ambulances.”

A biology major, Saturno has worked with UC EMS since her freshman year, while also volunteering on the local Trappe Ambulance Squad. She plans to take a gap year before medical school to develop a community paramedicine program within Trappe to help medically vulnerable populations. Eventually, she hopes to serve as a Navy physician.

“I see medicine as a mission and as an opportunity to serve my country, while promoting general wellness throughout the world,” she says.

While Holt rested, Saturno responded to numerous calls during the day, working with the college to determine the best plan for triaging students to receive appropriate medical resources. For the next three days, the two swapped 24-hour shifts back and forth, often answering calls simultaneously (the third primary provider on the team was sick herself, but 12 assistant providers, or technicians in training, also helped). The EMS team responded to over 50 calls in three days—the number they usually handle for an entire semester.

UC EMS—originally called SERV (Student Emergency Response Volunteers)—has a long-standing record of producing future doctors. Recently, of the six UC EMS alumni who graduated in 2014 or 2015, four went on to medical school.

The organization was started in 1992 by then-students Scott Savett, Craig Overpeck, Joe MacDonald and Victor Gill, all ’94 graduates. Both Savett and Overpeck were also volunteer members of Trappe Ambulance at the time.

“We realized that response time to emergency calls could be a lot shorter if Ursinus had a trained medical team on campus,” says Savett, who has his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and works as a senior software analyst for Thermo Fisher Scientific in Philadelphia. “We also understood that a lot of the student’s medical needs didn’t have to be met by an ambulance, but instead could be taken care of by ice packs, bandages, or even reassurance that everything was okay.”

With backing and financial support from college administration, Savett and Overpeck were able to buy the critical equipment—a stocked “First In” bag, an oxygen duffle, and a backboard—everything an EMT (emergency medical technician) would need to treat a patient in the first 10 minutes. All the supplies rode around in the security van with a security officer, who met the EMT on scene when needed.

Savett, who is vice president and chief technology officer of the National Collegiate Emergency Medical Services Foundation, explains why EMS benefits the technicians;as well as the patients.

“While functioning as EMTs, students learn about leadership, personnel management, and get hands-on medical training,” he says. “And most importantly, they are performing a valuable service to Ursinus as well.”

No longer dependent on the college security van, the EMS team now has their own vehicle that has similar equipment to what an ambulance has, but doesn’t transport the patients to the hospital. An ambulance from the surrounding community is called when necessary. The staff continually attends training sessions and conferences dedicated to collegiate emergency medical services. They regularly hone their skills in mock-call evaluation settings as well.

During the norovirus breakout, the EMS team assessed who was able to stay in their room and take care of themselves, who needed to get checked out at Wellness, and who needed to be sent to the hospital for IV fluids and anti-nausea medication.

With the crisis behind them, the UC EMS team met this spring to evaluate what changes should be made if faced with another health crisis of this magnitude. One thought was they could set up a medical tent to provide IV fluids to cut back on hospital trips (25 students in all were sent to the hospital). Whatever comes, UC EMS is ready.

“These students are a vital source of any kind of medical care we give here,” says Kimberly Taylor, associate dean of students and director of campus safety. “Hopefully we won’t have to face a crisis like this again. But, if we do, Ursinus will again get through it because of the care, competence and service of UC EMS.”