How being an EMT burst the “Bethesda Bubble”

By Sammy Heberlee

Everyone knows about the “Bethesda Bubble,” that invisible barrier that separates Bethesda from the “real world.” It distances residents from the opportunity gap and diversity that exist elsewhere. But even though this bubble can be insulatory, it might not be as bulletproof as we may think.

Last April, I started volunteering at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad as an Emergency Medical Technician. EMTs provide prehospital care for patients in an emergency setting, including treating each patient in an ambulance and transporting them to the hospital. Most stations in Montgomery County, including BCCRS, are staffed by volunteers at night and paid career EMTs during the day. BCCRS is one of three stations in Montgomery County — Cabin John and Rockville Fire Departments are the other two — with a junior member program that allows high school students between the ages of 16 and 18 to volunteer. 

All junior members are probationary members of the rescue squad, which means they must undergo training and ride in the back of the ambulance. Junior members have almost the same responsibilities as any adult probationary member, including a weekly shift, taking an inventory of the ambulance, restocking any missing or malfunctioning equipment and doing chores around the station. 

The lone exception is that junior members’ shifts are only from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on school nights instead of the required overnight shift for all other members. My assigned duty is Friday nights, so I ride overnight from 7 p.m. every Friday night to 8 a.m. Saturday morning. 

Since I joined the rescue squad, not only have I learned a great deal about medicine and patient care, but my perception of Bethesda has changed, through the coworkers I’ve met, the eye-opening calls I’ve dealt with and the sexism I’ve realized permeates the workplace.

When the captain in charge of new members assigned me to Friday nights, I was disappointed. On Friday nights, while my friends were hanging out with each other, I would be doing something completely different than anyone I know. I’ll admit, I thought about quitting before my first shift. Even more distraught about the Friday night situation was my mom. She didn’t want her 17-year-old daughter sleeping at a rescue squad with complete strangers. 

But I decided to stick it out, at least for one night. Going in with a pretty pessimistic attitude, I didn’t expect to have much in common with anyone on my night crew, especially because I thought everyone would be several years older than I was.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. There’s one other high school student on my night crew; I now text her more than I text any of my other friends from school. In EMT class together, we bonded over the disparities we witnessed within Montgomery County — there was one woman in our class who works comfortably for the U.S. State Department while another man had to take four buses just to get to the training academy. 

A student at George Washington University, who’s originally from Georgia, is also on my night crew. When I first started working, she was always available to answer any questions I had, something a lot of the other higher ranked members aren’t as happy to do. And there’s a guy who just went back to school after he had to take a year off to look after his sister. He spends the afternoon waiting tables at P.F. Chang’s before coming to our shift.

I’ve been exposed to people with vastly different backgrounds than my own — people who didn’t grow up in Bethesda as I have — and it’s given me a more diverse perspective on both the workplace and Bethesda itself. Not only have the people I work with impacted me, but a lot of the calls I get and patients I meet replay in my mind for weeks.

Most of the rescue squad’s calls are to low-income housing areas, for people who have little to no medical care. Even though Montgomery County ambulance service is free of charge, patients who are in obvious need of medical assistance often try to refuse our care because of the anticipated steep hospital expenses they know they won’t be able to afford. 

In one of my friend’s most impactful shifts, there was a call for a mother who overdosed and rolled on top of and killed her infant. The call was dispatched as an overdose, so the crew didn’t know about the baby until they repositioned the mother. A drug overdose by itself would be overwhelming enough, but a suffocated infant is scarring in a way you would never be prepared for, not anywhere in the world, let alone in suburban, utopian Bethesda. When the crew returned to the station that night, they were traumatized — but the EMS system offered little to no mental health support. Talking openly about mental health may nearly be the norm now at Whitman, but in EMS, there are very few resources for those who need them most.

Another call I was dispatched for began normally. We arrived at a nursing home patient’s bedside for dyspnea, or trouble breathing. The patient chatted with me about her kids while I hooked her up to our oxygen tank. But when we were leaving the hospital after transport, she abruptly died in the emergency room. She was the first of my patients to die, and the fact that someone whom I knew and enjoyed talking to had died so suddenly was shocking.

These patients bring me out of the “Bethesda Bubble” and straight into reality. Yes, most Whitman students are privileged, but there are plenty of Bethesda residents who are severely disadvantaged. We get calls to nursing homes where a patient had already been complaining for an entire day before their nurses paid attention to the possibly life-threatening problem. We get calls from homeless people who have dialed 911 just in hope that they get out of a dangerous situation, whether it be the freezing cold, rain or lack of shelter. We get calls about people passed out next to dumpsters and calls from others who have no family or friends to notify.

I once had a call for a woman who was suffering from domestic abuse. She refused to go to the hospital because she didn’t want to wake her two young children. When we arrived at her apartment, three policemen were already there. Even though her injuries were minor, we could tell how anxious she was. 

The ambulance driver entered the apartment a few minutes after me, and when he opened the door, I remember the patient jumped from the couch, thinking that her boyfriend had returned. She said it wasn’t the first time her alcoholic and abusive boyfriend had lashed out and then left the apartment in a hurry. We asked her if she thought there was a chance he would come back. “Probably,” she told us, “but I bet he went to a bar to get drunk for now.”

It was one of my first calls, but I still remember it so vividly. After learning of the trauma this woman had suffered at the hands of her boyfriend, I became acutely aware of the gender dynamics in the room. I was standing in her apartment with only one other woman and five men. How could that have possibly made her feel any safer?

The EMS world is male-dominated, and that imbalance creates a variety of problems ranging in all degrees of seriousness. At my station, all of the four chiefs are men, as well as every night crew officer except for one. All of my EMT class instructors were men, I don’t remember ever having a call with a female paramedic and there are no women at my station who are qualified to ride the rescue squad, the unit that performs technical extrications and some firefighter operations. To me, the gap between men and women in EMS is glaring, but I’ve never heard anyone at the station, man or woman, talk about it. Even when sexism is blatant, many still find a way to ignore it.

My old night crew officer, for example, was eventually asked to resign after receiving several complaints of verbal harassment from women at the station, including one junior member. I go on calls with five men and myself, and everytime I find myself standing in the back of each patient’s room. Maybe it’s because I have the least experience, maybe it’s because I’m only 17 and everyone else on the call is an adult, but part of the reason I so often shrink to the back is because I feel out of place: I’m the only woman there.

Inequalites in America often receive national attention, but growing up in Bethesda, I hadn’t personally experienced them. I started volunteering for the rescue squad because I was interested in medicine, but I’ve learned so much more than how to treat and care for patients. I’ve been exposed to a world outside of the “Bethesda Bubble,” and my experiences have proven to me that, while Whitman students do have privilege and opportunities many people do not, it’s unfair to assume that everyone living in a certain area is subject to the same privileged lifestyle.