The EMT experience: A ride along with Post 53

Photo of Justin Papp

DARIEN — Sometimes it’s all about the waiting.

For 17-year-old Stefan Schneider, it had been a long night of waiting at Post 53.

Schneider had reported to work for his 24-hour shift the night prior at 5:30 p.m. to Post 53, Darien’s student-run EMS Service, where the incoming senior has volunteered since his freshman year and has worked his way up the ranks to EMT. Twenty-two hours in, only one emergency call had come.

“So far it’s been slow. Around this time of year it usually gets quiet,” Schneider said, seated at the kitchen table in Post 53’s Ledge Road headquarters. Joining him in the last hours of his shift was a small group of fellow Posties: Vice President of Training Natalie Gorman, 17; Secretary Tommy Kreuch, 17; Emily Gianunzio, 16; Jackie Benisch, 15; Niko Witkowski, 15; Executive Director Nancy Herling and Assistant Director Chris Coleman.

“With EMS there’s no pattern. But there does seem to be this natural ebb and flow. If you have two days when you’ve just been banged up with call after call, it’s going to slow down a little bit. Then if you’ve had three days that have been a little slow, you’re bracing because you know you’re going to get a lot of calls,” Coleman explained.

Both because of the potential for down time and because of the difficult nature of the work, each Postie is put through a rigorous vetting process that includes an application, first-aid training, multiple interviews, written and practical exams and a personality assessment.

“We pick kids who really seem like they want to be here,” Schneider said. Finding the right fit is important, he explained, as is finding ways to pass the time, something this particular group had a penchant for.

At the table, Kreuch asked his friends for adjectives to describe himself for a college essay. Gianunzio cut out magazine clippings for a recently hung collage in the girl’s study, where bunks are located for female Posties to sleep (a second collage was in the works for the separate boy’s study). Gorman occasionally opened a copy of “Jane Eyre” and at one point, Benisch enlisted the help of Schneider to make chocolate chip cookies.

“They don’t get bored waiting,” Coleman said.

The call

Grace Silsby, 16, was among the group that came on in relief at 5:30 p.m. and it was evident from the encouraging remarks of her peers as she entered that this was her first shift as an EMT, a step up from her previous role as a rider and one step closer to driving. Unlike Schneider, she would not have to wait long for a call.

No more than five minutes into the crew’s preliminary ambulance inspection, the silence was broken by the wail of the radio and without a second thought or any visible trepidation, Silby was out on her first call as an EMT.

In the back of the ambulance, Pierce Hoyda, 15, a rider, Silsby and Robbie Waters, 18, an EMT, put on gloves, readied their equipment and went over the plan of action once on scene like veterans of 20 years. Meanwhile, Nick Cohen, 20, a former student president of Post and currently an EMT at Virginia Tech, where he goes to school, exuded calm in the front seat.

Within 10 minutes of their arrival at the home, the crew had dispersed, greeted the family, assessed the patient, lifted him back into his bed and exited. And at no point during the call did Silsby display a trace of the fear one would expect on a first call in a new role.

But after countless hours riding in the ambulance and responding to calls as training for this moment, Silsby felt adequately prepared. “Compared to other calls, that was definitely low-key,” Silsby said, casually, back in the kitchen and working on a written report of the call.

“As you progress throughout post your confidence goes up and up. I'm almost at 500 calls so I’ve seen pretty much anything and everything,” Waters said. “Anything and everything” includes cardiac arrest, motor vehicle accidents, and drug overdoses, none of which is easy for the average teenager, or average person, to comprehend.

There are, however, precautionary measures in place to protect teens that respond to the more difficult calls.

“We’ll debrief a tough call right after. The next day or two we’ll call the crew back in, look for signs of PTSD and often we’ll call the parents and say, ‘So and so was on a tough call, keep an eye out,’” Herling explained. “Sometimes they’ll be on a call and all of a sudden they realize the person they’re helping looks like their grandmother.”

The perils of the job extend well beyond the emotional for Posties. According to Coleman, Post 53 responds to roughly 1,500 calls a year along a notoriously treacherous stretch of I-95. When there’s an accident, Post 53 is in-step with the police and fire departments working to secure the busy highway.

Still, Posties that I ask did not readily admit fear and most claimed that, after a brief adjustment period when they first started, their parents were quickly on board.

“My parents are kind of impressed by it. They’ve never seen anything like it. They know that it’s a big job and that it’s hard, but they’re also really proud of me for doing it,” Silsby said.

The food run

Before arriving at Post around 8 p.m., just as the last stragglers from Post “business” meeting were dispersing, Justin Plank, 17, had spent his day outside in the oppressive heat at Darien High School’s preseason football camp. Plank is red-headed and barrel-chested, a feature befitting a starting defensive lineman 2016’s Class LL state championship team.

Despite hours spent outside and an overnight shift ahead of him at Post, Plank was in high-spirits and from the moment he walked in. After introducing himself and inviting the crew on a dinner run in the ambulance, he shared how he’s able to balance the schedule of a varsity athlete with the 19-hours monthly minimum he must work at Post.

“I try to get to bed as early as I can. And playing football on top of Post really helps with time management,” Plank said, from the driver’s seat, headed to his house to pick up the home-cooked meal he had forgotten in his haste to get to Post before making a stop at Whole Foods. “A lot of my teammates don’t get how I have the time to do it, just because both are such a big commitment. But I’ve always made it work.”

Not surprisingly, Plank is not alone in his ability to balance. Treasurer Michael Belloli, 17, who was socializing at the kitchen counter after the meeting, works two jobs in addition to Post. Belloli’s partner in conversation, Alex Ostberg, 19, decided to pick up shifts while on break from Stanford University, where he competes in cross country, and splits his time between training and his summer job.

And still, despite challenging hours and a level of responsibility many teenagers might not be well-equipped to handle, the Posties flock to headquarters, whether working or not, to be around their friends and do a job they’re passionate about.

“For every one of us there are five people that would take our spot if they could. So you have to be on your “A” game the whole time,” Plank said.

“The more I did it I kind of realized that this is my passion, this is what I love to do. Like most people try to spend their time going out, partying, having a huge social life. This became my social life. It’s a huge family here. I wanted to be here. I wanted this to be my high school experience,” Belloli, who was not on the schedule that night, said as he killed time with his fellow Posties.; @justinjpapp1