The transfer happened around 8 p.m. Four radios moved into the hands of the night crew, and Stephanie Young (SFS ’13) began her first shift as a member of Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service.
Without much ceremony, the 12-hour Saturday night shift was underway. For three veteran EMTs and Stephanie, those radios would enslave them until 8 a.m. The next radio tone could mean an abrupt end to dinner.
Several GERMS members were out at Surfside, a laid-back seafood restaurant in Glover Park. Duty crews may dine only at takeout restaurants, and they frequent Surfside enough that they approached management about a volume discount, one member told me. Management declined.
At 8:06 p.m., a tone sounded from the radios around the table: an injury in New South. With sirens blaring in perfect time with Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” on the stereo, and after promising to get his parking ticket validated, GERMS President Colin Brody (COL ’11) guided Unit 8, one of the EMT service’s two ambulances back toward campus.
“Oh crap,” Stephanie said to herself as she climbed several flights of stairs to the call. It had been a while since the GERMS training class last year, and there was only so much she could practice with her stethoscope and blood pressure cuff.
“It’s not like a math problem, which you can get wrong and do again,” she said.
The patient had sustained an injury a few days earlier, and wanted it checked out. Stephanie checked vitals and scribbled them on her latex gloves. She apologized as the Velcro of her blood pressure cuff caught itself on the patient’s shirt.
The crew informed an ER nurse that the night had been “quiet.”
“You said the `q word.’ That’ll jinx it,” she said.
The first alcohol-related call came from Darnall Hall at 11:51 p.m. The patient was vomiting, and Stephanie had to catch it. She shut her eyes and held her breath every time the patient’s mouth opened. She didn’t catch everything.
“I felt bad because I’m in GERMS and I shouldn’t have reacted as much as I did,” Young recalled. “I’d take a breath and tell myself to get over it.”
“The gag reflex goes away,” Kelly Arledge (SFS ’10, GRD ’11), another member of the crew, told Stephanie.
As GERMS left the scene, a roommate asked Brody what would get the stench out of their carpet.
“A lot of SHOUT,” Brody said, and rolled the stretcher to the elevator.
The men and women of GERMS are witnesses to a different side of Georgetown. They see a university within Department of Public Safety rope lines, and they see students in their worst states.
“You recognize some people around campus and you know you know them from somewhere,” Brody said. “You don’t know if it’s from a class or a GERMS call. You don’t know how to react.”
To protect the patients’ privacy, GERMS members won’t talk to a patient unless they’re approached.
The most experienced crews know the university’s pulse, what cases might affect students and when. Brody and Chris Santostefano (NHS ’12) explained a typical Saturday night: It’s rare to see critical intoxication in patients between 8 and 11 p.m., but ambulance crews are continuously on calls from midnight to 3 a.m.
any weekend calls are also for injuries from intoxicated students on campus staircases, Santostefano said.
There’s no exact science to predicting call volume for a weekend night. The first two weeks of school tend to be heavier, as does Halloween (if it falls on a weekend). Brody anticipated five to seven calls on Saturday.
“For those of us who’ve been around the block, it’s easy to say we’re gonna need a lot of people on a certain night,” Brody said.
GERMS stockpiled over $1,000 of supplies in August to make sure they were ready for the weeks following New Student Orientation, Brody said.
But he added that there are some moments, like the norovirus that affected about 200 students in 2009, that GERMS simply couldn’t predict.
Patients are sometimes unclear about exactly what GERMS offers, Arledge said. The first patient of the night had wanted a diagnosis from GERMS members. A diagnosis could come only from a doctor, and GERMS aren’t permitted to share personal medical opinions.
“They want an answer from us. We can’t give that,” Arledge said.
Crews spend their downtime in the GERMS office watching films and doing homework.
When the radios go quiet, the crews retire to bunk beds and a couch in the inner office. The long shifts forge a community among GERMS that makes it almost like a varsity squad.
“We’re like an athletic team, but not in shape,” one GERMS member said.
Over dinner, the GERMS counted the number of married couples that had met through GERMS. Many have come back and married in Dahlgren Chapel, Brody said.
On Saturday, the feature film was “Top Gun”, and the crew offered a collective sigh when they were toned out before the beach volleyball scene.
“California Gurls” was part of a mix tape that played throughout the crew’s ambulance calls on Saturday. Drivers request songs every semester for a new compilation album, Brody said.
All GERMS members remember their first calls after getting their EMT license. For Arledge, who was on the Saturday night duty crew, it was when she went to a movie after getting certified.
A movie-goer a few rows ahead yelled, asking someone to dial 911. Arledge stood and said, “I’m 911!”
Young said that people look at her differently when she walks around campus in uniform.
The primary duty crew handled seven calls on Saturday. One of the calls was dispatched to the secondary crew because the primary crew was engaged, and two calls were dispatched to D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services because both crews were on separate calls. The four members of the 80 crew, as they’re known when they’re using Unit 8, saw calls to Darnall, New South and West Georgetown. The crew returned around 4 a.m. to sleep for the last hours of the shift.
At around 8 a.m., the new shift roused the crew from the couch to ask where the radios were. Twelve hours later, it was the next hand-off. Stephanie’s first shift was over.