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Providing aid in times of need: REMS volunteers embody culture of care

Rice University Emergency Medical Services is a state-sanctioned EMS agency, and undergraduate students work for the organization on a volunteer basis. Student EMTs stayed on campus over the summer, providing emergency services to the Rice community throughout the pandemic. Photos courtesy Leenah Abojaib.

By Kavya Sahni     3/16/21 8:59pm

During the school year, throughout the summer, and whenever there’s a big event on campus –– athletic events, and during a normal year, public parties –– student EMTs with Rice University Emergency Medical Services are around at the scene, looking out for the community. This past year, the stakes have been higher: EMTs have been serving their community during a pandemic.

REMS is a state-sanctioned EMS agency, and undergraduate students work for the organization on a volunteer basis. To join, they must first complete an EMT-basic course, take and pass exams with the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, obtain a license from the Texas Department of State Health Services and then make it through an application process.

These undergraduate students have made it through rigorous training, 24-hour ambulance rides and hours of clinical shifts at hospitals. Now dedicate a significant amount of their time to be on-call on campus, even in the midst of a busy midterm or finals season. The Thresher talked with the REMS team about what their past year has been like.

Working for EMS: “Part of something bigger”

Oliver Zhou’s most memorable moment while training to become an EMT with Rice University Emergency Medical Services was his first ambulance shift during his freshman year. He woke up at 5 a.m., when it was still dark outside, and took an Uber to an ambulance agency an hour away.

“Just meeting the paramedics and thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, this is how being an actual EMT actually feels like,’ and then getting your first call ... with the sirens on, going out to see a patient. That was super exciting to me,” Zhou said. “And that's something that I'll remember for a long time.”

Zhou, a senior at Martel, took the basic EMT course –– ‘EMSP 281 - EMT-B Intro to Emergency Care’ –– his freshman year and joined REMS the following year.

“I just found it super rewarding to be able to, as a freshman in college, to be able to actually help people as an EMT, on ambulances and shadow physicians,” Zhou said. “I thought that was really awesome.”

After becoming a part of REMS, Zhou wanted to give back to younger students considering joining the team –– he was a field training assistant last year, and currently teaches sub-skills to new students in the basic training classes.

“All of these experiences I've just found to be super rewarding … I found that I love being able to give back to REMS and teach the new students based on the experiences that I've struggled through in the past,” Zhou said.

Sid Richardson College senior Chase Hinman currently serves as special events lieutenant and an Incharge on the leadership team for REMS. While on shift as an Incharge, Hinman is the provider in command of a scene, responds in REMS vehicles that carry medical equipment and is tasked with approving patient care decisions.

Hinman joined his freshman year, and said that the most rewarding part of being in the organization has been “the feeling of being part of something bigger than [himself].”

“As an organization, REMS serves a very important role for the Rice community, and getting to contribute to that is really awesome,” Hinman said. “The challenging part has to be the sacrifices we make when something comes up, or the long days and late nights of calls or event coverage.”

Hinman said that volunteering with REMS is an opportunity to truly embody the Culture of Care at Rice, and responding to emergency calls made by members of the Rice community and providing aid in their times of need has been rewarding. However, balancing this commitment with classes and day-to-day life has been a challenge, Hinman said.

“It is difficult being called out of class or during the middle of the night to answer an emergency call, but it [is] even harder returning to the classroom or going back to bed while still thinking about the outcome of [a] patient we just treated,” Hinman said.

Lisa Basgall, one of the non-student staff members, is a licensed paramedic and overseer of the EMS courses at Rice and has served as REMS Director since 2009. She said that one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is working with students who commit a significant amount of their time to taking shifts and responding to emergencies.

“One of the most rewarding aspects is working with enthusiastic, motivated students who are committed to the health, safety and welfare of the campus community,” Basgall said.

Adapting to COVID-19

According to Basgall, the pandemic brought new challenges to REMS — last spring, the entire in-charge team and about 15 other students from the crew stayed on campus to cover shifts, and they stayed on without a gap in coverage until the academic year started in August.

“Delivering thermometers to people in need, making health packs for people in quarantine, being willing to continue responding to any and all emergencies on campus — I’m proud to be part of this team that is capable of rising to new challenges and finding new ways to contribute to the needs of the community,” Basgall said.

Hinman said that for the most part, REMS does the same work they did before the pandemic, including responding to calls, staffing events, teaching classes and staying involved with the community — just with added precautions.

“Seeing the way REMS was able to stay in service throughout the pandemic and alter our response so that we didn’t miss a beat was really cool,” Hinman said. “That being said, it's taken a lot of work to keep REMS going at 100 percent throughout all the challenges the pandemic has thrown at us.”

Students interested in pursuing the EMS certification can still do so; REMS has updated means and methods for training during the pandemic. Basgall said that students usually take part in simulated patient care drills, but COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult and unsafe to gather in large groups frequently. They have been using technology to adapt.

“We’ve gotten creative with case review and patient assessment practice on Zoom,” Basgall said. “We’ve really enjoyed having alumni physicians from around the country log in to Zoom to present on a topic or lead a discussion about patient care.”

When they gather in person, everyone uses personal protective equipment in addition to other precautions: smaller groups, larger spaces and cleaning routines. According to Basgall, REMS has worked with the Crisis Management Team to have personal protective equipment available for volunteers. All REMS responders were also fit-tested by Environmental Health & Safety personnel to be able to appropriately wear masks when responding to calls.

Another important part of REMS training –– clinical shifts in the hospital and ambulance rideouts –– has reduced due to COVID-19.

“REMS students participate in rideouts at four different ambulance agencies and two hospital systems in the Houston area, but with COVID, all of these sites have not been able to accept EMS students at some point during the pandemic,” Basgall said. “We’re happy for clinical availability when we can safely participate in these activities with PPE.”

Vaccination Drive: “At a moment’s notice”

The morning of the spontaneous vaccination clinic at Rice on Feb. 15 after thousands of Harris County vaccines unfroze during a power outage, the EMS in-charge team received a message from REMS Director Lisa Basgall, asking for urgent availability. Wiess College junior Leenah Abojaib, who is an operations lieutenant for REMS, walked to the EMS office in the snow and prepared to set up with the rest of the team in East Gym.

Throughout the day, she was responsible for monitoring people's symptoms post-vaccination and standing by in case of any emergencies in the post-vaccination hallways. Towards the end of the day, she got to administer vaccinations too.

“Although we got called and had to prepare everything on very short notice, I am very thankful and proud to be part of this effort that brought vaccinations to 800 individuals, and got to play a role in maintaining the safety of our campus,” Abojaib said.

Sam Reddick, who has served as REMS captain –– the highest-ranking student in the organization –– for the past two years, was responsible for overseeing the volunteer effort and responding to emergency calls on campus. According to Reddick, a Wiess College senior, REMS volunteers contributed by organizing lines, performing medical screenings, drawing doses from vials, administering shots and monitoring post-vaccine side effects.

“The experience of distributing these life-saving vaccines was incredibly rewarding, and I could not be prouder to work with such an extraordinary group of selfless volunteers who dropped everything they were doing at a moment’s notice to serve their community,” Reddick said.

Although the timeline was rushed, Reddick credited the support of staff from the Rice University Police Department, Student Health Services and Gibbs Wellness and Recreation Center for making the vaccination drive possible.

George Hung, currently an Incharge trainee, was already on campus for his weekly shift when he got the news about the vaccine. He was immediately ready to play his role in the distribution process. Hung said that although it was earlier than expected and on short notice, REMS had prepared for this moment and the team was able to pull it off.

“It was definitely one of the most hectic and exhausting days at Rice, but also one of the most gratifying and memorable,” Hung, a sophomore at McMurtry College, said. “It's what we signed up for when we joined REMS and seeing the positive impact we had that day, I would not have wanted to spend my snow day any other way.”

Oliver Zhou, a Martel College senior, said that most REMS members skipped lunch and worked through the morning and afternoon until they finished administering the last vaccines.

“Overall, it was a super rewarding experience,” Zhou said. “It was kind of crazy because we were literally notified that morning that we would have almost a thousand vaccines coming in, and we had to get together whichever REMS personnel were on campus within a couple hours to distribute all of them.”

Zhou said that it was quite chaotic at the beginning, but with the help of Harris County EMTs, they were able to get a system in place soon.

“I'm really proud of everyone who was there, who were able to drop everything at a moment's notice on the day of a winter storm to help with something so important and potentially life-saving,” Zhou said. “It was really inspiring to see my own classmates and friends being the ones who filled up syringes and injected the vaccine for other fellow Rice students.”

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