The Oldest EMT Student in My Class

A middle-aged empty-nester becomes an EMT and learns the advantages of her age.

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The author and her daughter, who decided to join her mom as a volunteer emergency medical technician.

When my daughter went off to college three years ago, I suddenly had a lot more volunteer time on my hands, even with a full-time job. The usual commitments — PTA, scouts, etc. — were done.  I work on policy issues for a national nonprofit organization so I wanted to do something really different, something practical and yet not related to my work.   

I decided to become a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician for my local fire department. They were a bit surprised when they read my application. A standard piece of documentation is a copy of one's high school diploma. They decided to waive that requirement — not only because I couldn't find it after 34 years, but because they decided my Ph.D. from Harvard was a reasonable substitute.   

The training was demanding and not always accommodating of a full-time job with lots of travel.  Class was every Wednesday evening and all day Saturday, for five months, with no "skips" allowed. I hadn't taken a test for a grade in 25 years. Cramming became second nature again, especially for the hours-long written and practical state exam. But in February 2011, I graduated, and four months later, I qualified as the "charge EMT," running ambulance calls. My driver-partner is a great woman my age; she started when she was 16. Now I ride the ambulance for the Burtonsville, Maryland Volunteer Fire Department every Friday night, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Last Friday, I had three calls — at 7:15, midnight, and 2:30. So I got about three hours of sleep. Between calls, I sleep in the bunk room with the firefighters.   

Two people have died in the back of my ambulance. It is a profound experience to be the last person holding their hand. I performed CPR on another woman and re-started her heart. There are distinct benefits to being a middle-aged mom EMT. I've told distraught parents of babies: "Yes, I remember when my children got a high fever. It's scary."  I accompanied a young male paramedic to the home of a middle-aged Muslim woman (as evidenced by her headscarf). She didn't want him to touch her, but she allowed me to. Even though I'm in pretty good shape (now), I might not be able to lift as much as my 22-year-old counterpart, but people will open up to a middle-aged mom when they might not to someone else.  

And then last year my college daughter decided she wanted to do it too! So now we have the "dream team" on the ambulance of my favorite driver, daughter and me!   

This is a great volunteer opportunity for empty-nesters. It takes more time than many young parents have. I wish more people like me would give it a try!

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