The beginning of Aspen’s EMTs | AspenTimes.com

The beginning of Aspen’s EMTs

Tony Vagneur
Aspen, CO Colorado

Back in the 1970s, an older Aspen Valley Hospital (the so-called “middle” hospital, over at the base of Red Mountain) was getting into the spirit of a fledgling ambulance service, and a small group of citizens (including some of us ski patrolmen) were the first to become certified through the newly-formed Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) program. This training was necessary to become an AVH ambulance volunteer.

The ambulance set-up was a far cry from the efficient and centralized operation it is today, but just the fact that it existed back then was a huge step forward. Prior to that, the only local medical transport available (other than the Ski Corp.’s “broken leg brigade”) was Tom Sardy’s long, black hearse, which generally served to get tongues wagging, no matter the mission.

As volunteers, we worked one night per week, from 6 in the evening until 3 in the morning, and got dinner in the hospital cafeteria for our efforts. Since the ambulance service was new, most of the citizenry didn’t seem aware of its existence, or perhaps in the never-ending spirit of independence that pervades this area, they preferred to do it themselves, and there were very few ambulance calls. Instead, we spent most of our time helping out in the emergency room, greeting all manner of walk-, carry-, and drag-ins at the door and doing whatever the doctors and nurses on duty requested us to do.

However, if a genuine ambulance call did come in, a convoluted chain of events was put in motion that required the utmost combination of true grit and determination to accomplish. Upon receiving the call at the hospital, we were required to drive our personal autos over to the Pitkin County Courthouse, where the ambulance was housed out back, in a road and bridge shed. A sheriff’s deputy, charged with driving the vehicle, would theoretically have the ambulance fired up and ready to go, and most of the time it worked quite well. It wasn’t a perfect system, though, and sometimes as we ventured over to the courthouse, we’d pass the meat wagon coming over to the hospital to pick us up. In at least one instance, the garage door on the shed started back down as we pulled out, ripping the emergency lights off the ambulance. A frustrated deputy refused to go any further ” an even more frustrated EMT threatened murder if the rig didn’t move immediately. The arrogance of youth prevailed and our patient survived.

In spite of the responsibility, we found humor in ourselves and our patients. One night, a fellow EMT, a young lady with little practical experience, kept pestering Rita, the head ER nurse, about a new ob/gyn examination table in an adjacent room. After about the 10th question, the frustrated nurse (with a straight face) told the girl to put her feet in the stirrups and “let Tony show you how it works.” End of questions, for that night. Or there was the guy who came in with a profusely bleeding scrotum, for whom we all felt sympathy, until he confessed that he’d gone straight home from receiving a vasectomy to “try it out” on his wife.

We saw some catastrophic illnesses and injuries and not everyone who came through our doors survived, but such events go with the territory. And, at the end of our shifts, we left with a feeling of having done something worthwhile for the community.

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If you need an ambulance today, the process of getting one to you works much more smoothly. The vehicles are housed at the hospital, the drivers and attendants are on-site, and instead of relying on volunteers, all personnel are paid and know precisely what to do. But, that is not to diminish the performance of our program back in the early ’70s ” we got things rolling and can look with pride at what it has become.

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