Saving Lives and Studying

by Justin McClelland
Originally printed in the Pitt News (November 17, 2000)

This summer, Pitt sophomore Ben Abo found himself four vehicles behind the president of the United States while at home in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Usually such a position merits a stop and possible search by the Secret Service, especially when the driver is only 19 years old. In this case, the emergency medicine student was part of the official motorcade for the commander in chief.

“I was driving pretty slowly, with my siren blaring and my lights flashing. It was just the most awesome experience I’d ever been in,” Abo said. “I called my girlfriend from the ambulance and screamed, ‘I’m 10 feet behind the president and I’m in his motorcade!”

How did Abo end up driving the legally required ambulance that had to be on site for the president? Years of defensive driving lessons? A Medal of Honor? In fact, Abo is a volunteer emergency medical technician both at his home in Cherry Hill during the summer and the Pittsburgh suburbs of Aspinwall, Blawnox, and Fox Chapel – all serviced by Foxwall Volunteer EMS – during the school year.

“I think I started training to be an EMT the day after I turned 16 [the legal minimum age].” Abo said. “When I was little I looked up to the ambulance drivers, so to be able to do it was for me an honor.”

And it was Abo’s skill and dedication to his volunteer duties that he was chosen to drive in the motorcade.

“I met all the secret service agents, even the president,” Abo said. “It was a blast.”

When Abo isn’t driving behind the leader of the free world, he’s a religious watcher of television shows like “ER” and “Third Watch” that glorify the lives of paramedics and EMTs.

“They’re very realistic about certain parts of the job,” he said. “But there’s a lot about the shows that’s just laughable.”

Most television shows ignore “downtime”, which in a small suburban community constitutes a large part of the day.

“There always needs to be somebody here,” said Gordon Fisher, the operations administrator for Foxwall. “But that doesn’t mean there’s always something to do.”

Indeed, on this day, two reports have been answered before Abo arrived for his shift.

“It’s already been a busy day,” Gordon said only half joking. “That’s probably all the action we’re going to see today.”

There are a lot of calls that don’t lead to anything serious either. Shut-ins call just to find companionship, hypochondriacs call in with false alarms. But sometimes there are real incidents the EMTs have to take care of.

Even without non-stop action, Abo has managed to rack up a collection of trauma and emergencies to rival the catalogue of any medical show.

“I’ve handled pretty much everything but delivering birth,” Abo said, his eyes narrowing in anticipation of his one unconquered goal. Psychos, car accidents, boat accidents, massive traffic pile ups. I’ve pretty much seen it all.”

And even excide from the experience, the position still has many rewards.

“It’s fulfilling, knowing you make a difference in somebody’s life. I like helping people,” Abo said.

And then with a laugh, “And I like driving the big box with lights.”

The ambulance is central to the life of a volunteer EMT. Each shift begins with a thorough check of the vehicle to make sure all the equipment is stocked and in place.

As Abo performs the lengthy check, he delights in showing off his knowledge of the instruments hidden within the nooks and crannies of the “big white box”.

“Here’s the trauma bag,” he said, unstrapping the hooks from a stretcher. “And back in this cabinet is where we keep all the backboards, so trauma victims can be moved.”

His tour was interrupted by three quick beeps from the ambulance’s dispatch radio – the signal for an outgoing call. Someone’s in trouble. Muscles tense throughout the Foxwall headquarters.

But then the metallic, crackling female voice of the dispatcher announces a call for another station, and the EMTs are again at ease.

About two-thirds of the way through his shift, Abo and co-worker Jess Koch, another Pitt sophomore, stop for a dinner break. As they enter the King’s restaurant, the patrons look up for a second. Their blue uniforms and large walkie-talkies clearly identify them as EMTs and the onlookers gape. Even if the day has been a wash, these people understand. Abo could be the man who one day saves their lives.

“We’re here for people – to really help them,” he said. “And there’s no better feeling than that.”

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