In the business of saving lives

EMT Rich Nichols has put nine years into emergency rescue, teaching others life-saving techniques

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Richard Nichols sums himself up quickly and exactly -- the way you'd expect a paramedic to assesses an accident.

"All I do is teach class, save lives."

Nichols, 35 and a lifelong Craig resident, is the senior full-time paramedic on The Memorial Hospital's ambulance crew. It's a position he stumbled into almost by accident, nine and a half years ago. But since then, he's grown to live to work in the back of an ambulance. If he has his way, he'll be doing the same 20 years from now.

Following high school, Nichols enlisted in the Army and served as a mechanic in Texas, Kuwait (following the Gulf War) and Alaska. He got out on medical leave and returned to Craig, still collecting a full-time paycheck from the military. Nichols calls what happened next "perfect timing."

His wife, Lynn, an on-call emergency medical technician with nine years experience of her own, saw an ad in the paper for an ambulance driver. It was a simple, undemanding job Nichols was happy to do. Duties required nothing more than driving the ambulance and picking up equipment.

But before long, his position was eliminated. To keep a job, Nichols enrolled in an EMT basic training class at the Community College of Northwest Colorado, not knowing that several years later he would be teaching the same class.

He saw the benefits of increasing his skill level, so he took another class and moved up and became an intermediate EMT. In Oct. 2002, he earned his paramedic license through the University of Colorado at Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. Among other things, the change in status enabled him to administer drugs such as Demerol for pain and Phenobarbital for seizures, as well as perform more complex medical procedures, like tracheotomies to open a patient's airway when nothing else works.

Nichols described himself as leading "a secluded life." Outside of work, he's an avid video gamer, bowls with a local league, and plays on two softball teams in the summer. Softball comes even before work, he said. His work schedule revolves around his game schedules.

Of course, when the beeper goes off -- however unexpectedly -- he responds to the call. That's one thing he enjoys about his job.

"There's no telling where you'll be in the next five minutes," he said. "We work in a chaotic setting, and my job is making a chaotic scene controlled. I don't mind helping out in the hospital, but I couldn't be a nurse. I like the spontaneity of my job."

Sometimes, that spontaneity doesn't come for up to three weeks a time, and Nichols is left sitting in the garage. While waiting on a call he keeps busy by keeping statistics on the crew, maintaining equipment, and doing paperwork -- his least favorite part of the job.

It's a natural part of life that people get sick, Nichols said. Since that's the way the world works, he wants to be there when it happens.

To Nichols' mind, the perfect call is when someone is really sick, the crew's skills are tested, and the patient walks out of the hospital, healed. These calls remind him why he does his job. He figures the crew gets such a call every six to 10 months, with the latest one coming last November.

The call was "good and scary at the same time." The patient was a heart attack victim, and he was going to die unless everyone performed their jobs quickly and exactly. And they did. That means first getting an overall picture of the situation, figuring out what's going on, getting the victim hooked up to the heart monitor, starting an I.V., administering drugs, advising the hospital of what is coming their way, and helping out as needed at the hospital."

The outcome was positive, but calls aren't always like that. Injured children are always the most difficult calls to respond to, Nichols said. He carries a painful memory of an intercept call to Baggs, Wyo. There was a car crash and the Baggs crew needed assistance. One victim was trapped in the vehicle, and medics were in the process of getting the victim out. In the back of the ambulance, a seasoned Baggs EMT and a new EMT were working to resuscitate a 2-year-old who was in cardiac arrest. No breathing. No pulse.

The Craig crew rushed the infant to TMH. There, the hospital staff determined the child's injuries were too extensive for the child to be revived.

Those are the hardest things to deal with, Nichols said. Usually, the tight crew supports one another, talking things out. But that time the Bear's Ears Stress Debriefing Team had to be called in to help crew members deal with the tragedy.

Now, Nichols passes on some of the knowledge he's gained through teaching. This semester, he has five students in an EMT basic course at CNCC. He tries to avoid telling war or horror stories in the classroom, because he doesn't want his students to assume a given situation will always be a certain way.

But he still tries to keep things interesting, using "redneck English" to explain medical concepts.

"If you try, you can make medicine overly cumbersome," he said. "If you put it in common sense terms it makes it a lot understandable."

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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