Western Carolina University can claim several notable firsts, like when Ronnie Carr ME ’07 became the first college basketball player to hit a three-pointer on Nov. 29, 1980, and when WCU became the first public university in North Carolina to implement a computer requirement for students in 1998. Another notable achievement – and profoundly important, as it involves lifesaving – pre-dates the athletic and technological milestones: establishment of the emergency medical care curriculum for the nation’s first bachelor’s degree program for paramedics.
Launched 40 years ago in 1976, with its first graduating class the following year, the Emergency Medical Care Program is now the seventh largest academic program at WCU. The program is offered on campus and online by the School of Health Sciences within the College of Health and Human Sciences. It is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, through the Committee on Accreditation of Educational Programs for the Emergency Medical Services Professions.
One of the early graduates, Rhonda Summers ’78, remembers the program being instrumental in her life and believes its establishment was one of incredible vision and determination. “Even in high school, this is what I wanted to do,” Summers said. “But I was told by my guidance counselor that women had no place in medicine other than nursing.”
A couple of years later, Summers was enrolled at WCU, where no EMC program yet existed. One day, as she was walking with her roommate back to Moore Hall, she saw an ambulance there manned by fellow students – the Student Emergency Care Team, the campus emergency squad. In 1975, WCU had the only student-run ambulance service in the nation, funded and operated through the university’s infirmary. The next morning, Summers was signing up for the prerequisite class to be a part of the squad. “We had great fun learning and we did everything together, breakfast, lunch and dinner and everything in between,” she said. “We started IVs on each other, learned to rappel off the side of Moore, used the Jaws of Life to tear up a car behind Scott.”
Student EMT members went through two hours of training each week, with at least three members on call 24 hours a day, and the team had to be available every day of the week. The members certainly got to put their skills to use, from student mishaps with bumps and bruises to all-out tragedies, both on campus and nearby, that ranged from a fatal shooting to horrific car crashes.
It was Summers and a couple of other SECT students who went to Garland Pendergraph, then dean of the School of Health Sciences, to convince him there was enough interest for an emergency medical care degree program. Pendergraph agreed and, along with Gene Howell of the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, helped guide the students, instructors and curriculum in the program’s infancy.
“I don’t think any of us thought of ourselves as pioneers,” Summers said. “We just knew what we wanted and had to make it happen. I know we are so proud of the program, then and now. And it’s hard to believe the WCU program is 40 years old.”
The WCU Emergency Medical Care Alumni group celebrated both its 20th year and the 40th year of the WCU program in September with an annual reunion held in Greensboro in conjunction with a state EMS conference. A typical gathering includes paramedics whose fingerprints are all over lifesaving innovations, from a new approach to resuscitation to the initial development of 911 dispatch calls, and from improving hypothermia care to the unusual use of two defibrillators to treat sustained heart problems. WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher attended the event, congratulating the alumni on their achievements that helped put WCU on the map for EMS and paramedic instruction.
“Our attendees number between 50 to 80 each year,” said Joseph Zalkin ’81, deputy director of Wake County EMS, who retired in November after a 35-year career. “We are educators, researchers and explorers, taught to think out of the box by our mentors in Cullowhee, and we share a bond of being involved in the sustainment of the first bachelor’s degree in emergency medical care in the nation.”
Zalkin helps organize the WCU alumni meetings and serves as a rousing cheerleader. Around the state and nation, he is known for keeping a network of graduates in touch with one another. He also helps build professional alliances, regardless of alma mater, for dedicated individuals in the lifesaving business. “I could not have met my life goals without my time at Western,” he said. “As an EMS manager and leader in our state, I cannot advocate more for higher levels of education in our profession. And WCU is the center of the universe for me.”
Looking back over his career, Zalkin points to those singular moments of coming to the aid of people in need that made his career and his life (thus far, he quickly added) so worthwhile and fulfilling. “Individually, we save lives and provide comfort and have created lifesaving systems,” he said. “Collectively, WCU graduates are respected in the field, known for having a solid educational background in medical sciences and research methods, plus ongoing peer support and Catamount pride.”
Preparing to carry on that Catamount pride in paramedics, current students have motivations similar to their predecessors. Chandler Spires, a senior from Dallas, Texas, says he “didn’t apply anywhere else, didn’t want to go anywhere else” because he was attracted by WCU’s reputation and how it fit with his personal goals. “The WCU paramedic program provides the skills and protocols and prepares you to work anywhere in the country, rural or urban,” he said. “I feel like the things we’ve learned ready us for any situation that would happen in any geographical area. It speaks volumes that this program prepares us to go anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world, and be recognized for excellence when we get there.”
Spires said he plans to return to an urban setting for his EMT career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the health care field that includes EMTs and paramedics is expected to grow by more than 20 percent in coming years in both rural and urban areas.
Teresa Stewart ’81 ’91 MHS is one of the graduates who has experienced almost everything, almost everywhere. Stewart has been deployed to several catastrophes that still resonate and that have left wounds yet to heal, such as Hurricane Katrina that struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Hurricane Ike that cut a swath of destruction through the East Coast in 2008 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
“Our students have excelled in moving North Carolina to the forefront in EMS delivery at local, county, regional, state and national levels,” Stewart said. “The WCU program is now heavily into research for patient care and techniques. The new College of Health and Human Sciences Building is beautiful and functional. Today’s students have access to technologies we did not.”
Stewart was active in local, regional and state EMS for 20 years through the community college system. Today, she works with the National Disaster Medical System, a federally coordinated health care operation and partnership of the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense and Veterans Affairs. The National Disaster Medical System supports local, state and tribal officials following emergencies and disasters. “Folks in the field of EMS see things that most people have no clue about. We’re privy to how people really live, from wealthy to homeless and everyone in between, folks who have nothing and folks who have just lost everything,” Stewart said. “I’ve had the privilege to bring lives into this world, help people stay alive, witness death from multiple causes, and interact with their family, friends and caregivers.”
Away from work, Stewart continues her EMS involvement in a volunteer capacity. She is active with the National Ski Patrol System, where she frequently teaches outdoor emergency care technician classes and refreshers, and mentors others. She keeps strong ties with WCU, working with Ben Tholkes, associate professor in the Parks and Recreation Management Program, conducting outdoor emergency response and wilderness safety training on campus.
Melisa McNeil ’05 MHS ’08 is director of WCU’s Emergency Medical Care Program and an assistant professor. A product of the program, McNeil is now in her second year as director. From her office in the Health and Human Sciences Building, she said with a laugh, “Once I got my bachelor’s here, I never left.” She isn’t alone. Two-thirds of the program’s faculty are WCU graduates, she said.
“I feel so incredibly lucky to have gotten involved and still be involved,” McNeil said. “The people who shaped me are now the people I work with. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. To have been educated by a leading researcher, and a medical director who took students under his wing working extra hours, and the rest of the faculty, giving their best to mold me and others…. I’ve been working with these folks for over a decade and I know I’m lucky.”
The dedication of instructors helps build the university’s reputation in the field, alumni say. Faculty tend to teach at WCU for many years and carry an institutional knowledge, as well as the best credentials in lifesaving training techniques. WCU was among the first nationally to use lifelike simulation mannequins, controlled by an instructor at a nearby computer, which presents students with a variety of patient care scenarios.
“The EMC program has been a part of my life for almost 25 years,” said Denise Wilfong ’94 MHS ’00, an assistant professor. “With the exception of medical director, I have held every single role within the program: student, alumna, part-time instructor, visiting instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, clinical coordinator and program director,” Wilfong said.
“This program and all involved with it have been and are my life. The opportunities the program offers students and alumni are invaluable over the duration of their academic and professional careers,” she said.
Trevor Goldman, a senior from Chapel Hill, was a volunteer firefighter and EMT back home in Orange County. His ambition now is to further his education and, with a degree, prepare for a long-term professional career. “With a bigger skill set comes a bigger sense of responsibility,” Goldman said. “As an EMT, it’s more gratifying when the outcomes are good and you feel more responsible. And you feel bad when it isn’t, but you know you did your best.”
A graduate’s career is not limited to the field of paramedics. Alumni may find themselves in professions such as health and safety education or work as physicians or physician assistants, as well as researchers and EMS administrators. Faculty reiterated there are many pathways from which to choose for graduates.
“Students are typically drawn to the EMC program out of a motivation to care for others,” said Michael Hubble, professor and director of graduate and distance programs. “Such motivations sometimes rise out of personal experiences such as witnessing a medical emergency and feeling ill-prepared to offer assistance. Others may have more practical and goal-oriented motivations such as entering into a field such as EMS where jobs are plentiful, or using the EMC degree as an entry mechanism into medical school or physician assistant programs.”
EMC students select a concentration in either health science or health management. A distance education option also has proven popular with working professionals and students in the military.
“We have a very large cohort of students in the distance program,” Hubble said. “As a criterion for admission, all students in the distance program must be practicing paramedics or U.S. Army special forces combat medics. Consequently, the greatest challenges for these students include balancing work and family commitments with the commitments associated with being a student. In addition, our military students may be deployed to foreign lands, including combat zones, which presents additional challenges for this student population. We try to address these challenges of our students by ensuring that they are aware of the demands of the program prior to enrolling. We also provide a higher level of support in terms of academic advising and greater flexibility in assignment deadlines.”
The EMC program stays at the cutting edge of training and technology in preparing to meet the challenges of real-world medical emergencies in a variety of roles. “As a paramedic for the past 30-plus years, my patients have taught me that there is no ‘typical’ presentation of illness or injury, and it requires an astute clinician to pick up on the oftentimes subtle clues that reveal the diagnosis,” Hubble said. “As well, my students often become my teachers. They are the ones who send me searching for answers to questions that I would likely have never considered, and by doing so, I receive the same gift of enlightenment as my students.”