Taking Calls, Saving Lives

Jul 24, 2018

If you experience a medical emergency in the middle of the night, Owen Shaw may be one of the people who comes to help. Shaw is a paramedic for the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority, or REMSA, which serves Washoe County. Students at the Reynolds School of Journalism went out with Shaw one night as he responded to calls. Here’s his story:

From a young age, Owen Shaw remembers wanting to be a hero.

Shaw, 32, was born at the Clark’s Air Force Base in the Philippines, where his father was serving in the U.S. the military. When he was about three, Shaw and his family made the move to the United States.

Shaw grew up in East Los Angeles with his mother. His parents divorced and his father didn’t keep in touch, but the impact his dad’s military career had on him was something he often thought about.

“My biological father and his side of the family were all military. I felt that I needed to - I was obligated - to serve,” said Shaw.

After graduating from high school, Shaw went on to work at a local veterans hospital and then went on to serve in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps before becoming a paramedic.

With three specialties in “quad zero,” working for a naval hospital, combat, and dental, Shaw’s military service ended in December of 2013 when he decided to settle down with his wife, Breonna Shaw, in Virginia to start their own family. This was the beginning of the transition from Shaw’s extensive military service and his service for civilian and regional EMS.

A paramedic has the autonomy to administer medication when a patient is in need and shock the heart when necessary - this sets paramedics and their developed training apart from EMTs.

Credit Jazmin Orozco-Rodriguez

Shaw recently passed paramedic training for the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority, or REMSA, a month ago. REMSA is the exclusive ground emergency medical services provider for the Reno, NV Washoe County area. Shaw worked the night shift at REMSA for about a year, serving the community from 5:45 p.m. to 5:45 a.m., a 12-hour shift. Shaw’s responsibilities as a paramedic include responding to emergency calls, performing medical services, and transporting patients to medical facilities.

According to Shaw, a person working the night shift for REMSA may average about six to seven calls a night.

The majority of calls a paramedic like Shaw will receive are “Trauma - Non MVA” calls, at 24.1 percent for the Washoe County area, according to REMSA’s statistics. A “Non MVA” call is any kind of trauma accident that is not motor vehicle accident-related. This can include falling off of a building, a mountain bike crash, or a penetrating injury.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says emergency medical technician (EMT) and paramedic jobs, “can be physically strenuous and stressful, sometimes involving life-or-death situations.”

“So, this one time, we got a call for a gunshot to an individual," Shaw said, recalling a particularly dangerous call. "It was unknown if there was any other shooters or if the shooter was in the area,” he said.

In situations like those, Shaw and his partner put their lives on the line, risking that the shooter might be hiding behind nearby brush and attack.

For how dangerous and stressful the job is, the BLS says the 2017 median income for an EMT or paramedic is only $33,380 per year, below the $37,690 median for all occupations. However, employment of EMTs and paramedics is projected to grow 15% from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Shaw thinks that to work in emergency medical services, you have to be a kind of thrill seeker.

“There's a big adrenaline rush,” he said. And this is partially why he loves his job.

But while he loves some aspects, he also struggles with others.

“I think the hardest part of the job is not being able to help a person who needs or who is requesting the help in the first place,” said Shaw.

The most frightening calls for Shaw are the ones in which he and his team have to respond to other first-responders who have been wounded or injured. According to him, there’s a greater sense of immediacy and responsibility in responding to a peer.

“I think the more critical calls, the ones that give me the chills and a lot of nervousness, is responding to police officers who have been shot or firefighters who've been hurt,” he said.

“You want to provide the best care for them and sometimes they’re caught in a situation. It's more of 'letting them down' kind of thing I'm afraid of.”

To combat the difficult emotions that arise from strenuous situations, Shaw keeps an open line of communication with his team.

“We share stories with one another. Some calls can be really bad. I know of a particular individual who responded to a baby being born and it wasn't breathing, so that was very traumatic mentally for her and for what she did. She talked about it with a lot of people who provided some kind of comfort that helped her out and helped her get through it,” said Shaw.

Credit Jazmin Orozco-Rodriguez

Shaw finds his work as a paramedic for REMSA sincerely fulfilling in the sense that he has the power and knowledge to alleviate others’ physical problems or pains. While he does not attempt to be heroic in the situations he finds himself in, he simply wants to help others. Ultimately, he finds that aspect heroic in and of itself.

Shaw said REMSA won’t be his last stop, either. He is currently attending classes to become a physician assistant; however, he says that he doesn’t plan on leaving EMS and intends to work with a trauma team in the future as a physician assistant until he is able to officially retire, having served and helped others during the entirety of his career, something he aspired to do.

This story was produced by Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism. She participated in the NPR Next Generation Radio program and says the experience taught her to step out of her comfort zone while reporting in the field.