Levi Johnson ran upstairs to find a woman screaming that her husband needed help.

He inspected the nonresponsive patient’s head wound. He checked vital signs. Then he got out his triage tags and ripped it off to display black — a deceased patient.

The Iowa Western Community College paramedic student made the right conclusion during a drill. The trouble was the woman, played by volunteer Kelly Mueller, who continued to yell at him and keep him from moving on to treat the patient in the next room.

“I got a little too caught up in dealing with her,” Johnson said. “I should have delegated her to law enforcement or someone else, but at least gotten her out of a situation a little quicker.”

Iowa Western paramedic students participated in a mass casualty drill Aug. 10 at the Southwest Iowa Regional Emergency Response Training Center in Council Bluffs. The drill was designed to offer students opportunities to consider factors that are easy to miss in classroom discussions.

Students participated in two scenarios: a response to a domestic terrorism attack and an apartment building struck by a tornado. In each case, the environment was full of distractions and the students had to adapt to the situation, ignore the noise and help patients receive medical attention.

“We couldn’t even tell what was going on,” student Jake Weilage said. “There were beds tipped over onto patients. There were patients pinned up against the walls.”

During the first exercise, Weilage was the treatment and transportation officer. His job was to sort patients into green, yellow and red triage areas, to treat patients prior to transporting them and to determine the order in which they’ll be taken to area hospitals.

Weilage said he learned that he needs to delegate treatment to others, particularly when more resources are available. He said he also realized midway through the exercise that he wasn’t writing down what he did, which made it challenging to verify what happened as the exercise concluded.

“I definitely overwhelmed myself,” Weilage said. “I’m definitely going to delegate more and have the medic units help treat certain areas.”

Johnson said the drill taught the importance of using backboards to prevent further injuries, as well as how to adjust and communicate with other first responders without the benefit of radios.

“When you encounter these patients, they’re scared,” Johnson said. “You’re going to need to comfort them.

Casey Hutchison, director of the paramedic program, said the students improved by the end of the drill. They halved their time in the second run, despite facing a more challenging scenario, and really learned from their mistakes.

“Hopefully, if they ever have to do this in real life, they’ll have some exposure and some familiarity,” Hutchison said. “The muscle memory is the big thing that they’re going to get from here.”

Iowa Western’s paramedic program focuses on hands-on activities, such as the mass casualty drill or a vehicle extrication exercise last Thursday, so students are ready to respond to a real crisis. Hutchison said the hybrid program offers online instruction coupled with a once-a-week lab session.

Hutchison said students don’t simply verbalize what to do, they actually do it — whether that’s starting an IV on a patient or another skill the paramedic students practice in the lab setting.

“When in a stressful situation, they rely back on their training. They’ve done these skills a hundred times over the last year in class, so it’s going to come more naturally for them,” Hutchison said.

Because of the hybrid format, the program is tailored to people who work full-time jobs and who have a family and busy lifestyles. Some students have field experience as emergency medical technicians or firefighters, while others are new to the health care industry.

“We will take any kind of student,” Hutchison said, whether that’s an emergency medical technician or a firefighter looking to take that next step or transition from a volunteer to a professional department.

In addition to the paramedic career certification, Iowa Western Continuing and Career Education also offers certificate programs in emergency medical technician, advanced EMT and emergency medical responder, in addition to firefighting, CPR and First Aid courses.

Weilage said Iowa Western’s paramedic program has made him prepared for future field experiences.

“’This program provides a variety of opportunities, and the instructors are great,” Weilage said. “They really set you up for success.”

— Scott Stewart is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. This article was prepared on behalf of Iowa Western Community College’s Division of Economic and Workforce Development.

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