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EMS Services Around The Country Vulnerable

Jerrid Soupir hadn’t been feeling well before he went limp and fell to the ground while playing a baseball game. What Soupir, then 46, thought was a summer cold ended in cardiac arrest, NBC News reports. Cardiac arrest can be fatal when individuals do not get timely help. Hebron, North Dakota, where Soupir collapsed, does not have a hospital. The closest is 60 miles away in Bismarck.

In fact, when someone calls 911, there isn’t even a law that requires anyone in Hebron to answer the phone. Like so many other low-income, rural communities across the country, the small town’s ambulance runs on altruism alone.

Like hospitals and other providers, ambulatory services around the country have been shuttering at record numbers. Even more are struggling to stay open and require states to step in with additional funding. Roughly 60 million Americans, like Soupir, are now at risk of being stranded in a medical emergency.

In Hebron, like a growing number cities, the ambulance services are now run entirely by volunteers. Steven Maershbecker owns the town grocery store and is the squad leader for the town’s EMS. Maershbecker says that volunteering and giving 120 percent of themselves is just something people do in towns like his. Still, he says that it is difficult to have enough staff to keep the ambulance service running 24/7.

Marmarth, North Dakota, just two hours from Hebron, is at risk of losing its emergency medical service. The town, which has a population of 143, has 12 EMS workers who work in pairs and alternate 12 hour shifts on a voluntary basis. Erick Hartse is one of them.

“We’ve been relying on volunteers to be the backbone in EMS for a long time, and unfortunately, that needs to change,” Hartse, 30, said. “Could you imagine being a volunteer doctor? It’s unfathomable.” …

“Can you imagine sitting in a place and dialing 911 and not having anybody show up?” he asked. “That’s very difficult for me to sit back and try to accept.”

Not only are rural areas more at risk of losing providers, they also have populations that are more vulnerable to health issues. When young and healthy residents leave rural areas for more urban ones, the population left in the small towns are often poorer, older adults who are more likely to have heart attacks, strokes, or other emergencies. It also leaves fewer people to volunteer for services that respond to those emergencies.

“As the population in these communities shrinks, you’ve got a finite pool of people who are willing to volunteer,” said Wayne Denny, chief of Idaho’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services and Preparedness.

Monetary cost also limits who can volunteer. Even at the most basic of levels, EMS training can cost hundreds of dollars and is typically paid for by the volunteers themselves.

Andy Gineapp, the head of the Office of Emergency Medical Services for the Wyoming Department of Health, says that these issues have many rural EMS “hanging on by the skin of their teeth.” When an EMS service shutters, even temporarily, it puts more pressures on surrounding services. It also means that consumers have farther to travel for help.

Luckily, despite Hebron’s lack of hospital or guaranteed emergency services, Soupir was in the right place at the right time when he suffered his cardiac arrest.

At the game that night were not one, but two people who worked with the local ambulance service. A third player had a CPR kit in his car. A fourth emergency worker happened to be out on her evening walk by the park. And a nurse was able to start an IV right there on the field.

The volunteer’s efforts that day kept Soupir alive.


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