From drivers to life savers
When Denise O'Halloran set out to create a documentary film detailing how women started working as paramedics, she discovered that females — in the late 1960s and early 1970s — entered the field at the same time ambulance services in Oregon were beginning to properly train first responders.
While still focused on how women got into the business, her film "The Rose City Experiment" also documents the Portland story of how the emergency medical response system changed from barely trained ambulance drivers tossing patients into Cadillacs and rushing them to the hospital, into the current care system staffed with fully trained emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
In the early 1970s, O'Halloran was a pioneering female EMT, working initially for private company Buck Ambulance. She now works for American Medical Response and teaches EMT classes.
One of her students sparked the idea for a documentary.
"I had a female student approach me, and she asked me 'Were you one of the first female paramedics?'"
O'Halloran responded she wasn't quite among the first, but realized she'd worked with a few women who were. The query made her ponder how she might deliver that narrative.
"That's kind of the spark, it got me thinking 'Wow! This might be something a lot of these young women coming through would be curious about,'" she said.
O'Halloran reached out to Gresham firefighter and paramedic Pat McAbery, who owns video production company Sight & Sound Services in Welches. He agreed to take part, and they established an impromptu filming studio in O'Halloran's garage.
"We set it up and put Walmart black sheets up on the back wall, and Trader Joe's bags covering any light," O'Halloran recalled. "The fact that these people trusted us, I still marvel at that. My living room was the green room where they sat in there and waited."
The homespun environment also led to her dog's tail accidentally making it into a few frames of the film.
Before the creation of EMT positions, only doctors were allowed to provide medical care. That led to a time when the most important task for ambulance drivers was to get patients to a hospital as quickly as possible.
When the documentarians heard the names of those who advocated for a new way of providing care services, they realized they knew many of the doctors and key stakeholders involved.
"I'm not sure either of us realized the shoulders we had been standing on because we were working with a lot of these guys who started all of this," O'Halloran said.
In Portland, the transformation also dovetailed with the Vietnam War. Veterans of the conflict with first aid training found if they went to work for an ambulance service, they were banned from using their first response training.
"Some were saying 'I could do this in the jungle, but I can't to it here,'" McAbery said. "Then there was a time when these guys were trained to do very specific cardiac events, but weren't allowed to do the same kinds of treatments for non-cardiac things — you could start IVs and somebody who's having a heart problem, but we can't start IVs on someone who's bleeding."
Before women entered the field, a 1966 research document — dubbed the white paper — was published in the National Academy of Sciences, detailing problems with having no one available to provide care at the scene of an emergency.
"It was kind of an exposé document about U.S. citizens who were dying at higher levels in traumatic accidents," McAbery noted.
The author, British physician Frank Pantridge, who invented the portable defibrillator, advocated for the creation of non-physician cardiac staff emergency responders.
"(He argued that) we could save more people because cardiac disease was the No. 1 cause of death," O'Halloran said. "Many men of that era didn't make it to 50 sometimes."
Pantridge attempted to build his own ambulance service staffed with nurses and doctors.
A pioneering state with the emergency medical system, Oregon was one of the earliest states to allow EMTs to provide emergency cardiac care without a doctor's "phone" or emergency radio supervision.
Physicians in the cities of Miami and Los Angeles liked the general idea of a staffed ambulance service, but O'Halloran noted it was prohibitively expensive to operate ambulances with the higher-paid personnel.
"(Pantridge's) idea was, what if we took people who were already on duty for their job — in his mind, ambulance drivers — and what if you said, 'We're going to train them how to do this stuff,'" O'Halloran said. "'I think they can learn how to start IVs; I think they can learn how to give the medications.'"
In Portland, cardiologist Dr. Leonard Rose had a similar idea to Pantridge's. Rose selected a few ambulance drivers from Portland's Buck Ambulance and spent time throughout 1969 teaching the drivers — with the help of coronary care nurses — to deliver emergency care to Portland residents. All of the coronary care nurses were women, and that helped lead women into the EMT field.
The new system proved effective. The newly formed emergency responders saved a man who suffered a heart attack at the Portland Clinic in downtown Portland on Dec. 23, 1969. The incident was the first time a heart attack victim was saved in the field and continued to live normally for years.
Since then, most government fire departments in the U.S. are staffed with trained first responders who provide emergency first aid, and are well versed in CPR.
"The (emergency medical system) as we know it today in the United States started taking place in about 1969," O'Halloran said. "It was all happening at once, and I think it was because of Dr. Pantridge."
About the filmmakers
Pat McAbery has been a firefighter and paramedic for the Gresham Fire Department since 1992.
His mother and sister earned their EMT licensure in the early 1970s.
When McAbery was 7 years old, his mom responded to calls while he was at home, and sometimes he rode along on emergency calls
Denise O'Halloran is a paramedic working for American Medical Response. She worked with women in the 1970s who were the first female paramedics and still teaches emergency medical technician classes.
"The Rose City Experiment," the pair's documentary about the formation of modern emergency technicians in the Portland area, is available for download at Amazon.
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