Oregon City reunion celebrates transition to lifesavers
About 55 people who were directly involved in the Oregon-born movement to revolutionize emergency care recently got together for a reunion in Clackamas County.
Following the invention of the portable defibrillator, Oregonians advocated for the creation of non-physician emergency responders. These emergency medical technicians, previously only known as "ambulance drivers," had previously banded together to reduce mortality rates by empowering first responders to be trained to recognize basic symptoms and treat patients.
Starting in the late 1960s, visionary doctors and ambulance personnel worked together to increase the level of care that cardiac patients received. In a period of a few years the EMS system was transformed from male ambulance attendants rushing people to hospitals, with little to no medical care on route, to a system of both male and female paramedics trained in advanced lifesaving techniques administering care in the field.
Last month retired Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Executive Officer Alec Jensen was among the alumni of Buck and Willamette Falls ambulance companies who gathered to reconnect over breakfast in Oregon City. Jensen, who had previously served in supervisor and manager roles for Buck from 1981-91, said the return of Vietnam medics, who had enjoyed broad autonomy, partially inspired the notion that more could be done in the field during those critical first minutes of a trauma or medical emergency.
"While all workgroups have their legacy, ours was the transition from 'ambulance drivers' to a bona fide, respectable and recognized component of the health care delivery system," Jensen said.
Oregon documentary filmmaker Denise O'Halloran, who began her career as an EMT in the 1970s, has made two films about the pioneers in EMS, including 2019's "Endlessly Persistent: The Story of America's First Female Paramedics," detailing how some of the first female paramedics professionalized during the 1970s at private companies in Oregon, finding more freedom there than trying to enter the profession as firefighters.
O'Halloran said their entry into this new, male-dominated field, shaped by the lessons of Vietnam, shocked patients, fellow providers and even hospital staff. Women's success as EMT pioneers required exquisite care and thick skin, she added.
In a 2018 documentary titled "The Rose City Experiment," O'Halloran explored how Portland-area companies led Oregon to become a pioneering state in the national 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.
O'Halloran said that America's emergency medical system as we know it today started taking place in about 1969, in response to a 1966 expose by British physician Frank Pantridge, who documented how having no one available to provide care at the scene of emergencies led to higher death rates among U.S. citizens.
"(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-based Buck Ambulance and spent time throughout 1969 teaching the drivers — with the help of coronary care nurses — to deliver emergency care to Oregon residents. All of the coronary care nurses were women, and that helped lead women into the EMT field.
The new system proved effective and soon included Oregon City-based Willamette Falls Ambulance. The newly formed emergency responders saved a man who suffered a heart attack in downtown Portland on Dec. 23, 1969. The incident was the first out-of-hospital defibrillation, and the patient continued to live normally for years.
Following Oregon's lead, 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. Jensen said former Buck Ambulance owner Dennis Marsh, who died last year, was the catalyst for a reunion of those involved in ambulance companies that become part of today's American Medical Response in the early 1990s.
One attendee of the Dec. 10 reunion at the Rivershore Hotel started with Buck in the 1960s, while another, who still works for AMR, has worked in EMS for more than 40 years. Others transitioned to become paramedics, cops, firefighters, nurses or 911 dispatchers.
"In one fashion or another, most of us remained in some form of health care or public safety throughout our careers," Jensen said.
Attendees recalled how, to benefit patients with better emergency care, they had to earn the trust of a skeptical medical community.
"We developed educational curriculum and patient treatment protocols enabling us to recognize and intervene during those critical early moments," Jensen said. "Certainly not attracted by the wages, it was an opportunity to be part of something that was developing very quickly. An interest in public service and helping others notwithstanding, we were a cross between cowboys and pioneers."
Often serving 48-hour shifts, the EMS pioneers would spend more time with their work partners than with their families.
"We bonded through trauma, excitement, inspiration, the drive to do better and, often, complete exhaustion," Jensen said.
Having previously worked as an "ambulance driver," the owner of Buck Ambulance, a Gladstone resident, knew how important it was for paramedics to get recognition and support for their work in saving lives.
"Though an entrepreneur and a risktaker, Dennis knew that success, in this rapidly evolving industry, meant supporting the mission," Jensen said. "He loved knowing that we were doing good things and he supported us with the tools necessary to pull it off. Dennis got great joy from knowing we saved lives for a living."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.