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Juniors Emery Allshouse, Krey Grant, and Addison Wolden simulate transporting a patient with a spinal injury on Feb. 3, 2022, at Denver South High School as part of a third-level EMT class. The main curriculum is approaching its third year of practice and covers topics like anatomy, biology, epidemiology, and field practice in emergency medicine. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Samantha Rudnick has been fly-fishing since she was 2 and has spent more time off the grid in the mountains than just about anywhere else. Now, the mountains offer her the kind of escape that helps her cope with all the stress that comes with being a teenager living and studying in Denver and trying to make sense of the world amid a pandemic. But she also knows the danger lurking within the calm of the wilderness.

“With the outdoors do come a lot of risks,” Rudnick, 16, said.

And she’s ready to meet them head on. Thanks to a new emergency medical services class at Denver South High School — part of a medical health sciences program — Rudnick can perform life-saving tasks such as performing CPR, checking blood pressure and dressing a wound.

As one of about 55 students at her high school studying emergency medical services through a program piloted with help from Denver Health, Rudnick is already training toward her career, with her sights set on working as an emergency medical technician in a national park.

The high school acts as a satellite location of Denver Health’s paramedic school, preparing students to respond to moments of peril and ultimately save lives. Piquing students’ interest in emergency medical roles has become more critical during the pandemic, especially in recent months as Colorado’s hospitals have struggled to keep up with the pace of COVID patients and those needing emergency medical attention for accidents and other diseases.

“We’re seeing people leave the health care industry across the board, and that includes emergency medical services,” said Justin Harper, assistant chief paramedic with Denver Health. “And so the need to get people interested in this field and certified to be ready to work in this field, prepared for a job in emergency medical services is very important.”

Samatha Rudnick takes Paul Wilson’s blood pressure on Feb. 3, 2022, at South Denver High School as part of a third-level EMT class. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Hospitals, fire departments and EMS agencies have all reported workforce shortages amid the pandemic, as EMTs and paramedics have bounced between workplaces in pursuit of better pay and more flexibility and as employees have rethought how they want to spend their time and their careers, said Scott Sholes, president of the Emergency Medical Services Association of Colorado and EMS chief of Durango Fire-Rescue.

Sholes said he can’t quantify the state’s shortage of EMS workers, but he has seen plenty of hiring signs.

“Pretty much everybody’s hiring, and that’s really telling for us,” he said.

Sholes noted that more EMS workers have been more inclined to move around, chasing opportunities for higher pay. There are wide gaps in compensation between rural and metro regions as well as between skill levels, with fire departments requiring more training for paramedics and offering better pay. A paramedic working for a fire station in Durango could make $20,000 less than someone in the same position in the Denver metro area, Sholes said. 

“Just like everything that we’re seeing in the workforce right now, you’ve got to pay people a living wage,” he said. “To make those positions attractive, we’re going to have to find funding to recruit and retain them.”

Sholes added that the cost of attaining an EMT or paramedic certification is another barrier to drawing more emergency responders into the field. EMT classes can run as much as $2,500, which includes certification, he said.

Denver South High School students who complete medical health sciences courses don’t have to take any other EMT classes on the path to certification, giving them a head start. As soon as they turn 18, they can take the skills they’ve gained in high school and apply them to a practicum assessment at Denver Health — in which they are given 15 minutes to diagnose and treat a patient in an emergency simulation — followed by a written exam. They must pass both to become certified. Denver Health covers the cost of their certification, said Alexa Schlechter, an assistant principal who oversees the high school’s program. 

That’s encouraging to Sholes, who said high school programs that acquaint students with health care careers are “vital” to overcoming workforce shortages, particularly at a time agencies’ ambulances and fire stations have faced the threat of shutting down because they simply didn’t have enough emergency responders.

Among the skills needed to respond to an emergency: empathy

For some students, like Rudnick, the emergency medical services class is priming them for an adrenaline-filled career focused on stabilizing patients in the thick of tragedy. For others, it’s a stepping stone on a path to another career in medicine.

The program centers on “creating an opportunity for these students to not only explore health care careers but also come out of their experience with an actual certification,” Harper said.

Denver South High School launched a medical health sciences vocational program in fall 2019 after students expressed an interest in exploring health care fields, Schlechter said. The school rolled out two medical health science classes in the past two years and introduced a course tailored specifically to emergency medical services in the fall in partnership with Denver Health, which operates another satellite program at Denver Public Schools’ CEC Early College. Class curriculum comes from Denver Health, which also trains the high school teachers instructing students. Those students are able to apply credits from their medical health sciences classes toward health science careers to the Metropolitan State University of Denver, Schlechter said.

Juniors Emery Allshouse and Mayson Osterloo simulate CPR on a patient on Feb. 3, 2022, at Denver South High School. The main curriculum is approaching its third year of practice and covers topics like anatomy, biology, epidemiology, and field practice in emergency medicine. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The high school relies on industry partners “to bring learning to life for students,” she said, adding, “they have resources beyond what we could ever provide here at the school.”

The school plans to pair students with professionals in a field of study they’re interested in, such as pediatric neurosurgery, and also help students complete certifications in phlebotomy and medical assisting this fall, Schlechter noted.

Ryan Loesch, who teaches emergency medical services classes along with one other educator at Denver South High School, enlivens his classroom lessons with a life-size dummy strapped to a spine board that students work with as they practice responding to emergency scenarios. His classroom is also equipped with another mannequin that students can use to practice administering CPR.

Along with learning how to take a patient’s vitals, resuscitate them, and bandage any wounds, his students have studied skin diseases and respiratory diseases and covered how to treat someone with diabetes. They will soon look at how to identify a stroke victim, Loesch said, noting all those skills are covered in basic EMT courses. Through the medical health sciences classes, students can also become certified as an electrocardiograph technician after learning how to read an electrocardiogram, which evaluates a patient’s heart. Additionally, they can take a test to become nationally certified as an EMT.

Loesch makes his classes as interactive as possible. Last semester, when students were enrolled in Medical Health Sciences 3, they capped the class with a final exam that challenged them to assess a patient and diagnose them based on a set of clues Loesch offered — similar to a practicum assessment they would take when applying for their EMT certification. He likes to throw curveballs with his clues to truly test students’ depth of knowledge.

“Not everything is going to present to them in a perfect manner where they can just say, ‘this is the disorder,’” he said.

Paul Wilson, a senior with ambitions to become a pediatrician, has practiced taking his classmates’ blood pressure so many times that he could almost do it with his eyes closed. The medical health sciences classes he’s taken at Denver South have teased out his passion for medicine and helped him master skills that many of his peers don’t encounter until later in life, such as checking vital signs.

“I’ll know how to do it better and more routinely than other kids that don’t have this class,” Wilson, 17, said.

Loesch also works to deepen his learning beyond class lectures, textbook assignments and practice with clinical skills to make sure students are well versed in the power of empathy on the job. Loesch teaches his students the importance of communicating with patients, listening to their concerns, speaking up if they are older and calming them if they appear agitated. Those aspects of communication aren’t always fully developed in higher schoolers, he said.

Paul Wilson and Kynan Renshaw simulate CPR on a patient on Feb. 3, 2022, at Denver South High School as part of a third-level EMT class. The main curriculum is approaching its third year of practice and covers topics like anatomy, biology, epidemiology, and field practice in emergency medicine. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“At the end of the day, they are going out in the real world, and these people are going to be in real-life situations and they have to think about that,” Loesch said.

Rudnick, who hopes to become an EMT in Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park or Grand Teton National Park after having spent many childhood weekends and vacations in Rocky Mountain National Park, embraces her own sense of empathy and simply wants to help people, which she is feeling more prepared to do after the lessons she’s gleaned from her coursework.

“I think a lot of the good in the world is overlooked constantly,” she said. “Being able to know that you’re helping someone and having the opportunity to learn about that even just as a teenager, I think it’s important to recognize.”

And even if Denver South high schoolers studying emergency medical services don’t wind up spending their careers in the back of an ambulance or tending to patients in an emergency room, they’ll carry forward some skills that could come in handy.

“If they get nothing else out of it,” Harper said, “they’ll learn how to save a life.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:50 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022 to correct the spelling of Krey Grant’s name.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...