This is Patrick O'Keefe
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Photo credits: Patrick and Catherine O'Keefe
Lifelong Rutherford resident and Rutherford High School graduate, Patrick O’Keefe, was recently recognized by Bergen Community College for his Bergen Courage as an EMT during the pandemic. Patrick has been an EMT in Rutherford since June 2019. This year when our area was hit the hardest with the pandemic, between March and May, Patrick volunteered over 400 hours with the Rutherford First-Aid Volunteer Ambulance Corps. This is Rutherford spoke with Patrick about his training, his service as an EMT, and his goals for the future.
TIR: Currently you are a student at Bergen Community College, what are studying there?
Patrick O’Keefe: Right now I am taking a lot of general education courses with the intention to pursue criminal justice and attend a four-year program for law enforcement.
TIR: While attending Bergen Community College full-time, you completed a rigorous program at the Bergen County EMS Training Center to become an EMT. What was it like juggling college courses and the training courses?
PO: Well I took twelve credits during the Spring semester at BCC and at the same time I attended classes at the BC EMS Training Center twice a week, from 7-10, as well as five weekend courses. It was not easy, but it was worth it. I enjoy doing this. The EMT class I took was harder than any college class I have taken so far. There was a ton to learn in not a lot of time. The BC EMS Training Center is fantastic. I had to work really hard because there are not many chances to pass. If you fail the first time, there is a remediation time before you take the test again and if you fail it a second time, you are out of the program. It's intense.
TIR: From March to May, throughout the pandemic, you spent approximately 400 hours volunteering with the Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps, which must have been very challenging. Tell us more about the emergencies you dealt with during that time.
PO: There was a lot going on, including off duty calls when second ambulances were needed. We dealt with a lot of emergencies, but around mid-April, there were many COVID related calls. In addition to those calls, there were “typical” stroke, seizure, car accident emergencies, etc. The trouble is that COVID calls take twice as long as other calls. It takes longer to gear up, transfer the patient to the hospital, and clean everything. We use an antiseptic spray and UV light treatment. We have always focused on cleaning everything, of course, but now we need to pay even more attention to every detail.
Photos below: Brian and Patrick O'Keefe, Catherine and Patrick O'Keefe, and Catherine, Brian, and Patrick.
TIR: Why did you decide to become an EMT?
PO: Both of my parents are EMTs. My dad, Brian, has been an EMT for forty-five years and my mom, Catherine, has been for thirty-five years. I grew up around it. I also always found that I remain calm in emergency situations. I excel in chaos. When everything around me seems to be going wrong I know that I can try to fix it. I joined the Ambulance Corps in February 2019 and started my six-month training. I took the National Registry EMT exam in June 2019. The test only has a 60% pass rate, so I was happy I passed the first time around.
It feels good to help others and give back to my community.
Photos below: Patrick and his classmates at the Bergen County EMS Training Center
TIR: Who has inspired you while you have been on this journey to become an EMT?
PO: I had a great teacher at the Bergen County EMS Training Center, Mr. Doug Laverty. He was like a walking textbook. I’m not a great reader, but whatever I did not understand from the book or online I could ask him. I often asked him about the most minute details and I got his insight. The students in my class were really smart and we all helped each other out. My close friend, Emily, and I bounced ideas off each other. We got each other through the class. Some of the students in my class had the opportunity to ride along on some EMS calls before they started the class so I felt like they knew a little more. We don’t do that in Rutherford, so I asked a lot of questions to learn more about what I hadn’t been exposed to yet. I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do this on my own, so I did not even really ask my parents for help. Fortunately, the BC EMS Training Center is one of the best and they are very strict with guidelines and procedures. I left my training there feeling like I was ready to roll.
TIR: What have you learned from your experiences as an EMT so far?
PO: My heart rate used to go through the roof every time I heard a call. My first real call was a non-emergent call and it was a good experience because I realized I could handle it. After going on so many calls now, my heart rate does not go up like that anymore. There is not quite as much adrenaline pumping. As EMTs, we remain calm and sometimes people think that means we do not care. That is not the case at all. We know that when people call 911, it is their biggest emergency, but for us, it is most likely not our biggest emergency. We feel confident that we know what to do. If we are relaxed, the family members who are with the patient stay calm.
The ability to multitask is really important too. I always have to be thinking about what I will do when I get to the scene, who will be with me on the call, and I have to be tuned into the calls that are coming in and directions that are being given. There is a lot going on at once.
As EMTs, we work as a team when we are out on a call or preparing to go out on a call. We all have learned to rely on each other and how to communicate with each other quickly and effectively. I have heard that people tend to bond more quickly when they are put in emergency situations and I think that is true.
Something else I think that many do not realize is that there is a real physical aspect when it comes to being an EMT. We are required to be able to lift a 180-pound person. Not too many people are only 180 pounds, so we are typically lifting more than 180 pounds. If someone is unconscious, he/she is dead weight and we might be carrying him or her down many flights of stairs. Sometimes we are woken in the middle of the night, which makes it even harder to step up to the physical challenges right away. Not everyone thinks about the physical demands of what we do, but there are definitely many.
I have always thought our police department was great, but now as an EMT who works with them on calls, I truly see how fantastic they are. The Rutherford Police Department officers are super helpful on every call. They assist us with lifting patients, carrying bags and apparatus, etc. I cannot speak highly enough of our police department. There are with us at every scene and we are so grateful for their assistance.
TIR: Are there other aspects of your training that those who are not EMTs may not realize?
PO: As EMTs, we are always trying to solve the puzzle. Even though we are not doctors or nurses, we have been trained to notice important details when we are assisting a patient. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, EMT training was more basic and it dealt with things like CPR, wrapping injuries, splints, etc, but now we are learning a lot more. We have to complete twenty-four hours of continuing education courses (electives) every two to three years (two years for those of us who are part of the National Registry, like me) in addition to our twenty-four hours of core classes. There are also other very specific courses available at many of the hospitals that deal with topics such as strokes, cardiac issues, and summer emergencies. We are often learning about a higher level of care that we as EMTs can’t actually administer. I can’t operate out of my scope of practice. I can always use what I know to try to figure out what is going on to best help the patient. If my partner and I see something before or while we transport the patient we can tell the hospital what we have noticed which might help save them some time and time is crucial.
TIR: What are your goals for the future as a member of the Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps?
PO: I love attending festivals and events, like Touch a Truck, so I hope that I can start doing those again. It is a great way to be visible in the community and to teach people about what we do. My first event was the fireworks display at Memorial field last summer. It is really good for the community to see ambulances out and about when it is not an emergency situation, like down at the field during a baseball or football game. People don’t always fully understand what we do. I love it when people ask questions and want to learn more. I am proud of what I do, so I never mind explaining more about it.
I am not eligible yet, but eventually, I would like to be an officer with the Ambulance Corps. I want to be in a position where I can do even more and help us recruit more younger people. It is important to keep finding young recruits and to do that we also need to have quality equipment. Volunteers don’t want to have to deal with older, outdated equipment. We currently have a brand new ambulance and a refurbished ambulance. The more knowledgeable people we can bring in to be part of our team the better. I want to help make sure that we stick around for a long time and keep us in a position where we can keep our doors open. The Ambulance Corps has been around for over seventy years and has always had the most dedicated volunteers. I want to make sure I am part of this for a long time and that I can encourage others to become a part of it too.