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Penn’s MERT Program Celebrates 10 Years of Students Helping Students

MERT infographic 2016Should you ever experience a medical emergency, college students on bikes might not be what you’d expect to see pulling up to your house. But, in University City, often times those students on bikes – who are actually highly trained and skilled members of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) – are the first line of defense, arriving on scene to assess patient conditions, deliver initial treatments, and stabilize patients until police and/or an ambulance arrives.

In 2012, the Penn’s MERT program became the first of its kind in the Philadelphia region to be recognized as a Quick Response Service by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. What started in 2006 as a small team of trained students answering 22 medical calls during Penn’s Spring Fling weekend has today become an organization fully funded and supported by the University's Vice Provost for University Life, the University's Department of Public Safety, Fox Leadership, and the Undergraduate Assembly, with housing provided by the Quad’s Residential Services. MERT also contributes to its funds through staffing recreational sport events and university events such as Alumni Days, as well as teaching CPR classes.

I sat down with Penn senior and MERT Chief Hannah Peifer, to learn more about these heroic student volunteers and how the program has grown over the past decade.

Q: First of all, thanks so much for taking the time and congratulations on celebrating 10 years of the program.

A: Thank you so much. This is such an exciting time to be part of the MERT program. Not only has it grown tremendously over the past 10 years, but we also faced some major events in Philadelphia – from the Papal visit in 2015, to this year’s high-profile commencement which was attended by both Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden – where our volunteers are able to play a critical role. It was a great way to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the program.

Q: Yes, and I want to get to the program’s involvement in those events, but can you first tell me a little bit about the volunteers and the training you all go through? Throughout the year the team responds to a lot of cases of over-intoxication, but you also treat many other incredibly serious injuries and illnesses. What kind of training does that require and what kind of conditions do you treat?

A: MERT takes training very seriously. As a collegiate EMS organization, it’s critical that each and every one of our members maintains their knowledge base and skills so they are prepared to respond to any type of call that might come in, whether it be a traumatic injury such as a sprain, fracture, or burn, or a medical emergency such as a seizure, cardiac arrest, or emergency childbirth. Though we don’t respond to some of those scenarios often, we have in the past, and therefore need to be sure that our volunteers are trained to handle those situations at any given moment. We treat any individual on our campus, not just students.

We also believe that we can always improve, even for situations that we encounter regularly. EMS is never textbook scenario. Our members attend training sessions led by our Training Officer every week throughout the Fall and Spring academic semesters, as well as longer trainings several times throughout the year for large scale events, like Spring Fling.

Q: How do volunteers respond to calls and what kind of equipment do responders carry?

A: Volunteers travel on bikes in teams of two or three. Because our primary coverage area centers around Penn’s campus, we’re often the first on the scene, so it’s absolutely critical that we have equipment on hand that can stabilize and care for a patient until an ambulance arrives. MERT volunteers carry just about everything that can be found in the back of a Basic Life Support Ambulance including an Automated External Defibrillator, blood pressure cuffs and other vital sign monitoring equipment, splints, obstetric kits, burn dressings, and occlusive dressings (for a penetrating or open wound on the chest, abdomen, or neck). We also carry supplies of aspirin, glucose, epinephrine auto injectors, and oxygen, to name a few.

Q: Let’s talk about some of the recent city-wide events. What kind of special preparations was MERT involved in and how did the team contribute to the Papal visit?

A: MERT was very fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in the Pope’s Visit last fall. We sent 22 EMTs over a two-day period to the Parkway on bicycles. We worked very closely with the Philadelphia Fire Department under the guidance of the Alvin Wang, DO, an assistant professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine and the program’s medical director, and Eugene Janda, chief of Fire and Emergency Services, to plan for the event. The members who volunteered attended training sessions to become familiar with the layout of the event, the communication and command structure, and refresh their skills for treating common medical conditions and issues that arise in large crowds with diversified demographics.

Speaking from personal experience, it was a phenomenal opportunity to be a part of such a large response. Throughout the weekend, our top priority was to ensure that our campus was still covered by our crews. That’s always our priority, but is especially important during a weekend like that when city resources are stretched thin.

Q: With the increase of large-scale events in the city, and also increasing Mass Casualty Incidents (MCI), has the team been involved in disaster response training at all?

A: Every fall our Disaster Response Team (DRT) Officer plans a day long MCI Drill. This officer works very closely with the Division of Public Safety and members of the Philadelphia Fire Department to plan and practice a unified response should an MCI take place on Penn’s campus. Our Disaster Response Team Officer also holds trainings throughout the year to ensure that our members maintain their knowledge base regarding Incident Command Structure, triage, and also potential injuries caused by large-scale incidents (from bombs to chemical contaminants). MERT also attends the University City Steering Emergency Preparedness meetings. This year, our DRT Officer is working to coordinate first receiver training so that our members could potentially volunteer at a hospital location in triage should a large scale event occur. Many of our members are also registered with the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps which calls on volunteers to cover large events, such as the Pope’s visit.

Q: MERT is comprised of student volunteers at all levels – from the EMTs, to the leadership – but you’ve mentioned a few organizations that support the program. Can you talk a bit about the overall structure and how the University and other groups help guide the direction of the program?

A: MERT prides itself in being a student-run organization, but that does not mean that we are not supported by many individuals and departments within the University. We work very closely with many advisors and supporters to provide our service. We have an Advisory Board with members from various offices that offers feedback, networking, advice, and support. Dr. Wang is a member of this advisory board and as our Medical Director, he advises and oversees our operations, offering invaluable advice. We also work with Student Health Services, the Office of Student Affairs, Alcohol and Other Drugs, Risk Management, and Campus Recreation. Recently, we have increased collaboration with Drexel EMS and Temple EMS to learn from and train with one another.

Most notably, we work extremely closely with the Division of Public Safety to meet our common goal of ensuring the health and safety of the Penn community. Penn Police Officers respond to each of our calls to ensure the safety of both our patients and our volunteers.

Q: Outside of the medical training that MERT provides to volunteers who may be interested in a career in medicine, how do you think the program prepares students for life after Penn?

A: There’s definitely an obvious link between clinical care as an EMT and an interest in a career in the medical field, but I would caution people to understand that not all EMTs or MERT volunteers are interested in a medical career beyond that of an EMT. We have members who are nursing students and pre-med, but we also have members who are studying business, computer science, and philosophy, politics, and economics. 

Working in EMS is a constant exercise in learning to think on your feet. Calls are never textbook, and no two are the same. Each and every time the radio goes off, you have to take your baseline knowledge and past experience and apply that while improvising and adapting quickly to the unique situation at hand. That is something that you learn over time with experience and it is something that you can always improve.

The one thing that our members all have in common is a genuine desire to serve the Penn Community. Beyond the early exposure to basic clinical care and patient interaction (which I absolutely love), this organization teaches invaluable interpersonal, organizational, and leadership skills that are applicable to a career in almost any field.

Q: Looking back on your time in the program, how have you seen it grow?

A: MERT has grown tremendously over the years, both in the time that I’ve been a part of it but also since its founding in 2006. It took three years just to get the program on its feet, as there was initially a lot of concern around the liability that the University might be taking on. Since its founding on April 6, 2006, MERT has become an integral service within the Penn Community and is praised by countless administrators, demonstrating that the exceptional service provided over the years nullifies any preexisting fears of giving students such a big responsibility.

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