In case of emergency

It’s a familiar scene to Aggie football fans: more than 109,000 spectators descend on Kyle Field, drawn by the promise of an electrifying night game against an elite opponent in the Alabama Crimson Tide. There’s excitement in the October air, which is still tenaciously warm and stiflingly humid. As pregame rituals commence and throngs of fans file into their seats, a few dozen people in uniform quietly weave in and out of the crowd. Depending on their temperament, they might strike up light conversation here and there, but each of them keeps an ever-watchful eye on their surroundings, always prepared to jump into action at a moment’s notice.

For the dedicated staff of Texas A&M University Emergency Medical Services (TAMU EMS), football games are opportunities to put plans into practice and get meaningful experience in a constantly shifting environment. “We start planning on staffing for a season about a year in advance,” said Michael Middleton, TAMU EMS’ associate director. “On gameday weekend, we need to respond to anything the game throws at us as well as any calls from the rest of campus. For something like the Alabama game, we’ll probably start receiving more calls around Wednesday, and they’ll just keep coming in until Sunday night.”

To most of us, running this gauntlet of big and small emergencies in a loud, crowded environment would severely test our nerves. But to those who staff these events, including many current and former students, gameday is the time to shine.

“Aggies serving Aggies”

For how essential it is to our society, EMS as we know it is a surprisingly modern concept. A groundbreaking 1966 report from the National Academy of Sciences painted a troubling picture of America before modern EMS. Back then, standards for ambulance services and emergency care varied between states, counties and cities, leading to unnecessary deaths and aggravated injuries. The same so-called “White Paper” paved the way for sweeping improvements to EMS across the country over the following decades. Today, Americans experiencing an emergency can call 911 and confidently assume they’ll receive care from trained professionals in a well-equipped, standardized ambulance.

At Texas A&M in 1976, though, there was no dedicated EMS for Aggie students, faculty and staff. The College Station Fire Department handled all emergency calls but did not have the resources to place ambulances directly on campus or staff the university’s many large gatherings. Jim Persons ’78, a health education student at the time, regularly volunteered to assist his professor, Laura Kitzmiller, and a group of other medical students in providing medical support at football games, races at Texas World Speedway and other crowded events around the area.

“We started with about five students bringing a first-aid kit,” Persons remembered. “After a while, we began looking into putting together a student organization.” Together, the students created the Texas A&M Emergency Care Team (ECT), with unpaid volunteers training themselves and others on CPR and other life-saving procedures to answer emergency calls on campus. Early on, they had barely enough equipment to fill a small closet in the A.P. Beutel Health Center’s basement. When the group acquired its first ambulance in 1980, making the ECT one of the first dedicated ambulance services in Brazos County, it came in the form of a refitted station wagon.

“From the first day, it was about Aggies serving Aggies,” Persons said. “We were a service organization. We wanted to deliver that service to our current and former students, faculty, staff and visitors. It was also an opportunity to get a real-world health education outside the classroom.”

After Persons and the founding ECT members graduated, the team carried on, responding to hundreds of calls per year throughout the ’90s. The university eventually split the ECT into two divisions: TAMU EMS, an official university ambulance service under Student Health Services with paid staff, and TAMU ECT, which remained a volunteer student organization with mentorship opportunities for those interested in giving medical care or simply learning CPR. In 2014, the two services merged, with TAMU EMS now offering volunteer opportunities as ECT once did.

One team, one mission

Today, TAMU EMS is considered best in class among the nation’s university EMS programs. The service consists of emergency medical technicians (EMTs)—many of them current and former students—as well as paramedics. A fully equipped ambulance has long since replaced the old station wagon, and a second ambulance arrived in 2021. “Most universities only keep a volunteer EMT service and maybe an ambulance,” Middleton said. “Very few of them have the resources we have now as far as paramedic and MICU capabilities.”

There when called upon

In 2015, former student Alan Kilpatrick ’87, his wife Cindy and his family gave $25,000 to TAMU EMS through the Texas A&M Foundation to honor Alan’s sister, Kris, who dreamed of becoming an EMT before she passed away unexpectedly that year. Middleton and his team used the funds to purchase a new set of bicycles and defibrillators for their bike medics to carry. The Kilpatricks then gave an additional $25,000 to partially fund a new ambulance. “Then, last year, we got a call for a person in cardiopulmonary arrest,” Middleton said. “The bike team got there in record time and saved that person’s life. Here’s the amazing thing: they used the same bikes and defibrillator we had purchased in 2015, and the ambulance that came to transport that person was the same ambulance the Kilpatricks helped us buy. That person is alive today thanks to the equipment they donated.”

The list of services that TAMU EMS provides goes on and on. From its humble origins as an organization founded and operated by a handful of upstart Aggie students, EMS now staffs a plethora of events year-round, including athletic events, the Corps of Cadets’ field training exercises, March to the Brazos and other student socials. They service all these events, including preparing and executing hyper-complex operations around football games, and still answer calls from across Aggieland daily.

Persons has watched the plucky service organization he helped found more than four decades ago grow into the campus institution it is now. “None of us could have dreamed that it would become what it is today,” he said. More than TAMU EMS’ sheer growth, Persons expressed pride in its students and staff acting in line with the organization’s initial spirit of “Aggies helping Aggies,” especially in dire times.

“I look back on November 18, 1999,” he said, referring to the tragic Aggie Bonfire collapse that claimed 12 students’ lives. “Twenty-three years later, it’s still emotional to talk about. But TAMU EMS and ECT were some of the first responders on the scene that day. I look at what those students did and the level of expertise and professionalism they demonstrated when other agencies arrived. They did an astounding amount of work after that disaster. They were nothing short of incredible.”

This story originally appeared in the Texas A&M Foundation newsletter.

 

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