'Somebody Call An Ambulance'

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As he made last-minute preparations in the office of the Bronx's Community Elementary School 90 for the day ahead, Leonel Morales overheard a fellow teacher complain about what a rough morning she was having.

Listening to her, Morales remembered how his own day had started. A 7-year-old boy, his heart locked in cardiac arrest, failed to respond to Morales's emergency treatment. The child was pronounced dead at the hospital.

As a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician, 42-year-old Morales knows he'll encounter many more such heartbreaks. The desire to prevent as many as possible is what makes him and thousands of other EMT's across the country live a life on call: They may be called away from dinner, or blasted out of bed by their beeper signaling that a car has crashed, a heart has failed, a poison has been swallowed.

It was when an emergency hit close to home that the junior high school social studies teacher decided to upgrade a basic knowledge of first aid to state EMT certification.

"When I moved to this small town [Leonia, N.J.], there was a car accident two blocks from my house," Morales remembers. "I was struck by how many people were just standing there, not knowing how to help. I later learned there are many documented cases where people just watch other people die, all because they don't know any better." Even more moving to him was how, within two minutes of the crash, "the Leonia ambulance crew arrived and immediately brought order to a chaotic situation." The experience convinced Morales he wanted to be an EMT.

Morales now responds to more than 100 calls a year as a member of the Leonia Volunteer Ambulance Corps, whose 17 members handle an average of 600 calls annually. "When we respond, we're dealing with serious catastrophes that call for life-or-death decisions," he says. "We've got our training and certain equipment behind us, but teamwork is one of the biggest factors that comes into play. We see a lot that overcomes us, but we get each other through."

The work is difficult before it even begins. Volunteers must undergo 150 hours of intensive medical training before they can go on their first ambulance run. "Then you need 90 hours more every three years to be recertified," Morales notes.

In addition to running emergency calls and keeping up with first-aid procedures, Morales often speaks to civic and senior-citizens' groups, giving them tips on what to do before an ambulance arrives. ("You'd be surprised," he says, "how many people call in the middle of the night and then don't turn on the porch light or unlock the door.")

While he works to prevent emergencies, the unexpected nature of tragedy makes him glad for his training. "I'm an EMT wherever I go," he says.

Gary Smith, a friend of Morales's, is alive today because of it. Two years ago, the junior high school gym teacher was attacked in the schoolyard by a youth who battered him with a baseball bat. Morales, who happened to be passing Smith's school, found him lying in a pool of blood, blue in the face from oxygen deprivation. A group of people hovered helplessly over him. "I had no equipment, no support team, just my hands and the training in my head," Morales recalls. He tilted Smith's head to open his airway and kept him breathing until an ambulance arrived.

A determined Smith fought to recover. A determined Morales tried to deflect hero-status attention.

"I give my best in this work," he says. "Too often, it's not good enough. But when it is, it's so satisfying. It's nice to know, for instance, as you're out on the highway at 4 A.M., that some guy who was in a car accident is going to be able to walk for the rest of his life because of the emergency care you gave. That's enough reward."

Vol. 01, Issue 03, Page 88

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