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It's hard to get more hands-on than Cathy Camargo's Emergency Medical Technicians class at Bernalillo High School. Any given week may find 11th and 12th graders suctioning vomit from windpipes, splinting broken femurs, and bandaging wounds thick with blood.

In this, the first high school EMT class in New Mexico—and one of only about 20 nationwide—the student victims may be pretending, but the gore sure looks real. That's because Camargo has worked with makeup artists from the state's Emergency Medical Services Bureau. To simulate victims' burns, for instance, she applies warm latex, which rises as it cools, resembling blisters. The 49- year-old health teacher clearly relishes the creative process. "We've made some wonderful barf," she says. Her recipe? Mandarin oranges, red food dye, and applesauce.

Students who take the EMT class, an honors elective, tend to have an interest in medical careers. Those who pass become certified to ride with fire department or ambulance crews as first responders. Observing that disasters can be paralyzing, Camargo added a culminating activity to her class two years ago: a drill that tests students' wits in the face of crises.

Last year's mock disaster began when the school's welding teacher detonated two loud, but harmless, balloon bombs he'd made out of oxygen and acetylene, a smelly gas. When the EMT students arrived, they found a classroom that looked as if it had blown up, complete with groaning victims. They immediately set up flagged zones: severe casualties to red, those who could last an hour to yellow, "walking wounded" to green, and the dead to black. Working in teams, they made swift judgments about whom to treat and stabilized victims for transport to the hospital.

"I learned a lot about how I am under pressure," says Briana Chavarillo, 18. "If I am ever in a scenario like that...I won't freak out." Classmate Elisha Lovato, 19, identifies a subtler lesson. During the drill, she recalls, the students ran to visibly injured victims and ignored the rantings of a seemingly unscathed one. They failed to see that her eccentric behavior indicated a lethal blood clot in the brain. "We had to learn to take a look at the entire scene quickly before acting," she says. "You've got to pay attention to more than just the gory stuff."

This year, rather than staging one major disaster, Camargo is planning spontaneous small-scale drills to catch students off-guard. Her ultimate aim? To help students adopt the motto that guides her teaching: "Semper Gumby," or "Always Flexible."

—Lillian Hsu

Vol. 15, Issue 3, Page 60

Published in Print: November 1, 2003, as Colleagues
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