Wayone Rhodes, Leagh Lee, Christine League and Justin Turnbough

One of the 12 students currently on track to graduate with their EMT licenses is senior Leah Lee, who hopes to use this as a jumping-off point to become a nurse, and then an anesthesiologist. Photo by Wiley Price

This year, some seniors at Ritenour High School were offered an unusual opportunity: to take daily emergency medical technician (EMT) classes and graduate high school with an EMT certification and a job offer from Abbott Ambulance Services. There are 12 students on track to graduate with their EMT certification, having passed several tests to get into the program. 

Abbott EMS is donating the materials and textbooks required for the class. The only thing the students themselves will have to pay for is their final certification test, after a six-week “earn as you learn” apprenticeship period at the end of the school year. 

In previous programs through Abbott and Abbott’s parent company, American Medical Response, 97 percent of graduates passed the practical exam and 90 percent passed the written exam on the first attempt.

Graduates of both EMT programs can anticipate starting salaries greater than $12/hour with benefits and advancement opportunities, according to a press release from Ritenour.

“Providing students with pathways to success should start while they are still in high school,” said St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, who announced the program. “For some, this may mean college prep and ACT classes, but many others plan to start working full time after graduation instead.”

While there are already schools in the St. Louis area that gear students towards medical careers, such as high schools that graduate students with nursing assistant certifications, this is the first to offer an in-building EMT certification process. Page said he hopes to see similar programs in other schools.

“We need to ensure all our students feel prepared for their adult lives and professional careers, whichever path they take,” Page said.

One of the 12 students currently on track to graduate with their EMT licenses is senior Leah Lee, who hopes to use this as a jumping-off point to become a nurse and then an anesthesiologist (which was Page’s profession before he became county executive). 

“I will be attending Maryville University getting my bachelor’s in nursing while working as an EMT, hopefully,” she said. “The end goal is to be an anesthesiologist, so I’m just doing the steps I need to take to get where I want to go.”

But the work hasn’t been easy. Lee said the students had to memorize 104 medical terms just to get into the class.

“And then, once passing that, there’s the actual workload,” Lee said. “But it’s been cool, because it’s weird how I like to actually do the work, so that makes it easier. I like going back and forth between lecture and actually doing it, giving us the real experience of how it’s going to be.”

Justin Turnbough, Christine League, Wayone Rhodes and Leah Lee

Justin Turnbough, operations manager of the Belleville/St. Louis Region for Abbott EMS/AMR, and Christine League, senior operation supervisor for  Abbott EMS/AMR, explain a demonstration to Ritenour High School seniors Wayone Rhodes and Leah Lee.

Since February, everyone in the class has been taking three people’s vital signs every single day, along with practicing tasks such as CPR.

Joe May, program manager at partner school IHM Academy of EMS, said that teaching high schoolers presents him with a new and exciting challenge.

“It is definitely different. It keeps us on our toes. They ask very different questions about complex things. They need things broken down a little bit more than the regular adult learner,” he said.

“But the enthusiasm is the thing that keeps you going. They are very enthusiastic. There’s never that bored face. There’s never leaning on a hand or anything like that.”

That lack of boredom is remarkable, given that this is a lasting around three hours every school day, beginning at 8:30 a.m. 

For Ritenour senior Wayone Rhodes, though, that time commitment is worth it.

“My long-term goal is to become a physician – an emergency physician, at the moment,” Rhodes said. “And I felt like if I took this EMT course, entering at an entry level in the medical field, it would give me practice and insight on if this was what I really wanted to do in the future.”

The EMT field is chronically understaffed across the country, May said. That means, as Sam Page said, these teens “will never have to worry about getting a job.”

But the job they’re signing up for has a high turnover rate and often takes a psychological toll on emergency medical workers.

“In order to go into EMS you have to care for people and you have to be civic-minded,” May said. “It is a thankless job. People are happy to see you afterwards, but they aren’t always happy to see you when you show up and they’re screaming at you. You have to be able to deal with that, and that’s part of the reason for the shortage.” 

Unlike most high school seniors, however, these students will be graduating with a career with full insurance and benefits ready and waiting for them. And students are thrilled about that. Lee described her excitement when she found out she could take EMT classes without having to pay for them.

“I was glad I got the opportunity, I was like, ‘Sign me up!’” Lee said. “My mom always says, ‘We never had that kind of stuff when I was in school!’” 

Chris League, Operations supervisor for Abbott EMS (and therefore these students’ future boss, if they pass their examinations) said that nothing can totally prepare a young person for the more strenuous aspects of the job, but the students’ enthusiasm will make it easier.

“That psychological aspect, you really can’t prepare for it,” League said. “So if you can prepare them as much as possible for their responsibility of treating a patient, that takes a little more weight off of them. It helps their focus be a little more centered instead of unsure.”

And their excitement about the work helps. “People will overcome a lot more when it’s something that they really want,” she said. 

In upcoming years, Abbott EMS hopes to expand this program to more schools in the area and train more EMTs to deal with physical and mental health crises in our region. Page agreed.

“I hope some of the other high schools in the region take notice and adopt this program or a program like this,” Page said. “You kids are graduating, and you’ve got a job, you’re ready to go. And that’s what we’re looking for.” 

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