By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Jeff Cowan knew certain things after he completed his paramedic training 30 years ago.
“I was a 21-year-old paramedic, I didn’t even shave every day. I was very clinical. I knew my drugs, my doses, and I knew them forwards, backwards and chapter and verse,” said Cowan, chief of the Keizer Fire District, who celebrated the 30th anniversary of obtaining his paramedic license last month.
But there are things you cannot learn or prepare for by reading a textbook and taking a test. November 1987, while he was working in Kitsap County, Wash., was one of them.
Career firefighters and paramedics only work 10 24-hour shifts a month. In an average year, a single paramedic can expect to encounter a dozen or so fatal calls. In November 1987, Cowan and his partner responded to nine calls involving fatalities, one in almost every shift they worked.
“It was gunshot wounds, car crashes, a teen suicide, a kid falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into a tree. Everything,” Cowan said. His speech accelerated recalling each one, his voice trembling slightly.
The final fatality involved a child who had been playing in his cousin’s yard when he was run over by a three-wheeled ATV.
“He had a bad head injury. We were half an hour from help, and I called for a helicopter to have the kid flown to Seattle. The mom came up to me, grabbed me by the collar, and yelled, ‘You have to save my baby,’” he said.
Despite Cowan and his partner’s best efforts the child’s condition kept faltering. They had to open his airway through his throat, they couldn’t get an IV started and, when pediatric nurses arrived on the scene loaded for bear, it seemed to make little difference.
“I decided to try an intraosseous infusion where you put the needle directly into the bone marrow and start giving the patient fluid. Nowadays, we’ve got a bone drill on the ambulance for that purpose, but we had to do it by hand back then,” he said.
The procedure was common going back as far as the 1930s but, at the time, it was like something Cowan summoned up from the dark ages. The infusion worked, but the child was beyond saving and died after arriving at the hospital.
Cowan and his partner went back to the station, called for back-up and spent the rest of the afternoon in a bar. Both talked seriously about quitting the profession.
“It’s easy to focus on the work, but it’s when you get into the emotional part that weighs on you,” Cowan said. “I’m lucky in that I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with flashbacks, but that happens to people, too, and it’s no fault of their own. It was a bad day, but there’s a lot of hard calls and they come and they go. Over the years things got better and better.”
In the mid-1990s Cowan traded in shift work for becoming a program supervisor and took the helm of KFD seven years ago. While the decision to take on administrator roles was motivated by the need to spend more time with his family on a regular basis, he had to change his mindset in regard to the work itself.
“I had to starting thinking about it differently,” he said. “In the ambulance I could help 100 people a month. As a supervisor, I might impact 3,000 people a year.”
Through it all, he’s renewed his paramedic license every two years and maintained his status with the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, the organization that honored him.
“It’s not an easy process to complete every two years, but I’m grateful to have a board of directors that sees this as important and gives me the time I need to work on it,” Cowan said. “I’m the luckiest guy on earth because I love what I do and I get to make a difference.”