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Witham EMS celebrates 50 years of service

Jun 11, 2023

Witham Emergency Medical Services EMT Emily Fleck (from left), paramedic Jake Pell, and Director John Merson pose for a photo in Witham Hospital's ambulance bay.

Witham Health Services is celebrating 50 years of providing emergency medical care. The hospital was on the leading edge of providing emergency care outside of the hospital when it started Witham EMS in 1973.

Witham Emergency Medical Services now employs 43 emergency medical technicians and paramedics. They aren't just stationed at the hospital these days, but are also posted at fire stations around the county so they can reach patients more quickly.

And the tools, technology, and training available now are far advanced from when Witham EMS Director John Merson first trained for the job 26 years ago.

But fast, expert medical treatment wasn't a given everywhere in the country when Witham EMS launched in 1973, during the waning years of the Vietnam War.

It was only in 1969 that training for EMTs was standardized in the United States, and paramedic training wasn't standardized until the early 1970s, according to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services. Generally speaking, paramedics receive more training and provide a higher level of care than EMTs do.

Before that, any number of agencies may be dispatched to the scene of a crash or accident, including mortuaries. At least one Lebanon mortuary had a hearse that responded to emergency calls during that era, Merson said.

Things improved after President Lyndon B. Johnson received a report stating that accidents were the leading cause of death in the first half of life and that standardizing emergency medical training could improve outcomes, according to the JEMS.

Today, Witham EMS has five ambulances ready to roll 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Two are based at the hospital, and one each is stationed a the Lebanon Fire Department, Center Township Fire Department and Witham's Jamestown clinic.

In addition, a paramedic staffs a response vehicle in Thorntown on weekdays. The paramedic can quickly reach someone experiencing a medical emergency in that area and start providing treatment while an ambulance heads out from the hospital.

Paramedic Jake Pell was working Wednesday from the LFD. Pell said he may work with a patient one day and not know their outcome. Then he runs into them all well and healthy at Walmart a little later. That makes his job satisfying.

"I get to see the difference I make day in and day out," Pell said.

Witham EMS also provides non-emergency transportation for patients who need help getting to medical appointments, for instance. And the department operates a community para-medicine program in which staff visit patients’ homes to provide care and act as a liaison between the patient and their doctors.

Witham EMS responds to about 6,000 calls per year, Merson said.

Merson has been in the field for 26 years, 18 as director, and still loves to ride an ambulance as time allows. He likes meeting people who need help, even though the situations can be stressful.

"I’ve taught a lot of EMT classes," he said. "I tell them your job is to make a bad situation as tolerable as it can be in the amount of time that you’re spending with the patient." That's usually 15 minutes to an hour, he said.

Merson is fourth in terms of longevity in the department. Mike McNutt is a part-time paramedic who has been with Witham EMS for 40 years. Todd McNabb, a full-time paramedic, and Mike Spidel, a part-time paramedic, have each served more than 35 years.

Most don't remain in the field with 24-hour shifts that long.

"It's pretty remarkable," Merson said. "It's a testament to their resolve and the working conditions here. Witham is a good place to work."

Witham has an annual EMT class. "We would love to have anyone who is interested join us," Merson said.

EMT certification is a requirement for paramedic training, which local EMTs seek at larger hospitals in Indianapolis and other cities, Merson said.

Emily Fleck was working with Pell Wednesday. She's glad she took the EMT training.

"I like that we don't do the same thing every day," she said. "I would not do well in an office."

Although there are standard procedures, no two days are the same, she said.

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