KEESEVILLE - When heading to a call, emergency responders don't always know what to expect. That's why Kent Faus works with a core team of volunteers to provide training for their fellow emergency medical service providers.
Since 2009, Morrisonville Ambulance Service has sponsored a "Patients with Special Needs Conference" to provide specialized training for emergency personnel, and this year was no exception. Faus, who serves as EMS captain for the Morrisonville rescue squad, said the goal is to provide better insight into the vast health issues and psychological conditions of patients with special needs.
"The purpose is to learn more about people we don't deal with on a continuous basis," said Faus.
The challenge of delivering emergency medical care can be enough on its own, but working with a severely autistic patient or one with special medical needs can be difficult if responders don't know in advance how to deliver appropriate care or be prepared for severe behavior issues.
"There are certain clientele that we deal with that we don't know a lot about; we don't have a lot of training on," said Faus, adding mainstream EMS training only gives a "snapshot" of handling patients with Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis and post-traumatic disorder, among other conditions covered by the conference. "That's why we've tried to go from one end of the spectrum to the next and back again."
Though the Morrisonville department, like many others, mainly deals with calls relating to cardiac and diabetes-related issues, said Faus, it's important to know more about the increasing variety of special needs cases.
"We get a call maybe once every four or five months for a patient who's autistic or who has maybe a feeding tube problem," said Faus. "If we can learn something here, then maybe they don't need to go to the hospital; maybe it's something we can fix with the crew we have on the ambulance. This can only improve the quality of care we give."
Having grown up with an uncle with mental retardation, Faus said he understands the importance of becoming familiar with the health challenges faced by a person with special needs.
"We shouldn't have to be scared about dealing with this particular clientele, especially. We need to have a better understanding of what they go through," he said.
This year's conference, held at the Keeseville Volunteer Fire Department Jan. 29, drew more than 70 people from departments across the region. Many have attended the event since its inception.
"We've been to every one they've offered," said Jerry Dumas, first assistant chief with Bangor Volunteer Fire Department and EMS. "It's a great opportunity for us because you don't get a lot of this style training to help the special needs population."
Dumas said he has seen an increase in the number of people in the region with varying special needs, which leads to a need for a better understanding of their medical and behavioral conditions.
"It takes a lot of special knowledge and special considerations because we're basically the first line of medical treatment for whatever the particular issue may be," said Dumas. "The better interaction we can have with those individuals from the onset is going to make for a better experience across the board."
Nelly Stipdonk, an EMS educator at John Abbott College in Montreal, Que., and member stateside in the Saranac Volunteer Fire Department, agreed.
"On a daily basis, we come in contact with patients who are either hearing-impaired or who have other special needs," said Stipdonk. "I think special needs are something we absolutely need to become familiar with and understand and accept."
In her native Quebec, Stipdonk said having that understanding is even more important due to the considerably higher amount of non-life-threatening calls to which departments there respond.
"There's a trend in our health care system that says we're going to be doing more and more house calls and caring for people in a different capacity than emergencies," she said. "Our role is becoming much more focused on the support and hand-holding side of caring for patients ... That's why this training is very important."
Todd M. Castine, director of clinical services for the Clinton County Advocacy and Resource Center in Plattsburgh, spoke during the conference and said the training is important to people with special needs, their families and the emergency responders alike.
"The more [emergency responders] know ahead of time about how to effectively interact with our folks, the more the comfort level increases and they're able to provide better care," said Castine. "The biggest thing to know is our folks are no different than anyone else, it's just that they have some additional needs. And, if you know about them, then it's easier to help them."