It was the summer between Jordyn Wittlieff’s junior and senior years at Mason County Eastern, and she was holding a car crash victim stable as first responders pried their vehicle open with the Jaws of Life.
Instead of kicking back and casting responsibility to the wind that summer, Wittlieff volunteered with the Riverton Fire Department. The “really bad car accident” happened on her first day. She struggled to know what she should be doing on the scene.
“I was kind of in shock a little bit trying to figure out … all the chaos,” Wittlieff said.
But the trial-by-fire taught her a lesson in self-control.
“You have to stay calm, because if the patient sees that you’re scared, then they’re going to be scared,” Wittlieff said.
She remained on-call through her senior year. That is, when she wasn’t playing volleyball, running track or at West Shore Community College earning certifications as an emergency medical technician and nursing assistant.
Now a part-time EMT at Life EMS Ambulance in Hart, Wittlieff, 18, remains on-call with Riverton as she works toward her associate’s degree.
“I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline part of it or the helping people,” Wittlieff said, adding later, “I like the adventure, and I like something different. It’s just something different.”
”Somebody with drive”
Wittlieff said her parents thought she was “crazy” when she volunteered with the Riverton Fire Department. When her pager calls her out to a scene, sometimes in the small hours of the night, they often want her to give them regular status updates, she said.
“They still worry quite a bit,” she said. “But they have warmed up to it.”
She, too, was scared at first, because “you never know what you’re going to show up to.” But in time, the uncertain minutes between a call and arrival at the scene became normal to her.
“It’s just become a thing where you redo it,” she said. “You don’t think about it anymore.”
Her work on fire calls usually consists of getting tools and occasionally running hoses. More often, she goes on medical calls, where she’s qualified to take vitals and perform a patient’s “initial assessment.”
She said she would respond to calls a couple of times a month in high school and more often in the summertime. She wasn’t obligated to run out to any incidents while she was at school or athletics and couldn’t go at night unless it was a weekend. Similar restrictions are in place to keep her student life balanced at WSCC, she said.
Riverton Fire Department members skew younger than other departments in Mason County, Chief Joe Cooper said. He said about a dozen members are under 30, often because their family members were firefighters.
But that isn’t the case with Wittlieff. With no medical personnel or firefighters of any kind in the family, she’s following an ambition all her own.
Cooper said it’s “been great” having Wittlieff with the department, as her EMT training is more than some of its first responders have and, being based in Scottville, she reinforces the eastern portion of their response area.
“When she’s available, she is quick and gets there before a lot of us,” Cooper said.
With Life EMS, she works shifts as long as 24 hours waiting for the next emergency to run an ambulance to and transferring patients between west Michigan hospitals.
She handles the basics of life support in the ambulances and works with a paramedic partner, said Jeff Stockhill, operations director for Life EMS.
“I can’t really say enough about her character,” Stockhill said. “These are the type of people we want in the medical field. Somebody with drive, somebody with dedication.”
With an EMT certificate, nursing assistant certification and fire department experience under her belt, she isn’t sure where exactly in the medical field she’d like to land.
She said she’s thinking about flight nursing — lifting off in medical helicopters and managing patients through their transport.
Wittlieff was among the 10 students who enrolled in WSCC’s new EMT program last year. Her career since then leaves her well-positioned to be one of the early examples of how the program can be a boon for west Michigan.
Life EMS has developed staffing troubles since WSCC ended its previous EMS program around 2012, Stockhill said.
While he said options are available in Muskegon and Cadillac, it’s a “huge benefit” for any area to have a program of its own that can train people who already know the area well, he said.
The program is being developed and, for now, taught, by Grant Township Fire Chief Dan Yost. Yost agreed that the program fills a significant void.
“(When) you look at the shortage of EMTs and paramedics in the state of Michigan and the nation, it’s nice that on this side of the state … we can have this fairly close to home,” he said.
While Yost currently teaches the entire two-semester program, he intends to hire more personnel as he fleshes it out. Future plans include a paramedic program that could be available next fall pending state approval.
“It’s all new,” Yost said. “We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire currently, and (we’re) trying to develop quite a few things moving forward.”
For anyone interested, Yost said there are scholarships available specifically for EMS students, and that given the staffing shortages, qualified applicants landing a job is “a matter of applying.”