This is the second in a two part piece on role models, leadership and one stellar medic.
Women need and want strong female role models. Let’s share the stories of our own personal, female role models It is in this context that I want to share the story of April Bassett, EMT-P, who I have gotten to know through my EMS fellowship.
As a female paramedic in the fire department, April is even more of a minority than are female emergency physicians. She is also a leader: she is a rescue captain with San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), a tactical medic who is working to develop the city’s tactical EMS (TEMS) program, and one of the city’s first community paramedics.
But let’s start at the beginning of her upward trajectory. She graduated from high school a year early and immediately started volunteering as an ambulance driver with a medical firefighter company in her hometown of Buxton, Maine. She loved it so much that one year later she becomes an EMT and enrolls in a paramedic training program. After working briefly as a paramedic in Maine, she moved to San Francisco in hope of more professional opportunities, namely, SFFD.
But it takes a while to work your way up to SFFD. At first, while waiting for her California paramedic license, the only job she could get was working at a doctor’s office, which she hated because of its predictability and made-up rules. Although the clinic begged her to stay, she left in order to take a position as a paramedic with a private ambulance company in the city. For the next several years, she bided her time, waiting for an opportunity to get into SFFD. She and her boyfriend got married, and a few weeks after discovering that she was pregnant with their first child, SFFD announced that they were going to start hiring medics.
As part of the hiring process, applicants had to pass the three tests required for the Fire Academy. She passed the written and tactical tests without difficulty, but when the final test, the agility test, was offered, she was already 8 months pregnant, and SFFD refused to let her take the test, as it was extremely physically demanding. April explains, “You take a 30-pound bag on each side, run up seven-flights of stairs, drop your bags, drag a dummy, pick your bags up, drop’em, pick up a gurney, shove it in the back, in under 3-minutes.”
The administration told her not to worry — they would offer more tests soon and would be in touch. The 1st Academy came and went. The 2nd Academy came and went, and they didn’t call her. One year later, the 3rd Academy came, and this time, she didn’t wait — she called them. They said they would be offering another agility test, so she started to train. Then she found out that the test had been canceled.
She refused to accept this answer, and passionately wrote letters to Fire Department leadership, including Chief Joanne Hayes-White. “I’m not asking you for special treatment, I’m asking you just to take the test so I can be on a level playing field with everyone else,” she wrote.
So SFFD offered another agility test, which she passed, and on her drive home, they called with her job offer. Her husband was also hired, so they placed their one-year-old daughter into full-time daycare. “I felt sooo guilty,” April recounts.
I question, “Do you think he felt as guilty?”
“No, I don’t think he felt that guilty about it. No.”
Another unexpected challenge that she faced was the jealousy and anger from one of her close friends who was not hired quite as quickly by SFFD. April reflects, “It’s weird how he was a little sensitive about it. But, I’m not going to apologize for being good at what I do, or for wanting to be good at what I do. There is no need to apologize for having drive and ambition.”
About five years ago, April discovered the subspecialty of Tactical EMS (TEMS), which combines aspects of field medicine with law enforcement’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) techniques. TEMS medics are trained to work in the warm zone — an area that may still be unsafe — alongside SWAT officers. Her interest began when the SFFD Public Information Officer told her about a two-week course offered by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, thinking it would be a good fit for her. Although she had to use time-off to attend the course, she enrolled, and there’s been no looking back. She frequently works in the field with the San Francisco SWAT team, providing the medical care for their operations. Just a few months ago, April completed the reputable 40-hour course offered by the LA Sheriff’s Department, which involved scaling fences and arms training. She excitedly shows me a photo that conveys the intensity of the experience — a military helicopter landing next to a tank.
April is also one of SFFD’s new community paramedics, working with EMS-6. They focus on improving the care and services that EMS and the emergency department provide for frequent users of the 911 system. This model is an innovation within EMS, as it challenges the traditional belief that paramedics should only work to stabilize acute, emergent conditions. April describes her motivations to work with EMS-6, “I was tired of working nights, sitting outside of St. Francis, and watching this endless cycle of bullshit and human misery.” She tells me about one of their patients who had racked up 300 ER visits within one year — the traditional medical system was obviously failing him. After EMS-6 helped him with his addiction and housing issues, he stopped going to the ER. Now, he and April continue to keep in contact, but outside of the 911 system.
Slowly but surely, April is doing her part to improve the face of EMS as we know it. By serving as a role model to others, she is altering the implicit biases about what it means to be a woman in emergency medicine, EMS, Fire, and leadership in general. For our closing question, I ask, “What advice would you give to other women working in medicine, whether in the field or in the ER?”
“Take every opportunity you get and take care of yourself. Oh, and you need to be able to thrive in chaos.”