06 Aug Frontenac County Paramedics traveled to Switzerland for Job Swap
by Alison Shorey
In March 2019, the paramedic service I work for, Frontenac Paramedics, received a unique and exciting invitation from a German TV production company asking if they would be interested in participating in a reality TV show called Job Swap. Job Swap is a show in which people from Germany or Switzerland switch jobs with other people in foreign countries. They were planning an episode where two Swiss paramedics would exchange jobs with two Canadian paramedics, and Frontenac Paramedics was one of the services they were considering exchanging with.
After jumping through some selection hoops, Frontenac Paramedics was finally chosen. Harris Lemon, an advance life support medic with four years on the road, and myself, a basic life support medic with 19 years under my belt, were selected by the production team to go to Switzerland. Of course, Harris and I were thrilled and honoured to have been chosen to represent not only our city of Kingston and the County of Frontenac in Ontario, but we felt we were representing Canada also, as this was an international show.
On May 21, after creating much excitement amongst our families (and the crew rooms at work), the TV crews arrived to start filming Harris and I at work in our home environment. Very quickly, Harris and I began to learn what it meant to be part of a television show! We had to become accustomed to wearing personal cameras and microphones. A film crew and a sound crew were following us everywhere. Fortunately, the film crews on both locations (Canada and Switzerland) were wonderful and made it easier for us to adapt to this very different world we had entered.
Following two days of filming in Kingston, Harris and I boarded our flight and landed the next day in Zurich. We were tired but excited, daring to hope we would be working somewhere in the famous Alps of Switzerland, but recognizing we would likely be in a city location in order to experience the call volume we assumed would be required for the show. At this point, I must share that our film crews on both locations would apologetically switch to German whenever they were planning their next move. A big part of the show was filming our “live” reaction to events and circumstances, so they worked very hard at NOT letting us know what was around the corner and on the agenda. As paramedics, we knew we had the upper hand there, as any other person in emergency medicine reading this would also appreciate…..`surprise’ and `the unexpected’ is what our world is all about. Eventually, after a number of post-call interviews where they repeatedly asked us if we had been nervous or scared during the call, we had to explain to him that as paramedics, our job was to stay calm and be reassuring to the people involved in the accident or illness, and not to ramp up the situation by allowing our emotions to run amok.
In Zurich we were met by a location crew member, who loaded us and our luggage into a van and started to drive….out of Zurich and into the mountains!! We were thrilled and couldn’t believe our good luck. The crew continued to keep us in the dark as to where we were actually going, but we were happy to see mountains on the horizon and the city disappearing in the distance. That night, after driving along steep, narrow switchback roads in the mountains, we arrived at a small town called Brienz. There we met the rest of the film crew, enjoyed a late supper in our hotel, and then settled in for the night. We were informed that we would be leaving early the next morning to meet our host Swiss paramedic crew, Berit Landolt and Adrian Berchtold and our Job Swap boss, Martin Hofer. The next morning, as promised, we drove to the edge of Lake Brienz and finally met our Swiss counterparts, who then took us to the base we would be working out of for the next three days in Interlaken. Interlaken is a beautiful little village between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun, which lie in a narrow valley between mountains covered in forests and alpine meadows, with a generous sprinkling of Swiss chalets everywhere you looked. Martin, Adrian and Berit all turned out to be very kind and generous hosts, and we quickly became friends in our mutual adventure with the small screen.
Our first day together was spent familiarizing Harris and I with the layout of the Swiss ambulance, which, surprise surprise, was a marvel in efficiency. We also discovered that the Swiss medics had a much larger array of medications. And despite some interesting differences in equipment, there were also similarities. They had much of the same equipment and protocols that we worked at Frontenac Paramedics. While giving us a tour of the base and hospitals, we also visited an old abandoned airfield. Driving around the buildings we were ‘surprised’ by the sight of a single vehicle accident with the local fire department working on an extrication. This turned out to be a mock scenario designed to test our knowledge and to show us how the medics and the fire department worked together. The scenario itself was familiar, as this kind of incident is common in Kingston, however we did have to learn how the medics and the firemen communicate on scene. Essentially, the firemen on scene simply wanted to know how much time they had to extricate the trapped patient as per our assessment of the patient. In their words, “We are not medical people, so do not tell us what is going on with the patient. Just tell us how fast we have to move. Do we have two minutes, ten minutes, or twenty minutes?” We also discovered that the Swiss medics have a vacuum body splint which they frequently use in trauma patients in lieu of the backboard. This is a very handy tool, but one with which we were not familiar, so did not utilize in the call. Finally, we were expected to give pain medication as soon as we felt we could do so safely, even without an initial set of vitals, which varied from our protocol.
Ultimately, Martin announced that we had done a good job, and welcomed us to his team of medics …even lending us Swiss paramedic uniforms which we proudly wore for the duration of our visit.
The rest of the day we spent waiting for a call at base and comparing typical calls in Interlaken to calls in Kingston and the County of Frontenac. As luck would have it, they were having a very quiet day, however, we finally got a call later in the afternoon, so off we went! The call came in as an elderly man who had had a fall, striking his head, in a local pizza restaurant. Upon our arrival, Adrian started assessing the patient, who, it turned out smelled strongly of alcohol and could not speak English, so Harris and I helped with equipment and getting the patient on the stretcher while Adrian continued to attend due to the language barrier. With the patient loaded into the ambulance, we took him to the ER. Because the ambulance base is attached to the hospital, Berit drove the ambulance back to base while Adrian gave his report, and we restocked the ambulance at base. When Adrian was done, he simply walked over to the base. This DID feel weird. I felt like I was abandoning my partner at the hospital. When he returned, we had a good chuckle over the fact that this had been a very typical call that Harris and I would experience at the downtown Kingston base, while Berit and Adrian agreed that it was a call that they do NOT typically do. We had come a long way to do something we do every day at work in Kingston.
Finally, at approximately 7 p.m., Martin decided that it was time to call it a day and drove Harris and I to his home where he and his wife Susan hosted us during our stay. Susan and Martin were very kind and generous hosts, welcoming us into their home with open hearts.
The next day we headed back to the base where, unbeknownst to Harris and I, Martin had arranged for another scenario for us to work through, this one being very typical of the kind of call they would experience in the Interlaken region, and in fact, was based on a real call they had experienced. After much waiting around for the camera crew to prepare properly (there is a LOT of waiting around in television), Martin called us from the ambulance and announced that there was a patient up the mountain, inside an abandoned castle turret. Harris and I grabbed the trauma and medical bags and headed up the steep incline to where our patient was lying. We found our patient alert and oriented, complaining of extreme pain in her knee after a fall, otherwise no other complaints. From our initial assessment, we could tell our patient was stable, and so Harris initiated pain control medication, while I stabilized her knee. While we were looking after our patient, it began to pour rain. At this point, we knew we could not carry her safely down the mountain, as it was too steep, and now slippery and wet. As she was unable to weightbear, we requested helicopter assistance. Martin agreed, and called for the helicopter. The helicopter station was actually in the valley below us, so we were able to watch the helicopter’s approach. As it came nearer, I turned to Martin and asked him where the helicopter was going to land, at which point he smiled and said, “It wasn’t!!” All of a sudden, we found ourselves in the middle of a long line rescue with the REGA helicopter team. This was definitely not something we did in Kingston.
As the helicopter approached, it lowered the long line, and with it, a doctor. The doctor works on the helicopter and could take over patient care if necessary. The helicopter lowered her to the side of the mountain, and she climbed up to where we were with our patient. We gave her our report and readjusted our patient’s knee stabilization so that she could be hooked on to the long line with the doctor, and simply sit on her lap to be lifted up out of the turret. The doctor then spoke with the pilot, who returned with the helicopter and lowered the line practically in to the doctor’s lap! She then connected herself and the patient to the line, and the helicopter picked them up and out of the turret. Harris and I then scrambled down the mountain to where our ambulance was waiting, in preparation for the patient being lowered onto the stretcher. Again, the pilot lowered the patient and the doctor directly beside the stretcher, so the doctor could easily shift the patient on the stretcher, where we took over care of the patient and drove her to the hospital. All this done in pouring rain. Both Harris and I were truly impressed with the pilot’s ability to fly and manage the long line under these conditions. What a great experience for us, as it was so different from how we interact with the helicopters at home.
The rest of the day we spent waiting for a call that never came ….`the curse of the ride-out’…., and, again, at about 7 p.m., Martin called it a day. On our way home, he told Harris and I that we had another surprise in store! Martin and Susan belong to a traditional folk dancing group, and as luck would have it, one of their members was celebrating a birthday that night and we had been invited to tag along. We drove for about an hour up into the mountains where we arrived at an old cow barn in an alpine meadow that had been converted to a rental venue for dinners and dances. The members of the folk dancing group had put together a potluck supper and we were able to enjoy some delicious local fare with local people who welcomed us warmly into their midst! After eating our fill, the music came on and the folk dancing began! Martin and Susan and the rest of the group danced the first dance, and then the music was repeated and anyone else who wanted to try the dance was invited on to the floor! How could we refuse??! Martin led me around the floor, while Susan took Harris under her wing. With much patience and good humour, we managed to get through the dance without stepping on too many toes! Afterwards, we went outside and were treated to an amazing alphorn concert by seven musicians in full traditional clothing. It is very difficult to describe listening to the alphorns in the middle of the Alps. Harris and I both had to pinch each other to make sure we weren’t dreaming!
Our final day arrived, and we were off bright and early from Martin and Susan’s home. Again, something was clearly ‘afoot’, but what, we had no idea! Upon our arrival at the base, we waited (again) while the TV crew got themselves organized, and then we were off…..in a van to somewhere. Eventually we arrived in a small village called Grindelwald. Grindelwald is a beautiful little alpine village with amazing hiking. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating that day and was generally overcast and threatening rain, so no view for us. This however, was not our destination, as Martin explained to us. We were there merely to catch a train to…..Jungfrau. There we would practice the high altitude medicine we learned in school, but had never had a chance to use working in Kingston. We used the train ride up to remind ourselves about high altitude sickness and the more serious high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). The Interlaken station always sends one paramedic up to the Jungfrau tourist site to care for the thousands of tourists who visit and suffer high altitude sickness while up there. This is a voluntary position, as some of the medics themselves can suffer from high altitude, or mountain sickness and cannot perform their duties. Jungfrau boasts that it is ‘the top of Europe’ at 3,454 meters, meaning that it is the highest point where the average tourist can easily get to by train. As a result, many tourists arrive not fully prepared, or even expecting to experience the side effects of being suddenly at high altitude. Here we did have a number of patients, usually more than one at a time. We wondered how a lone medic doing this on their own could manage, as we were dashing about from one patient to another. One of our more serious patients (she had actually fainted, while all the others merely felt weak with a headache) had an O2 sat reading of 68%!!! Most patients with high altitude sickness simply need to be coached to take some deep breaths, which will pick their O2 sats up nicely (usually run between 80-90%, and then pick up to 90s with deep breathing), however this patient did require supplemental oxygen, which picked her O2 sats up to the high 80s. All patients who complain of high-altitude symptoms were sent down the mountain by the next train, as dropping altitude is typically the only true cure.
Once again, we felt that Martin had gone the extra mile by providing us with yet another typical medical situation facing the Swiss medics, and yet not something we had ever experienced or seen. Not quite as dramatic as the long line rescue, however just as unique and therefore interesting.
Finally, after a busy day on Jungfrau, we headed back down the mountain, where we were picked up by our van again and driven ….not to Interlaken but to Frutegen where the mountain rescue helicopter base Air-Glaciers was stationed. And yes, as a final treat we were given a helicopter ride from Frutegen back to the Interlaken hospital. What a way to end our adventure as temporary Swiss medics.
This was an amazing experience for both Harris and I, one which we feel particularly fortunate to have been able to enjoy. Going in to this, I felt that it would be hard to find any real differences in the way we do our job in Ontario and the way they do their job in Switzerland. For the most part, sick or injured people are the same everywhere and require the same kind of care. However, thanks in large part to Martin and his employees, and the good working relationship Martin enjoys with his fellow emergency services in the Interlaken area, we did indeed experience a new way of using helicopters on scene, and we were able to look after patients who were experiencing an illness we would very likely never see in Kingston or Frontenac.
And of course, last but not least, we are going to be famous TV stars!!!! ……for 10 minutes ….in Switzerland……