Bond between paramedics leads to honors

It's a familiar sight during mornings at Cabarrus County EMS Station One.

Pockets of men and women in starchy blue uniforms chat along the narrow, ruler-straight hallway that stretches from the ambulance garage to the supervisor's office like a main vein through the building.

There, bleary-eyed paramedics just off their 24-hour shifts swap stories of last night's calls while fresh crews, still carrying the lingering scent of soap from their morning showers, listen in.

They'll tell you the camaraderie forms instinctively between them. As a coping mechanism, it's nearly as vital to a paramedic as a dose of adrenalin is to a failing heart.

"There is definitely a bond, once you've been in a situation with someone where you are fighting the grim reaper together," said Esther Adkins, 29, a nine-year paramedic based at Station One. "We see things that people outside the profession never get to see. Having people that are sympathetic and understand helps."

It's that kind of camaraderie that helped Cabarrus County EMS gain statewide attention late last year, when members from Station One earned the county two top honors. It won its first state championship title in the N.C. Office of EMS State Paramedic Competition, and it took first place in the Carolinas' Paramedic Competition, which pitted teams from both Carolinas against each another.

Mark Kirk, an EMS field training officer, and Jeff Penninger, a crew chief, won the state championship competition after beating out five other two-person teams. The teams worked against each other and the clock to treat patients in a mock hunting accident scenario.

Adkins, also an EMS field training officer, and Will Cannon, a crew chief, took first place in the Carolinas competition, scoring higher points during a mock airplane crash than any of the other 12 teams that competed. It was the first time Cabarrus County paramedics participated in the event.

Penninger, 38, said he felt the same kind of responsibility during the mock situations as he has during the real emergencies he's treated over his 11-year career. It's a responsibility that has always weighed heavily on him.

"You have to be the sole caretaker of these people, strangers you've never met, and you have to make decisions for them," he said.

Stress from that kind of accountability often burns paramedics out around their fifth year in the career. Both he and Adkins have found ways to push past the that pitfall.

"You learn to find outlets for yourself, and walk away for a couple of shifts, and come back," said Adkins.

The camaraderie helps.

During mornings in the station break room, just off the bustling main hallway, coffee drips continuously, pot after pot.

As Adkins sliced and sectioned a grapefruit at the table, colleagues walked in and out to fill their coffee cups.

With the same sense of responsibility as replacing an IV bag before it runs too low, someone always steps in to brew another pot before the last one runs dry, never interrupting its flow.

"It really is a team-oriented profession," said Adkins. "I always joke God gave me a job with a partner for a reason, because they can pick up where my brain forgets."