FARGO — They’re often first on the scene of accidents, fires and medical emergencies, where their focus is saving the lives of their patients.

This week, the focus is on them.

May 16-22 is National EMS week, recognizing all of the workers who are part of the emergency medical services system.

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F-M Ambulance of Fargo is honoring its paramedics, EMTs, or emergency medical technicians, and other employees all week long for the work they do.

Charge paramedic Sondra Bergem said while her concern is her patients, she gets something in return.

“It's kind of cool that you get to be there and help them, in someone's worst time,” she said.

Paramedic Josiah Morton is new to the job, but already recognizes the benefits.

“To be able to go home at night and feel like you actually made a difference in the world… that’s an incredible feeling,” he said.

The last year or so has been especially busy and challenging for F-M Ambulance, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, crews made nearly 1,000 COVID-related patient transfers.

They also responded to 364 cardiac arrests, respiratory arrests or deaths.

Paramedics performed 219 intubations, where a tube is inserted into a patient’s trachea to help them breathe, and 57 patients needed defibrillation, or a shock to the heart to restore normal rhythm.

Thursdays were their busiest, Sundays their slowest; by hour, 5 p.m. kept them hopping and 5 a.m. was the quietest.

By month, October brought the most calls and April, the fewest.

“You have no idea what you’re going to have when you come to work... Some days it can be a little scary but most of the time, it's just different and I like that,” Bergem said.

Sondra Bergem, 45, a paramedic at FM Ambulance, is on her way to Sanford Medical Center to transfer a patient. The long time paramedic said, "They say if you can make about five years you are probably meant to do this job. I still really enjoy it." Chris Flynn / The Forum.
Sondra Bergem, 45, a paramedic at FM Ambulance, is on her way to Sanford Medical Center to transfer a patient. The long time paramedic said, "They say if you can make about five years you are probably meant to do this job. I still really enjoy it." Chris Flynn / The Forum.

Learning from the best

Bergem, 45, has been a paramedic for more than 20 years; her interest sparked by a career exploration event in high school.

Morton, 21, on the job for less than a year, was inspired by his grandfather, who was a Fargo firefighter.

Both work 12-hour shifts for a four day stretch, then have four days off. He works overnights, she works days.

While many paramedics choose to move off the streets after a while, Bergem prefers the ambulance crew.

“They say if you can make it about five years, you're probably meant to do this job. And, yeah, I still really enjoy it,” she said.

Morton entered the profession at a difficult time — in the middle of the pandemic when many protocols changed.

Thankfully, he had a good teacher.

Bergem was his preceptor in paramedic school, and Morton said he aspires to her level of professional and personal skills.

“The way she is able to put her patients at ease and really help them in the best possible way she can do, that's really awesome,” he said.

Bergem has seen many advances in care in her years on the job.

They used to have to defibrillate a patient manually, and the task was done by paramedics only.

Today, AEDs or automated external defibrillators are in many public places and can be operated by just about anyone.

For CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the manual method used to be the only way to go. Now, a LUCAS device does mechanical, hands-free CPR, she said.

And for a patient having a heart attack, crews can activate a cardiac catheterization lab from their ambulance.

“We can go right up to the cath lab and just bypass the emergency room,” Bergem said.

Risks of the job

2020 brought multiple challenges for ambulance crews.

With COVID came extra protective gear and stricter protocols, and the ever present concern that they’d become infected by patients, and in turn, infect their own families.

With racial tensions boiling over, police came under much more scrutiny than before, and that had a tendency to filter over to paramedics at the scene of emergencies, Bergem said.

Even without those factors, being an EMT or paramedic has its hazards, including the danger of explosion or fire and being hit by passing vehicles at an accident scene.

Another, more nuanced risk involves dealing with people who are substance abusers or a mentally unstable and might want to do harm.

“Anytime you're going into somebody's house... you’ve got to keep that in mind,” Morton said.

Experiencing the trauma and suffering of others on a regular basis can be taxing on a person’s psyche, but they lean on one another for help.

“How everybody deals with it is different... a lot of times to get through it, we just talk to each other a lot,” Bergem said.

The bad with the good

Perceptions of the emergency medical profession aren’t always accurate, even among those going into the field.

In EMT class, someone might think they’re going to save lives every single day.

Josiah Morton, 21, a paramedic at FM Ambulance administers a patient's vitals Tuesday, May 18. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Josiah Morton, 21, a paramedic at FM Ambulance administers a patient's vitals Tuesday, May 18. Chris Flynn / The Forum

“You’re gonna help everybody, you're gonna fix everybody, and that's just not what it is. It's a lot of the same calls over and over and over again,” Morton said.

On every big medical call, you might think you know exactly what to do, but you won’t, he said.

Certain calls are much more impactful on staff than others, in good or bad ways.

Morton remembers a stroke patient who he was able to establish a rapport with for 15 to 20 minutes, only to see his symptoms worsen rapidly and decline right before his eyes.

“That one definitely impacted me more than your typical call,” he said.

Bergem said one of her favorite calls was responding to a house fire. There were two patients in tough shape, but the ambulance only had gear for one patient.

So she and her partner went into tag-team mode with a manual defibrillator and a shared monitor and were able to bring both patients back to life.

“Saved them with one piece of equipment,” Bergem said with a smile.

She’s been happy to save animals as well, and had the opportunity to deliver ten babies over the course of her long career.

Morton, the newcomer, said he wants to prop up his co-workers because of how well they do in this mentally and physically challenging line of work.

“This week it's their time and they deserve the recognition,” Morton said.