More than medicine: The life of an EST member

| Contributing Writer
A girl in a blue long sleeved shirt with an EST logo smiles.

EST Field Director senior Christine Kuehn works an average of 24 hours per week to help coordinate logistics and support other team members. (Photo by Morad Suliman/Student Life)

Located in Lien House on the South 40, the Washington University Emergency Support Team (EST) office is a cozy place. Two large dark gray couches sit against opposite walls stacked with pillows. The walls are covered in photo collages of EST members, a whiteboard full of inside jokes and quotes, hand-drawn pictures and quick reminders. In the corner, there’s a coffee station and a TV, which hangs above a table piled full of board games. There’s a sign reading “Movie Suggestions (must be on Netflix)” and a silly caricature of three EST members.

Senior Christine Kuehn has been a member of EST for four years and proudly holds the title of field director, leading other members and working with the president to coordinate meetings with the medical director and organize team logistics. 

Kuehn’s typical day starts with coffee and breakfast. After that, if she’s on duty, she’ll head to the office wearing her usual outfit of tactical blue pants, an EST shirt and black tennis shoes with trauma shears, gloves and a penlight attached to the side of her pants. 

At the office, Kuehn switches off with whoever was on the night shift, grabbing a radio and a pager that keeps her informed of EST emergencies. If she doesn’t have class, she’ll make her way to the DUC, which she says is a good “central location for EST members.” 

From then on, it’s a waiting game. She’ll do homework and go to classes like a normal WashU student. Unlike a normal WashU student, however, there’s always the potential to be called into an emergency, sometimes having to leave class to deal with the situation. If anyone calls looking for immediate care on the Danforth campus or South 40, Kuehn is there, along with the three other EST members required to be on a shift. 

When EST is dispatched, which happens when someone calls the Washington University Police Department and requests EST, all three techs on duty will be sent to the scene of the call alongside a WUPD officer. If the issue merits it, a non-University paramedic ambulance service will be dispatched with the student techs. If 911 is called directly, EST members are still required to show up to the scene. 

EST is considered a BLS (basic life support) organization, meaning they can only give rudimentary care to patients, performing tasks like administering epinephrine, giving aspirin, taking vitals, asking questions and investigating the situation. 

“It’s almost like triage, so we will choose to call for advanced life support if somebody needs to go to the hospital right away,” Kuehn said. EST is also a non-transport organization, meaning they do not transport patients to hospitals.

But that’s not to say it isn’t a demanding job; it’s a tough organization to be in physically, academically and emotionally. Being a part of a team that handles the lives of students and faculty requires intense training. It’s competitive to get into, starting with a CPR and EMT certification, a national written exam (the NREMT) and applying for national and Missouri medical care licenses. After that, there’s an internal advancement process within EST, with a series of different interviews and mock scenarios to simulate real-life emergencies. 

According to EST’s website, up to 20 new techs are brought into EST per year, which is often around 20% of the initial applicant pool. 

As a member, Kuehn says that there is an emotional toll to being part of EST. While she’s helped with several minor incidents, like allergic reactions and scraped knees, she’s also witnessed more serious cases, including heart attacks, strokes and seizures.

“Most people on our team can be in scenarios where it’s scary, it’s hard,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing where you deal with it in the moment and move on. You think about it afterwards.”

Weekends can be particularly challenging — that’s when call volume is at its highest, because students aren’t in class and have more free time that can lead to potential emergency situations. Kuehn recalled a particular instance when she had eight calls in one night and did not get the chance to sleep at all.

As field director, Kuehn also has the task of overseeing other members, constantly checking in and ensuring that everyone is doing okay, not only with regard to EST but also in their classes and personal lives. After every EST call, members have a formal debrief to talk about the events of the emergency, not only to go over what happened but to check in on each other. Additionally, EST utilizes the services at Habif if they need someone else to talk to.

Although it’s emotionally demanding, Kuehn says the communal and familial feel of the organization helps balance it out. And despite the hectic nature of weekends on duty, she cherishes them, saying that they are “one of those times that you bond the most with the other members of duty crew,” whether that be through watching movies, playing games or just hanging out in the office.

“We hang out on duty for, like, 20 hours at a time together, so inevitably, you have to be close with individuals and that has been a huge part of my college experience and I’m so grateful to have these individuals,” Kuehn said. “And I think people that I’m surrounded by in EST always encourage me to be my best self. They inspire me, which is something I’m really grateful for.”

Putting in an average of 24 hours of duty a week can get difficult, but Kuehn says that “it’s all about finding a balance.” After a long day of tending to patients, overseeing other EST members, coordinating organization logistics and being plugged into her phone, Kuehn tries to unwind by cooking dinner at her off-campus apartment or by going on a walk with her roommate and dog. 

“If you’re really passionate about something and it’s important to you, you can make it work and you can balance it with your schedule,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Christine Kuehn’s name. Student Life apologizes for the error.

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