NORFOLK, Neb. – Growing up in the 1970’s, viewers tuned in to the weekly television drama Emergency to follow the pursuits of Squad 51 as the fictional characters of Gage and DeSoto brought medical care to the streets. The program provided a realistic view into the lives of medical first responders and served as an inspiration to individuals who dreamed of entering the new profession of paramedic. Fast forward nearly 50-years, Emergency is still making an impact as a recruitment tool with one young fan.
For as long as she can remember Sarah Perrigan has envisioned a career in the medical field. With a desire to help people, she has a passion to do that through medicine.
“It came from a dream very early on. I looked very deeply into being a doctor or being a nurse, and that was always something like, ‘Well, I want to be in the medical field, so I have to choose between those,’” she said. “Once I found out about a job as a paramedic, it was everything I wanted. It was the adrenaline, it was the problem solving, the critical thinking, and patient-care of helping people out.”
Perrigan, of Norfolk, knew she wanted to stay close to home. As one of six children, she learned of Northeast Community College from five of her siblings who have previously attended or plan to enroll at the institution. She said a big draw for her was Northeast’s early college program which allows enrolled high school students to register for college credit courses.
“Northeast is just an incredible college. Coming from a bigger family, I had a lot of sisters start out here to get their degrees. And so, from hearing the stories and seeing the teachers that they worked with, that was a big draw. It’s small enough that you are really taken care of and you're known by name.”
Through the EMS (Emergency Medical Services)/Paramedic program, Perrigan, 18, has also enjoyed the opportunity to work with individuals at the Norfolk Fire Division, staff with Life Net helicopter and hospital personnel.
“A lot of the (adjunct) instructors are people I work with at the fire station and I have shadowed with,” Perrigan said. “Another thing is I can stay in my hometown. Because I started college at 15, I couldn’t move away somewhere at that age. It was an easy decision to come here.”
Perrigan describes her life’s goals as “simple.” She would like to begin her career as a paramedic at the Norfolk Fire Division and obtain her firefighter training. In addition, once she has gained experience, she has an aspiration to eventually teach in Northeast’s EMS/Paramedic program.
“I'd like to stay locally and use my skills I've learned here and through the volunteer aspect of working in smaller towns.”
Outside of the classroom, paramedic students take part in a set number of clinical and field hours. This includes working shifts once a week in the emergency room (ER) at Norfolk’s hospital - Faith Regional Health Services (FRHS) and reporting to one of Norfolk’s two fire stations at 7 a.m. for a 12-to-15 hour shift. In addition to both Norfolk fire stations, paramedic students conduct their field time at Norfolk Ambulance Service, Columbus Fire, York Fire, and South Sioux City Paramedics.
Perrigan appreciates the staffs at Norfolk Fire and FRHS for sharing their experiences with the students.
“Whenever there's a call, you are a part of the team. You jump in the back of the ambulance, you go the patient, and every skill that you are checked off on and adequate in, you’re expected to do it; and they're helping you the entire way,” she said. “It's really incredible because it’s a fueled experience; you can learn so much in a book, but then it's so invaluable to actually see those patients. And at the ER, we get so many patient contacts in such a short amount of time. It lets us get that hands-on experience.”
On campus, the EMS/Paramedic Teaching Ambulance has served as an additional tool for the students. Performing tasks in the back of one of two teaching ambulances provides realism of cramped quarters, bumpy roads and a noisy environment – all of which is very authentic for the students.
“We'll be doing a scenario using high fidelity manikans and then an instructor will say, ‘Okay, load and go.’ It’s much different being under the nice bright lights and with a completely still manikan in the classroom,” Perrigan said. “Now you're in the back of the ambulance and you're driving all around and, you know, it's rocky and it's bumpy. It still allows us to have an invaluable real-world experience and gives us a chance to learn from our mistakes.”
The tasks of a paramedic are both physically and mentally challenging. Perrigan understands that. She works with a personal trainer to meet the rigors of the job.
“I am a small person, but really with this job whether you're small or big, it's going to be taxing on your body, both physically and mentally. I know I have to work harder than other people especially on the physical side of just building myself up to that. So, knowing that I'm going to be tested physically, but to be a good provider, you have to have a baseline strength of lifting and carrying.”
There is another challenge she has taken head-on.
“You also have to work harder as a female coming into this because there are different challenges you have to overcome,” she said. “There is a need for a diverse workplace, but I've never had any of the, ‘You're not going to be able to do this because you're a woman or because you're small,’ so I have had encouragement all along the way.”
Carol Rodenborg, director of Northeast’s EMS/Paramedic program, predicts Perrigan will go far in the field. Describing her as an “amazing student,” she said Perrigan is not only studying to pass her courses, she is studying so she is prepared to make a difference when the moment comes of standing between life and death.
“Sara has an amazing ability to work with difficult people who may not be as accepting of having a student as a caregiver. In the end, her patients and her preceptors enjoy working with her and gain a lot of respect for how dedicated she is, the compassion she shows and how knowledgeable she is,” Rodenborg said.
In addition to her studies, Perrigan serves on the Northeast Paramedic Advisory Board as a student representative and has assisted with the College’s Health and Wellness Career Day. She also serves as an unofficial recruiter for the program with commitments from several students who have participated in Emergency Medical Technician training in the Fridays at Northeast (dual credit) program.
“Becoming a paramedic has been Sara’s lifelong dream,” Rodenborg, said. “Northeast Community College and Project HELP have been able to assist her on so many fronts to make this dream a reality! I am confident she will be an excellent paramedic and any employer would be lucky to have her.”
Project HELP (Health Education Laddering Program) assists income-eligible Nebraskans with educational and training opportunities to prepare them to enter and advance in high-demand, well-paying healthcare jobs. It is funded through a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Profession Opportunity Grant.
Once Perrigan looked into the program, she thought it was too good to be true.
“Project HELP has been just incredible! They reached out to me and set up a success-coach meeting and that was really exciting. And not only did they set up meetings to check on me monthly, they started asking, ‘Can we get you a stethoscope? Can we get you a backpack? Can we get you supplies? How about a computer checkout?’ Not only that, but I get a $400 scholarship,” she said. “Just having that support is why I have stayed with Northeast because everyone is here to help you succeed.”
Perrigan also has her own business to help pay for college expenses. She said the origins of Bear Print Signs developed in 2015 when she started working with some art and old repurposed wood.
“And then the whole farmhouse kitchen thing exploded and that was super popular - the rustic signs and the chipped white paint and everything like that. And so, I just started kind of networking and seeing if I could I make a profit out of this. It was my goal to go through college debt free and I've been able to accomplish that. Everything kind of tied together to be able to create that goal.”
One person who is continually impressed by Perrigan is Kendall Uhrich, Project HELP grant success coach.
“During our success coaching meetings, I often discuss tips for studying, prioritizing, stress management, etc., with our students,” Uhrich said. “There’s been many times Sarah teaches me new tips that I’ve in turn suggested to other students who have benefitted from her wisdom and insight.”
Perrigan is viewed as a shining star in the Project HELP program. Career Coach/Recruiter Lisa Belz said she has seen Perrigan begin to achieve her goals and continues to set a high standard for herself.
“Sarah has been a great advocate for Project HELP by telling other potential students about our program,” Belz said. “I am always jazzed when others are out there talking about Project HELP. You forget how young Sarah is; she is very driven and has a bright future ahead of her.”
She may be small in stature, but the fan of a nearly 50-year-old television program about emergency medicine on the streets lives by the mantra that was given to her by one of her instructors – make the goals big, but the steps easy. Perrigan said she strives everyday to be a better person than she was the day before.
“A quote that has stuck with me is, ‘Discipline beats motivation.’ That's just kind of the way I live my life. Really the thing that that's made me so disciplined and motivated is, first my relationship with Jesus Christ and just the support that I have received through my community, my church, and my family; that has been the backbone of it,” Perrigan said. As a 5’1” very small female, I want to be a firefighter-paramedic and so that's a big goal, that's a big dream. I made the steps easy and I’m taking them one step at a time.”
Sarah Perrigan, a paramedic student at Northeast Community College, is ventilating (breathing) for a patient, a high fidelity mannikin, in the back of the College’s Teaching Ambulance.