Five Tips for New Paramedic School Students

A guest post by Sean Fontaine.

I’ve been bugging Sean to write a guest post for the blog for a few years now. I don’t usually harass my friends about writing content, but Sean is so enthusiast about his work that I just couldn’t help myself. As a first year paramedic, Sean has a unique perspective on what it takes to make the transition from EMT certification to paramedic. In this post, he shares with you five things that can make the difference between success and failure.

Sean is a graduate of Regis University and a Firefighter / Paramedic for The South Metro Fire Rescue Authority. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his lovely wife Oz and their two sons Jonas and Axel. If you’re considering making the jump from EMT certification to paramedic practice, you won’t find better advice anywhere.

Steve and I have been discussing the possibility of my writing a guest post for The EMT Spot for a couple years now. So, after paramedic school and clearing as a new paramedic were done, he proposed that now was a great time to stop backpedaling and get on it. I’ve been accused of dragging my feet on getting this done. Shooting topics back and forth, we came to the obvious conclusion that an article discussing five tips for new or perspective students would be far more uplifting than the pediatric death and dying discussions that I’ve been having with the current paramedic school students.

With that said, here are my top five  tips for fledgling paramedic school students.

Tip #1: Get Ready for Paramedic School

Let’s start with the question I’ve heard prospective and new paramedic school students ask over and over again, “What do I need to read to ensure that I’m ready for paramedic school?”

Don’t worry, everything you need to read to be ready for paramedic school is in your EMT-Basic book. There’s a reason every EMS class and every EMS book you’ll come across stresses the ABCs; these are the basic essentials that we use to evaluate and treat every patient. These are the basics we need to be prepared to treat and have within normal limits before we move forward with our patient assessment. These are also what you should fall back on when your advanced interventions aren’t working or cannot be performed for any reason.

It sounds trite, but every good paramedic begins as a good basic. Without good assessment skills and the ability to use your five senses, instead of your machines that go ping, it will be an uphill battle to work up your patients. To re-emphasize that point, you should have a systematic approach to your physical assessment of patients when you’re arriving at the door of paramedic school. This systematic approach will save you time and again. It’s your job to find out what is wrong today, not theirs to tell you. Quite often, they can’t or won’t tell you.

Your EMT-Basic book also teaches basic anatomy/physiology, patient presentation, and how to address insults to the ABCs. All of these are foundations to what you will begin building upon as a paramedic student.

Tip #2: Learn From Your Mistakes

One of the most important lessons you can learn early on in paramedic school (if you haven’t already learned it as a basic) is to learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, they’re going to happen. No one is perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist in medicine. (Hence the practice of medicine.) There’s a learning point to every call, rookie or vet. Learning from your mistakes means recognizing where you’ve gone wrong, and likely 90% of the time you’ll realize it as you’re making the mistake, or soon there after The other 10% your preceptor will let you know. Then you can mentally bookmark what you did, why it was wrong, how to correct it in the future. Then move on and don’t dwell on it. Go on to your next call in two minutes or two hours with a clear head and treat the next patient.

Learning how to move on, so that you’re not dwelling on the mistakes you’ve made, will help you continue moving forward and learning, so that you can competently listen to and treat your patients appropriately. Dwelling complicates things, muddies your thoughts, and doesn’t allow you to learn from the mistake. It usually stems from that nagging need to be perfect. Again, remember that perfection doesn’t exist in medicine. It’s an environment where we’re constantly learning and can always strive to do better at something every day.

In addition, there will be numerous subtleties that you likely won’t clue in to yet, with regards to patient presentation.   Don’t beat yourself up over this – it is normal during school. The purpose of your clinical rotations and field rides is to reinforce pattern recognition and patient presentation; this is where you start learning the subtleties. This is why, when you watch your preceptors run calls, they may only ask a handful of pointed questions and seem to be confident in the direction they’re heading with treatment, while you’re still trying to figure out why the patient called 911 today.

Medicine has numerous shades of gray and you’ll learn that what was right to treat one patient may not be right with another of similar presentation due to subtleties of their disease process/injury.

Tip #3: Communicate Effectively and With Confidence

In order to begin running calls in any capacity (Meaning you begin, then your preceptor takes over or you run a call from initial contact to the final destination.) you will need to be able to talk effectively to your patients. This skill doesn’t come easy for every one and usually isn’t seamless early on in your clinical experience, but this is another skill that your clinical rotations and field rides will reinforce again and again.

Steve wrote a post around a year ago about how, if you actively listen to your patient after asking a question, you’ll likely hear some of the answers you were looking for. However, when your head is overloaded with material from class and your desire to find answers outweighs your patience to listen, you won’t hear this information.

Instead, after you ask a question, you’ll likely be distracted from the patient’s answer because you’re thinking of the next one you’d like to ask, and then as soon as they stop talking, you repeat the cycle again. This rapid fire questioning and not listening is very common during some portion of paramedic school for most people. Frustrating as it is, it will pass.

One of my partners described the paramedics who could seamlessly transition between different populations and have similarly good patient interactions with them all. (A social chameleon.) Eventually you’ll need to be able to speak competently, without jargon, to people of any age group, income or education level. Your ability to cultivate this skill directly correlates with how quickly and effectively you gain patient trust and build a rapport. Strong rapport is built quickly. Patients observe how you carry yourself, the respect with which you speak to them and others, the confidence that you convey, how you discuss their current situation, how you would like to remedy it and the calm manner of your delivery.

Rapport cannot be underestimated. Without it, calls tend to run with more difficulty and patients do not have as much trust in you or your skills.

Tip#4: Your Habits and Attitude Will Make or Break You

Your attitude can make or break your paramedic school experience. A positive attitude, a clean uniform and respect for your preceptor, your patients and the hospital staff will go a long way toward ensuring that your reputation is a good one. Along with the previously mentioned items, a strong work ethic and the realization that you don’t know everything will further cement that good reputation for you. This is a good mantra: work harder everyday than you did the day before. Whatever reputation you have, good or bad, everyone at the agencies where you’re doing your clinicals and rides will know that reputation before they know you. Reputations precede and follow you everywhere you go. A bad reputation is exceedingly hard to get away from.

Part of your strong work ethic should include learning the par levels and location of all of the equipment (on the ambulances you’ll be working on) as early as possible. It’s your job as a student to know where everything is. Your preceptors already know this stuff.

Another aspect of illustrating a good work ethic is a dedication to studying your classroom material. Bring your books on rides for slow times. Be cautious with reading them during clinicals, because there’s almost always something you can be doing instead of reading when you’re in the hospital. (The OR rotation might be an exception) You don’t need 100% on all of your exams, but you should be able to discuss and apply all of the material appropriately. Remember, your patients won’t care what your grades were; they will care that you can treat them with a solid, common sense approach.

The key to studying well is finding out how you learn most effectively and using this approach consistently throughout school. In addition, ensure that you budget your time wisely with regard to studying and scheduling your clinical hours. If you get behind in either one you will quickly feel overwhelmed. Then that focus on a positive attitude will suffer (as will your work ethic) because you have diverted your energies elsewhere.

Tip #5: Take Care of Your Family, Your Friends and Yourself

Lastly, all of the above things don’t matter if you don’t take care of yourself and your family. Though I just stressed the importance of vigilant studying, learning from mistakes, learning to talk with others, attitude, work ethic, and all, none of it matters if you’re a hermit with failing relationships due to stress and exhaustion.

You should have days where you put down your books and go out with your family and friends and decompress. You’re going to need it. One of my friends told me just prior to school that I should put my books in a box on those days, because he knew if I could see them I’d be inclined to open them. You’re also going to reach a point where you’ve studied enough and further studying will only stress you out instead of reinforcing the material. It took me a while to realize when I had reached that point. As time went on, I could feel it and I would walk away, go for a run, go out for dinner with my wife, get ice cream with my kids, even do house chores.

Hopefully, your family supports your decision to go to paramedic school and understands that you will be intermittently absent both mentally and physically. You will have periods where you can’t get away from school, be it clinicals or studying, and they may resent this from time to time. In those times, seeing the end goal is huge for all involved, even though, yes, the short term can suck. As your family supports you during school, you should support them. Let them know that you appreciate their love and support. Let none of it go unnoticed, no matter how exhausted or stressed you are.

The other crucial part to taking care of yourself (and I fully admit it doesn’t happen all the time) is ensuring you sleep, eat, and rest as best you can. My mantra became, “Sleep, eat, rest, repeat.” and when you can’t, stock up on your migraine meds. I refilled my Imitrex and Phenergan prescriptions a few times during school.

For all you’ll hear about paramedic school, including it being one of the most stressful times of your life, it’s entirely what you make of it. I had numerous migraines. (All atypical presentations and a handful during my clinicals and rides.) I slept anywhere between one and eight hours a night, but generally less than four. I frequently didn’t eat or drink during field rides. I often went what seemed like a week without seeing my family. I studied all of the time and increased my already elevated coffee intake exponentially higher.

Through it all, I smiled just about all day long during every clinical and every field ride. I made some great friends. I learned to stop over thinking my calls and I learned how to feel good standing at the front and walking into the call. I learned more than I ever thought I could file way in my head and competently use when needed. I found dozens of good and cheap Mexican food stands throughout the city of Denver. I enjoyed myself immensely and I had a great time.

In hindsight it’s a bit like high school. Would I do it again? …Not if I didn’t have to, but damn it was fun.

Comments

  1. As a new paramedic this article helped with some good suggestions. Being new in any job is stressful but it is good to remember that everyone goes through this stage and that even veterans have bad days and still need to learn stuff.

  2. Wise words any new medic could find useful.

  3. this was a great article…i am currently working on my emt-b course and then going to paramedic school and i appreciate all of your hard work to come up with this list for future students :)

    sara

  4. Taylor Olson says:

    Great stuff! From someone getting ready to start P-school this article really helped. Thanks for the post.

  5. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Andy Glad you hear you like it and found it useful. Thanks.

    @ Ambulance_Driver I agree.

  6. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Sarabeth Burke Thanks Sarahbeth

    @Taylor Olson You’re a rock star Taylor. And you know where to find Sean if you need more advice.

  7. Sean Fontaine says:

    I’m glad you guys found this piece useful. It took me a while to get it done and I appreciate the feedback. Steve is pimping me for a new article, we’ll see when that one materializes.

  8. I guess my struggle is overcoming not accepting that I will make mistakes. I’m my biggest critic, and I’m so much harder on myself than I should be. What’s your suggestion? I’m in my third week of my first semester of p-school. I don’t know if it’s the fear of lawsuits or the fear of having olmd or an er physician chewing my ass because of an error. I’d rather just quit than have to hear about it, mistakes don’t leave. That once mistake will mar your career as always being the “paramedic who didn’t …..” regardless of how many you may get back or deliver to the best of your abilities, you will always be “that paramedic”. I guess that’s my fear in a ranting nutshell.

  9. Sean Fontaine says:

    Chris,
    Fear of failure is legitimate and something we all struggle w/at sometime during our career. However, the real learning comes when you allow yourself to go out there and confidently interact w/your pts and preceptors. Paramedic school is one of the few times you’ll have a treatment safety net to work within and taking advantage of it will be extremely beneficial in working through your reluctance to make mistakes. Being hard on yourself is good to a degree. When you can take the lesson and move forward it’s good. However, when it’s paralyzing due to dwelling on the mistakes made you’re not learning, you’re looking for perfection and you’ll never find it.
    In addition, the fear that you’ll be remembered as the paramedic who made this mistake and that one. Always, remember this: we’ve all made mistakes big ones and little ones, lived to tell, and if you’re humble and learn from it, you’ll retain the respect of your peers and come out the other side better for it. Any paramedic who tells you they came out of school never faltering, is lying, we learn through our failures as much if not more than our successes. The paramedic who acts as if they know it all and that their shit doesn’t stink is “that paramedic,” and everyone they work w/knows it. My final note on this: yes there are single mistakes that can permanently mar a career, these are gross errors in judgement (in which you’ll have flashes of reason as they are being done) that inflict harm on someone, coupled w/a failure to admit that you were wrong. Don’t lie in reports, never mark off opiates/benzos w/out counting them, don’t steal opiates/benzos, don’t report a treatment you did not perform, own your mistakes and atone for them.
    Remember have fun, this is a job where we get to learn for the rest of our lives and see a side of life most will never even have a glimpse into. However, if for any reason you discover that this isn’t for you, leaving of your own accord will not be frowned upon there are a hundred other things we can each do w/our lives. I hope you find some solace in the fact that we’ve all stood where you are right now at one time or another and we now happily sit in the ambulance having moved forward from that point.

  10. Jessica says:

    Thanks for this post! I just received my EMT-B certification and I’m hoping to get a job at Medic here in Charlotte, NC. Do you have any suggestions for me when it comes to applying for the job or working as an EMT first? I have no experience at all in EMS so, the goal is to work as an EMT for a year before I attempt paramedic school.

  11. Sean Fontaine says:

    Jessica,
    Congratulations on finishing your Basic. I wasn’t familiar w/Medic 911 so I looked at their system and info. A lot of us worked in private ambulance systems to start, myself and Steve included and gained amazing experience during that time. I can’t stress enough working in EMS prior to applying for paramedic school and this is for a myriad of reasons. Many of those reasons are listed in the tips above (you’ll have experienced making mistakes, etc). In addition you’ll have learned how to get accurate vital signs and IVs while the ambulance is moving, both critical skills to have confidence in for all of us.
    In so far as tips on getting hired: be confident/not cocky during the interview, listen to the question and answer it to the best of your ability/no canned answers that you think they want to hear, be honest always, and be humble. Some companies will view a new Basic grad w/out experience as a piece of clay they can mold, others think the investment is too great. There is unfortunately a high turnover in EMS, but there are many who stay for life because it’s a great job. Medic 911 has paid paramedic school for their Basics according to their website, that is an awesome opportunity for you as a new Basic. Go into the interview/hiring process and show why you have the desire to be an excellent employee, the willingness to learn, and the desire to stay w/the company for a good length of time to show that you’re worth their investment initially and long term. Email us back here @ theemtspot to let us know how everything goes and if you have any further questions as you progress through the the hiring process. Good luck.

  12. I just finished paramedic school, passed the national registry and I just ran my first solo call.

    I really wish I’d seen this article at the start of my paramedic classes. It would have been so beneficial. There are many things in it that pertain to me…many of them mistakes that could have been prevented by this article.

    Thanks for the article. It was perfect. I hope many students take these wise words to heart.

  13. I am in my 8th week of my first semester as paramedic and I’m going to take these rules to heart. My problem is right now that I feel as if my family is not understanding how busy and stressful this really is. I’m trying to make them understand. Thanks for the encouragement.

  14. Thanks for the article. In Australia studying the EMT-I curriculum. Over here it is qualified as a Diploma and takes a year part time. The EMT-B equivalent is a Certificate and a precursor. Worked as an Industrial EMT-B for a year before starting. Most onroad Paramedics in Australia these days have a bachelor degree or an Advanced Diploma as a minimum (2-4yrs). How long is Paramedic School in the US?
    I have 3 weeks full time class and 2 weeks clinical coming up so have taken this advice to heart, not many over here are forthcoming with it.
    Not having to remember every single detail is a relief. The more you learn in this field, the more you realise you don’t know.

  15. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this information. I’ve had my EMT certification for a year now but have not worked with it. Prior to getting my EMT I worked in Operating Rooms at Kaiser, Anesthesia and Perioperative Care. Any thoughts about beginning a Paramedic Academy without first working as an EMT?

  16. Great stuff, Sean. I particularly agree with #2. Going in with an open mind, being willing to use constructive criticism, and tossing out the defensive mindset is key. Understand that you’re in an educational phase, you’re not expected to know everything yet, and you’ll open yourself up to so many more subtle opportunities to learn.

  17. This was very informative Sean and very true:) I am about a month away from being done with paramedical school and this hit the nail on the Head. Thk u

  18. I love this post, Sean! Another paramedic training tip I’d like to sort of add is the component of stress. I’d encourage all prospective students to understand that, at times, you will feel confused. You will feel overwhelmed. And if, by chance, you fail your NREMT exams the first time, you may even feel that you’re not cut out to become a paramedic.

    I’d just like anyone who’s feeling that way to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and you’re not alone if you feel that way. Just don’t let the stress eat away at you, or your family. As best as humanly possible, try to separate school and personal life.

    Plan family time around your didatic instruction. Make sure your clinical rotations don’t result in your family and friends feeling utterly neglected, because if everyone is stressed out, angry, and even bitter, it can affect your focus in school and ultimately harm your relationships out of school.

    Once again, great in-depth write-up, Sean!

  19. Thanks dude, i needed to hear alot of that before school.

  20. Hey Chris
    I am a 20 year old namibian girl , I will start with my paramedic degree next year.
    reading this article it was really informative to me.
    I am looking forward to next year.
    please email me your email address so that we could stay in touch

  21. I am currently working as an EMT. I have been a basic about 8 months now. I am going to try and get my Advanced EMT this summer and am hoping to start paramedic school in the fall or I may push it out a semester so I have a better foundation. I don’t know what to do yet, I have my interview on Thursday (today is sunday) for admissions to paramedic school. fingers crossed. I am really nervous!

  22. mrs.betancourt says:

    Help, please? My husband just started EMT training, and is en route to paramedics as a career. I am looking for book titles that we help me, and our family adjust to life of an EMS worker. The more I read on blogs the more nervous I feel about it all. It seems that God has put us on this track, and I want to know how to be his help-mate, and not a hindrance. Know of any good books? Thanks so much.

    -mrs. betancourt
    p.s. the blogs are so helpful; i guess the reality is starting to set in…

  23. HI SEAN IM IN MY 4TH MONTH OF PARAMEDIC CLASS AND JUST WANTED TO COMMEND U ON A WELL THOUGHT OUT AND WRITTEN ARTICLE. WE START CLINICAL ROTATIONS IN ABOUT 1 MONTH AND I HAVE TO SAY I AM TRULY TERRIFIED OF CRACKING UNDER PRESSURE AND MAKING mistkes however i do feel like your article put it into perspective for me and not to dwell on my mistakes which im very good at. I do know for a fact that i want to become a paramedic and get myself back into living the dream.I had 4 years on as a ff/emt back in 2008 when i was laid off. Thanks again for the inspiring article. Wish me luck. Respectfully Keller Tucson Az

  24. Keena Bowens says:

    This is a very good article! This helped me relax a little! I’ll be taking paramedic in a month’s time! I’m excited, but nervous! I get butterflies, but it’s a passion so I know I can do it! Good luck to everyone else, wish me luck!

  25. What exams do i need to pass at school to become a paramedic

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