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Sheri Baia has been an EMT for nearly three decades. Now, she trades being on the road for helping hire the future EMS workforce in Westchester County.
Let’s rewind to 27 years ago. At that time, Sheri Baia was a diehard artist who came to the realization that art might not be her forever career path because she was having trouble making it in the field. When she considered what might be next for her, it was a no-brainer to think about EMT and paramedic work around Westchester, because that’s what most of her family did.
With a push from her brother, she decided to take an interview at Empress EMS, one of the providers for White Plains Hospital – which marked the start of her professional career in medical services after the organization hired her right away. She spent the next four months training at night and on the weekends, and then sat for the New York State exam two months later.
“I didn’t think I’d be here this long,” says Baia. Yet the uniqueness of her responsibilities from day to day kept her wanting more.
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She spent her first 18 years on the road, responding to multiple calls a day. She says her favorite part of work on the road was being in the back of the ambulance and getting to know the patient who was in need of help. “I’d have old people tell me their life story in a matter of 10 minutes,” says Baia. “I take that, go home and think about it, and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It just makes you think. People you’ve never met your whole life, and then you come to pick them up, and you made a difference in their life.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced challenges. On the contrary, she notes that while the classroom might be really easy for someone, once you’re in the field, it’s a whole different ball game. That’s why she says strength and endurance are two key traits for an aspiring EMT, especially when considering the need to be able to carry patients down flights of stairs and lift the stretcher into the ambulance. The equipment alone is 40 to 50 pounds on an EMT’s back.
“People see us as just ambulance drivers, but we’re the first responders to get in there and start caring for patients,” says Baia. “Every day is a learning experience as an EMT, because it’s not like what you learned in class. It’s going to throw you curveballs where you have to think outside the box to help that person and get them to the hospital.”
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She moved up the ladder at Empress from a field training officer to sergeant to lieutenant. Today, she works in the office, where she interviews new EMTs and brings them onto the team. The folks she’s interviewing don’t have the same application process she had when she joined. Organizations, including Empress, offer their own programs for people to become EMTs. These allow people to train more quickly so they’re ready to begin work on the road. The process no longer takes four months, but instead just six weeks, with classes Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“It’s an amazing experience that I can be a part of that,” Baia notes.
At Empress, the program is earn to learn, which means that the new EMTs are being paid to sit through the class, but then are also guaranteed a full-time EMT job after they test out. The two things that make you eligible to begin the interview process include having a driver’s license and being at least 19 years old. A drug test and agility test are also required. Baia says there is a large range of people who the EMT job is the right fit for, including those later on in life who are looking for a career path change and those who aren’t sure if college is right for them.
And there’s room to grow from there. After a year at Empress, if you’re interested in a paramedic program anywhere in New York, the company will give you a $10,000 scholarship and $3/hour raise while you’re in the program as an incentive to stay.
In some ways, she says her job now is similar to being on the road. She still gets the opportunity to meet people and find out more about them.
“Meeting people, strangers, and making a difference in their life, has put a print on me,” Baia observes. “That’s my favorite part of my job.”
When interviewing candidates, she seeks to learn why they want to get into the career field and start their lives in this industry. Her favorite question: what do you expect when you go out into the field? She tries to drill into aspiring EMT brains that every single day will be something new.
“It’s not going to be a boring job,” Baia notes. “If you asked me as soon as I started how long I would end up here, I would have said, ‘Ah, maybe a year,’ but EMS sucks you in and you want more. You want to see more, you want to do more. It’s just such a different kind of job.”