When he graduated from New Paltz High School in 2006, Jason Conway admits, he didn’t have a clear vision for a career, or plans to attend college, nor even a favorite academic subject, sport or school club. “In high school I never really thought of EMS or medicine,” he says. But as of three weeks ago, the Gardiner native is the new chief of the New Paltz Rescue Squad, and helping to save the lives of neighbors in emergency situations has become his life’s mission.
In 2007, at the age of 19, Conway was working as a busboy at P&G’s when he got recruited by some regular customers to serve as a “volunteer observer” at the Rescue Squad. “A couple of older members of the Rescue Squad, Tommy Brush and Donna Lapolt, used to come into P&G’s to eat,” he recalls. “They told me I should put in an application.”
Calling the move “an attempt to get some sort of direction in my life,” Conway took to the volunteer work at once. He signed up for a semester-long EMT class offered by the Ulster County Ambulance Association, where he worked with dummies and learned such lifesaving essentials as CPR, bandaging techniques and ways to extricate people from wrecked cars safely. As a result, he says, “I was fortunate to get a Career EMT job within nine months.”
Then, in 2009, Conway enrolled in Dutchess County Community College full-time for four semesters to obtain professional certification as a paramedic: the equivalent of an Associate’s degree. When that training was completed, he was hired as a paramedic by the Rescue Squad. And he must have found his niche in life, because by 2013, he had been promoted to assistant chief — a position that, he says, “was created to be groomed for the position of chief.”
Now a relative veteran of the squad at the tender age of 27, Conway got his chance to move into the top supervisory position when the previous chief, Gina Bassinette, accepted a full-time position as a registered nurse. “I’m proud of her,” says Conway, acknowledging the demanding requirements of Bassinette’s new job, including 18-hour shifts of duty.
Conway’s typical onsite workweek runs from Monday through Thursday, with his new assistant chief Brian Link covering from Friday through Sunday. The chief supervises 15 paid, regularly scheduled employees and a shifting roster of some 85 volunteers, each of whom is expected to put in 24 hours on duty per month. Conway is also responsible for recruitment and scheduling, and does presentations on the Rescue Squad to other public agencies and community organizations.
What’s on the agenda under this new regime? “I want to increase membership and do more public outreach,” says Conway, “although we get a lot of people who just walk in, especially from the college: a lot of pre-med students who need patient contact time.”
The Rescue Squad answers an average of 180 calls for assistance per month, most of them for medical emergencies. People with chest pains suggesting a heart attack and asthmatics having difficulty breathing are common, says Conway. The job of the EMTs and paramedics is primarily to stabilize the patients long enough to transport them to a hospital. Some of the most rewarding moments on the job, according to the new chief, are “when you see the change — when their symptoms are decreased when you give them medication.”
But intervention in medical emergencies does not always lead to successful outcomes, and being on the scene when a patient dies or suffers traumatic damage in, say, an automobile accident can be very stressful for first responders “Some people internalize it,” notes Conway. “You have to talk to someone afterwards. Burnout is very possible. It’s important to have a support system.”
Luckily, the Rescue Squad, which he likens to a “big extended family,” has organized Critical Stress Management Teams to provide “debriefing after traumatic events.” For Conway, who was part of the team who had to transport the body of the murdered toddler Asia Perez-Medina to the hospital in 2012, the worst experiences are “things happening to kids. You never forget that. That stuck with me. That’s really where your family comes in, your friends.”
Nonetheless, Conway finds a great deal of satisfaction in his work. “Shockingly enough, I am a people person,” he says, poking fun at his own tongue-tied responses to a barrage of questions from a reporter. “I do care for people, both patients and members. That’s a big part of the job for me.”
“I always say it is funny how things just come together,” he adds thoughtfully. “This is the community I grew up in. Being able to help the people I see daily around town makes it worth it for me.”
Interested in volunteering for the New Paltz Rescue Squad? Call (845) 255-1719, ext. 13, and talk to Conway yourself. Maybe you too have an undiscovered calling to assist neighbors in need of urgent care.