Legally blind councilman trains to be EMT

MARIETTA – Steve Thomas has never been one to back down from a challenge, and living with a major vision impairment he’s had his share, but that hasn’t stopped Thomas from running for and winning Marietta’s 3rd Ward Council seat and serving the last six years on the Rehabilitation Services Consumer Advocacy Council of Ohio board of which he is co-chairman.

So it’s probably not surprising that Thomas, 58, has taken on his most recent challenge of training to become an emergency medical technician – possibly the first sitting Marietta City Council member to do so.

“I’d been thinking about it for about a year, but was just able to start classes in January,” he said. “I go to many events and conferences where a lot of people with a wide variety of disabilities may be present, and you never know when something could happen and someone with EMT skills could help save a life.”

Thomas himself was in need of emergency medical attention when he suffered a stroke last June.

“It was June 17 and we had just returned home around midnight from a class reunion,” he recalled. “And about 2 a.m. I was hit by a stroke. When the ambulance arrived the crew’s skills saved my life. I could have ended up in a wheelchair or worse.”

That experience also had some bearing on his decision to pursue EMT certification.

“I was intrigued by how they knew what to do and were able to help,” Thomas said.

After some rehabilitation time, he started EMT classes Jan. 14 at Washington State Community College under instructor Dave Ankrom.

“We meet Mondays and Wednesdays from 5-10 p.m.,” Thomas said. “It’s a basic skills class where we learn about checking blood pressure, keeping airways clear for breathing and screening patients to determine what’s wrong.”

He said the course includes 20 hours of “ride-along” time with local emergency squads, as well as 10 hours working in a hospital emergency room, taking vitals and monitoring patients.

A week ago “I went on my first runs with the Marietta Fire Department’s squad unit,” Thomas said. “We had three runs that morning. I was able to administer some oxygen and took some vitals on the patients. I was a little nervous at first, but became more comfortable after the first run.”

He’s classified as legally blind, having no peripheral vision, but Thomas can read letters and numerals if enlarged enough for him to see.

“I have a blood pressure monitor that has large print so I can read it,” he said. “But I’m also learning that a lot of an EMT’s job involves hearing and touch, and not so much visual. There’s a lot you can do without having perfect vision.”

Thomas said everything went well on his first ride-along.

“I think the squad members were pretty surprised,” he said.

Ankrom said students who complete the 15-week class at WSCC will test for certification with the National EMT Basic Registry as well as the Ohio EMT Basic Registry.

“With that certification they can choose to continue into advanced EMT courses or go to work as volunteer EMTs,” he said. “They can also work in hospitals or even for security firms for private industry.”

Thomas said he would consider volunteering with a squad.

“If I did, I would probably have to volunteer with the Devola squad, as I live in that district,” he said.

Susie Rhodes, chief with the Devola Volunteer Fire Department’s Rescue Squad, said people with disabilities can serve with the squad.

“As long as they’re certified and can perform the duties assigned and the disability doesn’t interfere with their ability to take care of patients,” she said. “We would have to determine their abilities on a person by person basis. But we’re always looking for more volunteers.”

Rhodes noted, in addition to EMT services, there are other services that folks with disabilities can provide for the squad, including administrative duties or auxiliary services.

Thomas hopes the challenges he takes on will help inspire others with disabilities to attempt new experiences, even if others say it can’t be done.

Two weekends ago he went skiing at the Timberline resort in West Virginia.

“I hadn’t been skiing for at least 10 years, but I wore a vest that said ‘blind skier’ and two guys skied with me, one in front and the other in back,” he said. “I got a lot of comments from other skiers there who said it was unbelievable.”

Thomas lives by the mantra, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”

“I’ve learned to do a lot of things-and I really like a challenge,” he said. “I can always find a way to adapt.”