Nick Parks, sitting in the back of an ambulance, is an intensive care EMT for Northeast Mobile Health Services, which provides emergency transport for patients throughout Maine. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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If you ask Nick Parks, the most important skill to have in emergencies is communication.

And Parks should know since he sees emergencies all the time.

“You can’t be afraid to work with people, you can’t be afraid to touch people, and you can’t be afraid to learn,” said the 25-year-old intensive care EMT for Northeast Mobile Health Services, the state’s largest ambulance service.

Most of his work, Parks said, is transporting patients between hospitals in southern Maine, or between hospitals and nursing homes. But the organization is statewide, its services vary around Maine, and there are times when patients are driven to other states.

Parks has been with Northeast for a year and is also a firefighter and EMT in Westbrook. The Falmouth resident said he entered the career because his father is a doctor and his mother is a nurse, so he knew he wanted to also work in the medical profession. But his interest was in emergency services.

“Having a good personality goes a long way to making people feel comfortable,” Parks said. “It allows (patients) to feel comfortable with a stranger coming into their home. They’ve never seen us before. So having that warm, open personality is huge.”

Parks, who will begin training for his intermediate-level EMT license this month, exudes that warmth. He said the way to ease transport is to explain the steps to the patient along the way. He said that’s especially important when dealing with elderly patients who may have memory loss or dementia, and with patients in psychiatric care.

“Sometimes it takes holding an old lady’s hand to make them feel comfortable,” he said.

Being an EMT is far from an easy job at any time, and the coronavirus pandemic has only added to the complications. Parks said having to be masked makes it especially difficult to communicate with patients who are being transported.

The coronavirus cleaning standards have also created a new challenge. He said the process to clean a truck before it can go out on a call can take up to 30 minutes, and the vehicle is taken fully out of service until cleaning has been completed. If a truck isn’t fully cleaned when an emergency call comes in, that call either is referred for municipal emergency response or has to be held until a truck is available.

Additionally, he said, EMTs are now trained to treat every patient they transport as if they have COVID-19, meaning all the EMTs must wear personal protective equipment, and any patient with a cough, fever, or any other possible symptom is brought to the COVID-19 isolation unit at the hospital. That itself can be problematic since patients who don’t have the virus can be exposed to it when they are transported.

Parks said showing up in full PPE – mask, goggles, face shield, gown – can make a patient more nervous, which is why being able to make people feel comfortable is important.

“Communication is really it,” he said.

Another challenge is staffing. Northeast has about 200 employees around the state, from the Scarborough location where Parks is based up to the Canadian border. But because the EMTs are at high risk for COVID-19 exposure, an exposure means a mandatory 14-day quarantine. It doesn’t mean the trucks stop going out; it just means other drivers and EMTs have to do more work.

“We can’t leave an ambulance unstaffed,” he said. “We’re out there 24/7, and 365 days a year.”