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Saneet Johal ’13Saneet Johal ’13

Tara Graham '98Tara Graham '98

Army 1st Lt. Kyle Soler ’05Army 1st Lt. Kyle Soler ’05

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Students, alumni learn life-saving skills through WEMS program

Tara Graham ’98 will never forget the day she almost drowned.

She was working with the Peace Corps in Tanzania and needed a break from the summer heat. So, accompanied by 30-plus teenagers, she hiked to a nearby waterfall to swim.

The dip was refreshing, at first. But that changed when an 18 year old suddenly grabbed her in a bear hug and pulled her under water.

“He was panicking and was a lot stronger than I was,” Graham says. “I knew that if I did not escape we could both drown.”

Graham clawed at the boy’s chest. When the pain caused him to release his grip, Graham escaped to the surface. Once she caught her breath, Graham and a few other students pulled the teen out of the water to safety.

Her quick thinking under pressure saved both Graham’s life and that of the drowning boy — a skill she attributes to her training as a Willamette Emergency Medical Services (WEMS) responder.

“Thanks to WEMS, I have the ability to keep a calm head in situations, and I am able to organize people to action as a result,” she says.

Hands-On Experience

Like Graham, Saneet Johal ’13 says her WEMS training has prepared her to react when someone needs help.

A biology major, Johal came to Willamette knowing she wanted hands-on experience working with patients.

“I didn’t want to just deliver flowers or clean the reception area at the hospital,” Johal says. “I really wanted to help people. That’s what drove me to be on WEMS at Willamette.”

WEMS was founded in 1997 by students concerned with the safety and well being of those on campus. Today, 30 student volunteers keep the program running.

To join, students must take a first-responder course at Willamette, which equips them with the necessary certifications to respond to emergency calls. They maintain their standing and emergency-response skills by attending weekly drill sessions.

Army 1st Lt. Kyle Soler ’05 — who has served several years in Iraq and Afghanistan since graduating — was involved in WEMS throughout his time at Willamette.

He says his WEMS medical training has helped him give life-saving care to more than 20 fellow soldiers, local nationals and contractors.

“WEMS is a doorway seldom offered at a college,” says Soler, who is stationed in Afghanistan through next year. “From a professional standpoint, you will walk away with an experience you can put on your resume or your graduate school application.”

Every Thursday through Sunday, at least three WEMS members are on call for 24-hour shifts. Their job is to respond at a moment’s notice when Campus Safety is called about an emergency.

“You start to understand the difficulty and dynamics of being on call,” Johal says. “Not only do you need to deal with the things that you don’t want to deal with, like vomit, but you need to get the important information from that patient. Sometimes it can be really serious, and you need to understand what is going on with their bodies and how to get them the kind of help they need.”

A Unique Leadership Opportunity

WEMS is led by a six-member student executive team, which meets weekly to plan drill sessions, organize events and carry out other behind-the-scenes work. Advisors Ross Stout and Margaret Trout — the directors of Campus Safety and Bishop Wellness Center, respectively — attend meetings and provide guidance.

Johal says she came to Willamette without many leadership skills, but that changed after serving on the WEMS executive board for four years.

“I was put in a position where I was expected to go to meetings to present material and speak to people,” Johal says. “WEMS really added to my character by allowing me to have that authoritative role and that kind of responsibility.”

Soler also served on the WEMS executive team while at Willamette, which he says helped prepare him for the Army.

“I was promoted twice as fast as my peers because of the skill sets I acquired through WEMS,” Soler says. “I was able to deal with situations as they arose with a calm outward appearance and a relaxed demeanor.”

Beyond Willamette

WEMS can be life changing, regardless of a student’s major and career plans.

Graham has a master of public health degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and works as a senior program specialist for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. She is working toward her life-long dream of becoming a nurse, with plans to begin a nursing program in 2014.

Johal, who credits WEMS with helping her discover her passion for helping people, plans to attend medical school.

“If you are not sure if you want to be in medicine, WEMS is a great way to figure that out,” Johal says. “I definitely get an adrenaline rush when I get calls, and it helps me affirm that I really am interested in medicine.”

As for Soler, he says WEMS gave him valuable clinical experience. But more importantly, it trained him how to help others.

“While the calls may be few and far between or the seriousness of the situation may vary greatly, you never know when your response will have an impact on someone’s life, big or small,” Soler says. “[WEMS] is a very concrete way to embrace the school motto: ‘Not unto ourselves alone are we born.’”

• Story by Katie Huber ’13, politics major