EMT instructor sees program as force for good

Stories and photos by ALEX de LEÓN

Laura Pieslewicz is a busy woman.

“I don’t really know how to sit still,” she said. “I think I thrive on organized chaos.”

Pieslewicz, 39, works as an emergency medical technician, teaches hospital-related courses at Banner University Medical Center and has taught full time for Pima Community College’s EMT program since 2013.

She’s also a mom.

“My kids come first, but it does require epic scheduling and help,” she said.

Instructor Laura Pieslewicz applies makeup to class assistant Trent Karn.
Alex de León/Aztec Press

Pieslewicz was born and raised in Tucson with a “full-time mom” and a father who worked as a Pima County Sheriff’s deputy.

“Actually, when I was growing up they made me promise never to become a cop, which I think is funny now that I work in EMS,” she said.

She describes herself as having been “in a hurry to grow up.” At 17, she dropped out of high school and earned her diploma early. Around this time, her father was diagnosed with cancer.

Pieslewicz began working to help support the family, and she helped care for her sick father. “I learned about home care and home hospice a lot from that,” she said.

She also began taking classes at PCC. One elective, pre-hospital emergency medicine, appealed to her immediately. “Things just fit sometimes when you do them and I realized this was something that fit,” she said.

Her father lost his battle with cancer and died in 1997. He was 47 years old.

After earning her EMT certification, Pieslewicz worked as a patient care technician in Tucson. She later moved to northern Virginia with “the guy I thought I was going to marry.”

The relationship didn’t last, and she returned after three years. She started work as a patient care technician and as an EMT for Southwest Ambulance. She also started a new relationship, got married and moved with her husband to his home country of South Africa.

“It was not too long after apartheid fell,” she said. “Believe it or not, people don’t like Americans everywhere in the world, and it was hard just to find a place to live.”

The two settled in Boksburg, a suburb of Johannesburg, and she got a job working at Johannesburg Academic Hospital.

She stayed in Boksburg for less than a year, but her time there left a mark when she experienced the most traumatic episode of her professional career. A fire broke out in a nearby camp, which led to a stampede and several fatalities.

“We had everything from trampled people trying to escape the fire to people that were burned, completely burned,” she said.

She returned to Tucson and had two children, Catherine and Dennis. She and her husband divorced and he returned to South Africa. He eventually returned, but she was left with the sole responsibility of raising their two children.

Pieslewicz continued working as a field EMT and began teaching in 2008 as an adjunct instructor for Pima’s EMT program.

“I became a teacher to give back, keep current on stuff,” she said. “Never saw myself in that role, but it fit.”

She became a full-time EMT instructor at East Campus in 2013, embracing her role as an educator of new EMTs.

“I feel an investment when they get out in the field,” she said. “I’m proud when they go work in the field and they say, ‘Hey, I’m from Laura’s class.’ That’s a pride thing for me.”

Lauren Frelke, 27, went through the program in 2014.

EMT students, foreground from left, Nick Harris, Kendall Tarver and Matthew Kroeger work on “patient” Trent Karn during a mock drill. Jose Medina, background, and others observe.
Alex de León / Aztec Press

“In general, Laura’s one of the best instructors I’ve had for anything,” she said. “She gives a ton of input and examples from working in the field and she can implement them in class.”

Frelke is now Pieslewicz’s teaching assistant.

“She’s genuinely interested in her students and their outcomes and success,” Frelke said.

Pieslewicz continued as a Pima instructor and a field EMT and took on the extra responsibility of orienting newly hired Southwest Ambulance EMTs.

Then tragedy struck in 2015. Her middle brother, Adam, died of a drug overdose at age 36.

“My world crashed at that point,” Pieslewicz said. “This was surreal, and real, and overwhelming.”

The event awakened old ghosts.

“Things that I didn’t realize I still hung on to, memories of things, started overwhelming me,” she said. “That’s when I realized, ‘Yeah, this is a problem,’ and I think people around me probably realized it first.”

She sought treatment and was diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “I never really, truly understood what PTSD was until I had doctors tell me that I had it,” she said. “It’s just stuff I thought I was invincible to.”

Pieslewicz thinks society puts an unfair expectation onto her profession.

“You know, we’re expected to see all these bad things and the worst in human nature,” she said. “Society kind of puts it on us to compartmentalize it, and we’re humans.”

She carries on, devoting herself to her teaching and her students. She believes deeply in Pima’s EMT program and sees it as a force for good, enriching the lives of her students and the community.

“I think of it like building Legos,” she said. “If you have a good foundation on the structure of your building, you can build really easily and make your structure nice and tall. And in this field, you have to have a really solid foundation.”

She makes sure her students are aware of the possible effects of such a stressful job and the possibility of developing the kinds of psychological issues she’s experienced.

“I have a lot of my own personal little missions,” she said. “One of them is to make sure they’re aware of those things and have that in place, and that actually helps me too.”

Classes meet at East Campus

PCC offers emergency medical technician classes at East Campus during spring, summer and fall sessions.

The EMT 100 course is required to earn a certificate in emergency medical technology through the Arizona Bureau of Emergency Medical Services.

Upon successful completion of the class, students may take a national registry test for emergency medical technicians and obtain their national EMT certification.

Supplemental courses include ambulance operations. A new anatomy and physiology course will begin in Fall 2017.

The program teaches basics of pre-hospital emergency medicine, including patient assessment, basic life support intervention and radio communication.

Students attend lectures and learn skills through hands-on demonstrations that emphasize problem solving and teamwork.

Skills are tested via mock calls in which teams are dispatched to emergency scenarios. East Campus facilities sport a model living room, bedroom and bathroom.

Instructors use industry-standard equipment and an array of props and makeup to add realism. The program also employs two working ambulances as part of its curriculum.

EMT 100 is a 12-credit course, with options for Monday/ Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday classes. Students must obtain a valid CPR certification before enrolling in the program.

Prospective students must also attend an emergency medical technology information session that provides information about eligibility, requirements and costs.

For more information, contact Brandy Randolph at 206-7839.

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