Noah Goes to Work: Working with ambulances may be a dream come true for Noah Sweeney, but his coworkers are the lucky ones
By Kristy Bleizeffer Dec 16, 2015
Noah Sweeney, 20, focused as well as he could on the blood-draw kits he assembled in the room behind Wyoming Medical Center’s ambulance bay. But he couldn’t help but steal glances at the closed door.
“Look at your bag,” said Jessica Iriberry, Noah’s helper. “Does it have everything it needs?”
“Yes,” Noah answered.
“Check again please.”
Stuffing these kits is important work. They contain everything an EMT or paramedic needs to get a blood sample while in the field: a syringe, four vials with color-coded tops, a buff cap, and an Angel Wings Transfer Dome. They ensure paramedics can administer care quickly and efficiently. If Noah wasn’t there to stuff them, our highly-trained paramedics and EMTs would have to do it.
But, on a recent Monday morning, that door remained a distraction.
“I’m looking for Derek,” Noah said.
“I know you are,” Jessica answered. “But check your kit, please.”
WATCH: Noah Sweeney and Wyoming Medical Center paramedic Derek Rodrick check our LUCAS Chest Compression System.
Working at Wyoming Medical Center is Noah’s dream. He’s long wanted to be an EMT, and his favorite television shows are those that highlight the jobs of EMS professionals, such as Rescue 911. But follow him for just one shift, and you get the feeling that it’s the people he works with who are the lucky ones.
When the door finally opened, Noah’s favorite paramedic, Derek Rodrick, walked in. Noah’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. Derek’s did too.
A Christmas baby come early
Maybe Noah loves hospitals so much because he’s spent so much time in them.
He was supposed to be a Christmas baby, due on Dec. 24, 1995. But his mother, Jan Nelson, then living in Douglas, had complications during pregnancy and was life-flighted to Denver. Noah was born Nov. 9, seven weeks early.
He was diagnosed in Denver with VACTERL Association, an acronym to describe a series of defects often occurring together. “It’s just a glitch in the system that develops at about four weeks,” Jan said. It affects about 1 in 10,000 to 40,000 babies in the U.S. Here’s how it manifests in Noah:
- V – Vertebrae: Noah has seven extra and several hemivertebrae.
- A – Imperforate anus: Noah was born without an anus, but it was surgically corrected. Still, he does eat regular food because of sensory issues with eating and chewing.
- C – Cardiac: He was born with a hole in his heart and another heart anomaly. He had cardiac surgery when he was five months old.
- TE – Tracheoesophageal fistula: Noah’s windpipe was abnormally connected to his esophagus, but was corrected with surgery.
- R – Renal and kidney: Noah has just one kidney.
- L – Limb: While Noah has limited use of his right hand, and he uses it as a “helper” hand, it is not from VACTERL, but from his cerebral palsy.
Noah lived at Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver for the first 11 months of his life, undergoing about 50 procedures and 30 surgeries. He was ventilator dependent and hooked to a central line and a feeding tube.
Other health problems developed. He suffered two brain hemorrhages – one at birth, and one at about a month old. He basically has no occipital lobe, the vision processing center of the mammalian brain. Doctors told his mother he’d grow up blind, deaf and in a vegetative state.
“There was only one time when I remember thinking, ‘You know. We’re done,’” his mother said. Noah was about five months old, and he’d just had his open heart surgery. Doctors inadvertently cut a lymph duct in his abdomen and his belly swelled with fluid. His kidney was shutting down.
She went back to her room and gave her baby permission to let go. “He never didn’t fight, but that night I thought he was done,” she said. “I did a lot of praying. I always hoped God’s will would match mine, but I made up my mind to go back and tell Noah that it was OK to let go.”
The next morning, she returned to the hospital to discover that Noah had turned a corner. Doctors said they didn’t know what had happened.
Every year since he came home, Noah has spent several days at Wyoming Medical Center and several days in Denver hospitals. His mother suspects that’s where his fascination with hospitals grew. About seven years ago, Noah started telling his mom he wanted to work with ambulances and in the Emergency Room. For a kid whose disabilities mean he can’t read or write, his mom could only think it would never happen.
Just look at Noah now.
“I love it,” Noah said after a recent shift. “It makes me proud of myself, and because the EMTs are my best friends.”
Willing and A.B.L.E.
When Noah shows up for work, he wears the same uniform as our EMTs and swipes his Wyoming Medical Center badge in the automated time clock. In other circumstances, remembering the tools for a job would likely be challenging for Noah, said Cheryl Junge, A.B.L.E. Program coordinator with Natrona County School District which helped place Noah at the hospital.
“He’s so proud of that uniform and that ID badge, he never forgets them. He shows up ready for work every day,” Junge said. “If you allow someone to pursue his passion, the things that often stand in the way fall to the wayside.”
A.B.L.E. ( Adult Based Learning Environments) is a bridge program for students on Independent Education Plans (IEPs) transitioning from school to the community. The program now has 12 students, Junge said, and helps participants set individualized goals for their adult lives. For some, that could be living independently and finding employment. For others, it may be finding volunteer programs to keep them active and involved. A.B.L.E helpers find activities in the community that will resemble what the students want their adult lives to look like, Junge said.
Noah graduated from Kelly Walsh High School in June at age 19. His goals are to remain in social situations and work in the medical field. Through A.B.L.E, he works at the hospital four days a week for about 90 minutes per shift. The hope is that he will learn his tasks here well enough that he will eventually be able to perform them with little supervision. Hospital and A.B.L.E. staffs are working to identify jobs that Noah can do and that actually need done. It’s not about inventing busy work.
So far, those include assembling those blood-draw kits; stocking empty ER rooms with fall-prevention socks, non-rebreathing masks, nasal cannulas and nebulizer tubing; moving wheelchairs back to the ER security desk; cleaning ambulance stretchers after use; and assembling urine specimen bags. They’re working to develop a checklist from which he will be able to restock ambulances. One of his favorite jobs is checking the batteries and functionality of our LUCAS Chest Compression System, devices that help EMS deliver sustained, consistent CPR despite transport conditions, fatigue and other factors.
The A.B.L.E. program works with other community programs and employers on “job carving,” or looking at work duties to see which tasks could be performed by a worker with disabilities. That, in turn, frees up time for the highly trained, and often highly paid, employees to concentrate on the duties that require their special skills.
“The idea is that everyone has something to contribute,” Junge said. “It’s good for business and, the bottom line, is that in the back of their minds, companies can feel good about giving someone a chance.”
Noah the rock star
“Hey, Noah. How’s life?” said ER physician Dr. Ryan Benson as Noah passed him in the pod. Dr. Benson held up his hand for a hive five, and Noah high-fived it.
Walking with Noah is like that.
Nurses smile at him. Desk clerks and operators call out greetings. Even paramedics from Evansville let him scrub their ambulance cots to be ready for the next emergency call.
“He’s like a celebrity around here. I don’t know how he deals with the pressure of all this fame,” Derek said.
Noah has a thing for ambulance cots, particularly the Stryker brand. He’s a little obsessed with them. Posters of Stryker cots hang in his room and he watches Stryker training and operation videos on You Tube. He knows how to work the side rails and the buttons to push when loading it into the back of the ambulance.
Derek has taken Noah under his wing, teaching Noah to complete his tasks the same way an EMT is trained: First, you’re shown a task. Then, you do the task yourself. Finally, you teach the task to someone else. When you can do that, you’ve got it down pat.
Noah has about a year left in the A.B.L.E. program before he will age out at 21. Nobody knows yet whether his work at WMC will turn into a paying job or whether he’ll stay on as a volunteer. None of that matters to Noah’s mom.
“We were told he was going to be blind, deaf and in a vegetative state. Whatever comes next is gravy,” Nelson said. “What I want for him is to wake up in the morning and feel like he can do something. He feels like he is a part of Wyoming Medical Center, and he loves this hospital. It’s important to him, and that is what is important to me.”
Doing what you love, day in and day out, is a dream come true for almost anyone. It’s tempting to believe that Noah is lucky to have found a calling that allows him to contribute to the community in a meaningful way, and a program that strives to help him be successful. But ask Derek, or any employee at Wyoming Medical Center who’s been touched by Noah’s smile or quick sense of humor, and they’ll say they are the lucky ones.
“Noah cracks me up every day. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t liked him,” Derek said. “He brings so much enthusiasm when he comes to work that it’s infectious. I could be having the worst day ever, but as soon I see Noah, it just changes my whole attitude.”