Columbine Tragedy Leads to Career in EMS

COMMUNICATION IS KEY Paramedic Heather Edwards prides herself on strong communication, gaining her patients’ trust and helping her colleagues manage stress.

How does your past impact your decisions and the direction your life will take? For Heather Edwards, one spring day more than 20 years ago set her on a course for a career in emergency medicine. 

Edwards, a paramedic and educator with Denver Health’s Paramedic Division, was a sophomore at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, when two teenagers killed 13 people and injured 24 on April 20, 1999. 

When Edwards finished high school, she decided to enroll in a first responder course during her first semester of college. 

“During that class, I thought about my high school experience a lot and everything kind of clicked for me,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I’m ever in a situation like that again, I don’t want to feel helpless,’ and I think that set me on this path.”

Edwards explains that there was something that was sparked by that first responder class. “I just said, ‘Holy cow—I’m in! This is what I want to do.’”


After a decade as a paramedic with Denver Health, Edwards is able to reflect on her career choice and how the field is right for her. 

“I think for me, EMS is such a good fit because I love solving problems,” she says. 

Responding to 911 calls in downtown Denver leaves Edwards little downtime on the job. “We’re very, very busy every day,” she says. “In much of the city, we work in what’s called a dynamic dispersal—where we essentially hang out in a central intersection of downtown so we can get to calls quickly.”

In addition to her problem-solving abilities, Edwards cites excellent communication and strong interpersonal skills as critical to success in EMS. She also emphasizes how important it is to manage her mental health.

“I do a good job of navigating any feelings of stress. So externally, it’s all calm and organized and I maintain my ability to do my job,” she says. “Above all, I tend to do really, really well under pressure.”


Edwards takes pride in her ability to gain patients’ trust, which is especially helpful when they are reluctant to go to the hospital. “I try to do a careful job of explaining to the patient what they have going on and why it’s critical that they go,” she says. “It’s all about convincing someone to trust you and to believe in you, so they will willingly go with you.”

“I frequently have to say, ‘Look we have to go. I know you don’t want to go, but let’s work on this together.’ Most people just want to be listened to; they want to be heard.”

Edwards believes that everyone in EMS sees such a broad spectrum of human hardships and tragedies that it’s important to keep a positive attitude and be able to relax with co-workers. “I think [humor is] a good coping mechanism for EMS.” After a particularly stressful call, she loves to be able to decompress and share some conversation and laughs with her colleagues.