As a high-school dropout, Ralph Young was unemployed and struggling. He began helping out at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Ambulance Service, typically answering phones or the radio. Occasionally, he was given other tasks.
“We had a thing called ‘the body run,’ which I ended up getting recruited for quite often,” says Young.
“When an autopsy was ordered, the body had to be taken to Rapid City and normally that happened late at night. Well, that’s about a three-hour drive with a fresh corpse. I don’t think I have to tell you that some freaky things happen late at night going through the Badlands on Highway 44 with a body in the back of your van.”
Despite an introduction to EMS that might have scared off others, Young had found his calling. A member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, the father of seven has served as a paramedic for more than two decades on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota where he was born and raised.
FINDING A CAREER IN EMS
His official training began when he heard the Indian Health Service was hosting an EMT class in Sturgis. “The EMS director at that time, Mr. Lino Spotted Elk, said, ‘Hey Ralph, if you pass that test, I’ll give you a job.’ So I caught a bus and went to school.”
Young became a certified EMT in 1997 and a paramedic a few years later. He occasionally took part-time EMS jobs on other reservations, but always remained a paramedic at Rosebud Sioux Tribe Ambulance Service.
During his 30 years with the agency, Young has taken on many roles. He has served as a transport driver, dispatcher, EMT-Basic, EMT-Intermediate, paramedic, critical care paramedic, deputy coroner, shift supervisor, and even Program Director for two years. In his current role as operations manager and deputy director, Young handles a lot of personnel matters as well as public relations.
As an advocate for the profession, Young feels strongly about the level of respect that EMS de-serves. “Something must be said about the amount of public trust placed in the EMS system and its members,” he explains. “This is huge and cannot be in question.” He also feels particularly offended by the term “ambulance driver.” Young calls this term “derogatory and insulting to those in our profession.” He says, “At the very least, this person who is trained to provide life-saving procedures should be called the ‘operator’ or the ‘pilot.’”
EMS ON TRIBAL LAND
“In our location, we are considered the ‘frontier,’ and do not have ancillary services that you might see near any city or more densely populated area,” Young says. “We have a small, five-bed ER, no OB and no surgical services.” He says this makes things very difficult if employees have a poor work ethic, are sick or unable to work. It’s also particularly challenging when patients have complicated medical problems or special needs.
Due to lack of resources and personnel, many employees of Rosebud Ambulance Service must perform other duties than what they were hired for.
“This field is definitely a calling and not just a job,” Young says. His service frequently has EMTs driving the van and dispatching, for instance. That also means he and his colleagues in leadership positions frequently get a chance to get back out in the field. “I still occasionally do the jobs of each employee in my charge, depending on our situation,” he says.
Young believes there are many adventures in emergency medicine, “some good and some bad.”
“Always remember to stick with your foundation, stay true to your values and everything will be all right,” he says when asked how he weathers the storms. “Be an advocate for that person who called you in their time of greatest need, act in their best interest and do no harm. “
Young feels that, ultimately, emergency medicine is a sacrifice. “In this field, the job really comes first and will prevent you from having any kind of home life on far too many occasions,” he says. “But in the end, you will have peace knowing that you did everything that was necessary to protect the village and provide that measure of peace and safety for those of your community, and that matters to me. In our culture, that is the life of a warrior, and that’s good enough for me.”