10 Questions with Matt Rizzotti
Scholar gets a different view of life at Penn State as an EMT
By Megan Dutill ’13
College Relations Intern
When everyone else is having fun, Matt Rizzotti is on alert.
Matt, a junior Schreyer Scholar majoring in economics in the College of the Liberal Arts, works with the Penn State Student Health Center as an emergency medical technician—a job that requires working 20 to 35 hours a week, patrolling concerts and football games for potential emergencies, and responding to calls in the middle of the night.
Matt’s essay about his experiences, "I Believe in Answering a Stranger’s Call", was published and broadcast in September as a radio story for WPSU’s "This I Believe" series as well as on the "Bob Edwards Show" and the national This I Believe website. We caught up with him to ask “10 Questions” about being an EMT and his time at Penn State.
- How long have you been an EMT?
I started when I was in high school in Brewster, N.Y., and I’ve been working here for almost two years. To get certification through the State Department of Health, you have to get experience and learn what you’re doing – it takes about six months and 120 to 140 hours. I started the process in February of my senior year in high school. So I started at home on an ambulance and then came here, and it’s definitely been the highlight of my college experience so far. I work on the ambulance and at football games and concerts—I go where I’m needed. I also volunteer on the paramedic truck at Mount Nittany Medical Center and on the ambulance when I’m home.
- What is it like to work at football games?
It’s awesome. You get to go to the game, be part of the crowd and experience, and make a difference. I ride around the tailgating fields on a bike, but during the football game we also have 50 to 75 people scattered strategically throughout the stadium. Every two sections has two EMTs and every quarter has paramedics and doctors. If you’re going to get hurt, Beaver Stadium is a good spot to do it because there are so many trained people around. For the first game this year, I went on eight calls—we had 115 calls in three hours, and most of it was people with heat-related issues. We were busy.
- What drives you to do this?
It makes a difference. Someone who drank too much or had a heart attack needs you. You make their worst day a little bit better, even if it’s as simple as talking to someone and making them feel like they’re okay or making them laugh if they’re crying. Little things like that are definitely why we’re there.
- What does it take to be an EMT?
You need compassion because you have to be able to take someone who’s having a bad day—and could potentially have a really serious problem—and keep them calm and talk to them. You need people skills, because if you can’t relate and talk and empathize, you won’t be able to communicate or help them. You have to be confident, because when you’re going to someone’s house and they’re having a medical problem, they’re relying 100 percent on you to fix it. If you’re not confident in yourself and the skills, you won’t do the right thing. And you have to have a sense of humor, too—to be able to laugh off the bad days and the mean patients and come off with a smile.
- What has been one of your hardest moments as an EMT?
At home, I was responding to a car accident. One of the ladies was dead, and I had to help her best friend. They were hit head-on by a drunk driver. I had to try and save the lady who had passed away, and then try to keep the other lady’s attention off that fact so she didn’t realize her friend was dead and could focus on herself. She was critically injured but survived. That was by far the hardest. We all get upset sometimes, but that’s when you have to hold your emotions and be calm. And then as soon as you leave the call you can do whatever you have to do—laugh or cry or talk it out.
- How has facing these life-and-death situations affected you?
It made me want to wear a seatbelt! It makes me grateful for everything.
- What is one of the calls you’ll always remember?
One of my best times on the job was last spring, when we transported a patient to the hospital for a minor injury. Several weeks later, we learned that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor while at the hospital. This patient did not want to go to the hospital initially, but we convinced him to be transported—and because of that, his cancer was caught in an early stage.
- You had to reschedule this interview because you ended up working on the ambulance for six hours straight that day. What was going on?
A person fell off her bike, we had a standby about the bomb threats in Beaver Stadium for two hours, someone had seizures, and someone got an allergic reaction—a very wide variety of things. But our most common calls are people who hurt themselves at the gym—passing out, dislocating shoulders and stuff like that. The gym also has a policy where they are not allowed to provide any medical care at all, so if someone jams their finger and asks for an ice pack, we have to come and decide if it’s a medical emergency.
- Talk about your essay, “I Believe in Answering a Stranger’s Call.” What prompted you to write it and to share those experiences in a public setting?
It was actually an assignment for English 30, an honors class I took my freshman year, and it tells some of the other experiences I’ve had that contribute to why I want to be an EMT. I revised it and submitted it to “This I Believe” on my own, and I actually got an email from someone who said it was a great story and that he could relate personally to it. He said that if I’m ever in the Washington, D.C. area, he wants to sit down and have lunch. Someone I’ve never heard of in my life just emailed me one day—that was kind of cool.
- What do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be a trauma surgeon. I want to work in an emergency room and fix the people that come in the ambulance: people in bad car accidents or suffering other physical trauma. After being an EMT, I’ve seen the pre-hospital component to that, and I want to be the one that does the fixing. I actually started in marketing and economics thinking I would do medical sales—to be in a medical field but not a doctor. Then I was in Baltimore Hospital for the National Collegiate Emergency Medical Services Conference and I met with the anesthesiologist at the Shock Trauma Center. That was the little push I needed to decide to go to med school. When I was little I used to watch “Trauma: Life in the ER” and all these hospital shows on TV, and being at the Shock Trauma Center in real life brought it full circle—that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.