A high schooler’s unexpected homework: Trying to save a stranger’s life

When Kaelyn Kopper signed up for paramedic training at the Career and Technology Center, she figured she'd be reading textbooks and watching the pros from a distance. Instead, her very first shift provided an intense hands-on lesson—and a chance for an 18-year-old to step up in a big way. From our Out of the Loop first-person storytelling show.

Portrait by Jamie Maldonado

“I’m Kaelyn Kopper. I have lived in Tyler and Lindale for most of my life. I’m a senior at Winona High School, and I’m on the varsity softball and volleyball teams. I’m also a first-chair trumpet in the band. But the school program that has meant the most to me has been the EMT paramedic program taught at the Career and Technology Center in Tyler by Matthew Singleton.

As part of our class requirements, we go on rotations with U.T. Health Emergency Medical Services, or EMS. Some of our students were ready to go on rotation in November, but I didn’t start until two months later because I was scared I would mess something up and get yelled at, and I hate getting yelled at.

After dragging my feet for so long, I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was my turn, and I would be assigned to a pair of competent and experienced EMTs, emergency medical technicians. I figured I’d get some downtime in this 12-hour shift. I thought that I would get a tour of the EMS station, read my book, get some work assignments done. And if we got a call, I figured it was my job to sit back and observe.

On a cold Sunday morning in January, I met two expert paramedics from Team 806. I was scheduled to go on a shift with them from 6:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., but I showed up 30 minutes early because I was nervous, and new, and just didn’t want to be late.

After I met them, we went into the station and sat there until our dispatcher gave us our first emergency call. The patient was an elderly individual. In class, we learned that confidentiality is very important. So, to keep this person’s identity concealed, I will be referring to the patient as ‘them’ or ‘they’ or ‘the patient.’

As soon as we got this call, we jumped into the ambulance. We arrived at the patient’s address within seven minutes, but the house was not very well marked, and it was still pretty dark outside, so we had to look around. As soon as we found the house, we jumped out, and I let the paramedics get the stretcher out because I was scared I would break it.

Courtesy Kaelyn Kopper

We hustled inside the house, and I took a brief second to look around. There was well-worn furniture, with blankets and pictures of grandkids on every surface. From a far-off bedroom, we could hear the patient before we could see them. They were clearly in distress. We hustled into the bedroom and moved a couple recliners and chairs out of the way to get to the bed.

As soon as we got there, the patient was propped up in bed with their arm on the backboard struggling to support their weight. Their breathing was very labored, and it sounded like they didn’t have any lungs at all. They were coughing and wheezing very loudly and clearly in distress. We checked their pulse. It was at 62, which was very concerning. You would expect a person in distress to have a high heart rate between 80 and 100.

We asked the patient if we could assist them onto the stretcher, and in a staggered voice aimed at no one in the room, they said something like, ‘This is it. This is my time. I’m not going to make it.’ I took a step back. That startled me. They sounded like they were ready to give up, and I started entertaining the thought that they might actually not make it.

I didn’t know what to do. In class, we learned that there are certain things you cannot say to a patient. You cannot tell them they are going to be fine, that they’re going to live, that they’re going to get through it. In absence of those words, how would you reassure that patient? I learned that you can say, ‘We’re going to help you. We’re going to do as much as we can and that we’re here for you.’

As soon as the patient was assisted onto the stretcher, we maneuvered them out of the bedroom, down the hallway, and out towards the ambulance. We got them loaded up onto the ambulance, and the paramedic inserted an IV into the patient’s left forearm. But as soon as the IV touched their skin, the patient just went completely limp. I caught a glimpse of the patient’s eyes, and they looked like they were already gone.

Things are already tense, and this added a whole new seriousness to the situation. We had to call for backup, and as soon as they got there, they started chest compressions. After about five minutes of that, my paramedic looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘We need you to take over.’

Without thinking, I jumped into it. I began giving 30 chest compressions while my paramedic was giving two breaths. We stayed in this rotation for about 10 minutes, but I got fatigued after those 10 minutes and had to trade back out with my backup.

After we arrived at the hospital, we got the patient out of the ambulance and started rolling them back into the hospital. One of the backup members was still giving chest compressions as we were rolling down the hallway.

As soon as we transferred the patient over to the doctors and the nurses, my paramedic took me out of the room and asked me to help clean the stretcher. I figured that once we got the stretcher cleaned and ready to go for the next patient, we would go back into the room and find out how the patient was doing.

But the paramedic was trying to just distract me. He was saying, ‘Oh, you did such a great job. I’m so proud of you, how are you feeling?’ I knew that he was trying to keep me from what was really behind that door.

More than anything, I wanted to go into the waiting room and help the family. I know what it’s like to have a loved one in the hospital not knowing if you’re ever going to see them again. In 2014, my stepfather had an incident where he nearly lost his life. Now, I know what it’s like to be on both sides of the ER.

Courtesy Kaelyn Kopper

In 2008, my father died. He had a seizure and fell into a pond while he was fishing, and drowned. I only remember small bits and pieces of the funeral. I remember them playing Butterfly Kisses, one of his favorite songs. At the end of the funeral, I was given a pair of his boots and that CD with that song on it, and I would play that song over and over and over again to remember him.

Courtesy Kaelyn Kopper

That is how I decided I wanted to become an EMT. I know that my dad was helpless in that situation, and if he would have had the help that he needed, he would most likely be alive today. That’s what I want to do. I want to be able to help anybody in need.

I never found out that day if that patient from that night lived, and I still think about it every single day. I would never wish death upon anybody. Whenever possible, I wish everybody would live.”

Courtesy Kaelyn Kopper

Have a true personal story about life in Tyler and East Texas you’d like to share at the next Out of the Loop storytelling event? Email storytelling coordinator Jane Neal and describe your story in a sentence or two.

Correction: We said Kopper was 17 years old at the time of this story in a previous version. She was 18.

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