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How working-class Black men in Pittsburgh pioneered emergency medicine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to a story about how a group of working-class Black men from Pittsburgh came together to create a new system of emergency care by giving paramedics more responsibility than just driving people to the ER. Here's Bill O'Driscoll of member station WESA.

JOHN MOON: This particular area right here is where I had my very first heroin overdose.

BILL O'DRISCOLL, BYLINE: John Moon (ph) is driving around Pittsburgh's historic Hill District, recalling his days as a paramedic for Freedom House Ambulance Service some 50 years ago. He wore a white uniform and rode in an ambulance like a big, white station wagon.

MOON: It was in the basement of the structure itself. There was no lighting there. There were people there and lying around with candles lit. There were no utilities in the building at all. And we had to go in and actually treat the individual that had overdosed on heroin.

O'DRISCOLL: Moon is matter-of-fact about his accomplishments, but experts say what several dozen Freedom House employees did in Pittsburgh starting in 1967 was historic. Dr. Ronald Stewart is former medical director for Pittsburgh's Public Safety Department.

RONALD STEWART: They actually were the first paramedic units in the United States doing what we now know as paramedic work.

O'DRISCOLL: Remember, this was at the dawn of emergency medicine. Ambulances existed. But if you were a victim of a heart attack, gunshot or car crash, no one treated you on sight. The only goal was to race you to the hospital. Ambulance drivers were just that - drivers.

KEVIN HAZARD: You might be picked up by the police in a wagon. You might be picked up by volunteer firefighters. Or you might be picked up by two undertakers from the local mortuary.

O'DRISCOLL: That's Kevin Hazard, author of a new book about Freedom House called "American Sirens." He writes, Freedom House was born when a local public health expert and a neighborhood job training entrepreneur teamed with Dr. Peter Safar, a famed University of Pittsburgh anesthesiologist who had a plan to do street medicine but no way to bring it to life. They recruited their medics from the Hill District, a majority-Black neighborhood where jobs and medical care were scarce. John Moon was a hospital orderly when he began paramedic training.

MOON: We were considered the least likely to succeed by society's standards. But one problem I noticed is that no one told us that.

O'DRISCOLL: Freedom House served only the Hill and a couple adjacent neighborhoods. Hazard says the program was wildly successful, saving lives that would have been lost before. Moon says he believes that on one call, he became the first paramedic ever to intubate a patient in the field.

MOON: It was something that had never been done, and we were the proving ground to show that you can do it.

O'DRISCOLL: Freedom House operated under a city contract and became a model for paramedic units launching elsewhere. But at home, there was trouble. Pittsburgh's mayor began withholding support. Hazard says the mostly Black Freedom House medics were seen as invading the turf of the mostly white police force.

HAZARD: There are many within Freedom House who eventually came to the conclusion that the problems that we're having with City Hall are not what we're doing but rather who's doing it.

O'DRISCOLL: In 1975, Freedom House was absorbed into a new citywide EMS bureau. Freedom House medics say they were treated badly there, their years of experience discounted, and many left. Moon persisted. He retired in 2009 as assistant chief. But today, standing on the streets he once patrolled, he fears Freedom House's story has been swept under the rug.

MOON: Unfortunately, even today, there are probably people that live here that had never heard of Freedom House Ambulance Service.

O'DRISCOLL: But Moon knows what he and his colleagues did.

MOON: And that's the beauty of what we were able to accomplish, primarily because no one thought we could do what we did but us.

O'DRISCOLL: Their legacy survives in any ambulance siren you hear today.

For NPR News, I'm Bill O'Driscoll.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR MCFERRIN'S "POSTPARTUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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