Just after midnight on a Friday, frat houses across campus come alive with pouring shots, removing frackets and dancing on elevated surfaces. But for Neville Dusaj (College, ‘16), Jacob Henner (Engineering, ‘16), Brett Bell (College, ‘18) and Carly O’Donnell (College, ‘18), waiting in a dingy Quad basement no more than two blocks away, the week’s work is far from over.
They sit lazily on worn, comfortable couches in their Ware headquarters. The television is off. The only noise comes from the dull thud of the laundry machines nearby. Suddenly, two loud beeps explode from the students' personal radios, followed by a static–filled voice.
“Radio to MERT. DK, Lower Quad.”
Immediately they spring into action, pulling on backpacks, bright red jackets and bike helmets. In quick, calm voices questions are asked and answered. Who's answering the call? Where's the patient? How many oxygen tanks are necessary?
In less than a minute, they're gone.
On Penn's campus, “getting MERTed” is as common a term as booking a GSR. We treat our social lives as opportunities to experiment, take risks and explore the wilder side of college. And MERT is our safety net when we go too far. But many forget that under the red shirts are fellow Penn students—living the thrill of a Friday night.
Brett, Neville, Jacob and Carly, who began their shift at 11pm tonight, spend their time in the common room, an old dorm room with an odd mix of items—laptops, bags of chips, soda—along with racks of bike helmets, jackets and bulletin boards bearing maps of campus and MERT protocol.
Later, they return to the bunk rooms lining the bottom floor Ware hallway—all devoted to MERT. The students usually sleep in their clothes, so they won’t have to change if a call comes in the morning's early hours. MERT is on duty from 5pm to 7am on weekdays and 24 hours on the weekends.
MERT—the Penn Medical Emergency Response Team—offers its 44 active members an exhilaration that few groups can rival. And while the experience provides Penn students with a chance to explore potential careers in the health sciences, they also have the rare opportunity to treat their own peers when they're most vulnerable.
For members of MERT, providing emergency care to a DK—the term Philadelphia emergency radios use for “drunk kid”—is routine.
MERT's busiest on weekend nights, sometimes answering over ten calls in an eight–hour shift. During New Student Orientation, members of MERT are introduced as heroes who rescue freshman who've had one too many shots. Students trade horror stories about who got “MERTed” during their first night out.
But MERT’s most conspicuous role on campus—swooping into fraternity parties to aid vomiting or unconscious students, ambulances close behind—is not its only one.
“It's true that EtOH calls are the most common, but we get trauma, diabetics, heart attacks, strokes, pretty much anything," explains a sophomore MERT member, using their shorthand for ethyl alcohol. “And sometimes what started as an alcohol call can turn into a trauma, like if someone stumbles and falls down the stairs. Every situation is unique… we don't approach it like we're the backup plan."
MERT hopefuls must complete an application and interview to get into the EMT training program—the acceptance rate is around 50 percent. Once admitted, students rise through the ranks. New members begin as walking EMTs, and then are promoted to biking EMTs. Later, they can take the lead on specific calls or even entire shifts.
Although there is no upfront cost for joining MERT, members must pay around $1,200 for the EMT certification class—though Student Health Services can provide subsidies for students who otherwise could not afford the program. Once members have been certified, they pay dues to the club to pay for social events and apparel. There is no payment; the program is entirely volunteer–based.
Everyone is required to work 24 hours a month, with the exception of an optional semester–long leave of absence. Most, however, choose to do more.
“A lot of people just like the adrenaline rush of emergency medicine,” says MERT chief Sara Jones (C'16). MERT feels like a highly pre–professional organization, an opportunity for future doctors and nurses to bolster their clinical experience. But it also provides a certain exhilaration that can’t be detailed on Linkedin or described in a cover letter. “I have a lot of friends who want to be lawyers or want to go into some sort of business… and they just fell in love with the thrill.”
College senior Joe Mattis, who studies PPE, got his EMT certification in high school. He joined MERT because he sees the group as an interesting way to help people, as well as socialize. Most of his peers, he says, feel similarly.
“There’s definitely people who want to do it just to have another thing to put on their resume, but I think the majority of people see it as a social organization where you get to hang out with your friends,” he said.
For MERT volunteers, the social aspect of the organization is more important than people may think. Once MERT students get their EMT certification, they’re introduced to the group’s culture through social events like potlucks and study breaks and even receive a “big” to guide them through their first few months of service.
“It’s very important to trust each other when you’re doing something like this, and [to] really know how to work together with people,” says Sara.
Brett, Neville, Jacob and Carly obviously trust one another as they seamlessly transition from ordinary college students to energetic emergency rescuers. They help each other gather equipment as they correspond via radio with Division of Public Safety (DPS) , who inform them where their patient can be found.
MERT works closely with DPS—when a student calls the Penn emergency number, a dispatcher at DPS communicates with MERT. When MERT arrives at a scene, police officers arrive as well.
And in times of heightened danger on campus, DPS and MERT collaborate to ensure campus safety. Earlier this month, MERT was on high alert when Philadelphia received an ambiguous shooter threat and had specific instructions from DPS about what to do in the case of an incident.
Aside from its relationship with DPS, MERT is funded by Penn but largely unsupervised—it manages its own training and sets its own schedule. During times of the year with high activity, like Spring Fling, it’s up to MERT to provide the additional staff.
Although every member of MERT must serve one shift during Fling, Sara says that there aren’t too many conflicts. For the most part, members prioritize their MERT duties over campus parties.
“People don’t normally protest against it too much,” she says. “If you want to be an EMT, you want to be doing stuff.”
There is a reason that students involved in MERT are willing to make these kinds of sacrifices. MERT is a diverse group—its members study everything from chemical and biomolecular engineering to English; they are members of fraternities and sororities; some have their hearts set on medical school, and others would never dream of it.
“I think the majority of our members really do it because they really want to help people,” says Isabelle Oka, MERT’s Social Coordinator and a junior in Nursing. “They really want to give back to the community and change some person’s life in some way, somehow.”
Another draw is the opportunity to talk to various patients—MERT captain Victoria Pereira (C'15) says she relishes the chance to talk to people she’d never get to meet otherwise. During the downtime between when MERT arrives and when the ambulance shows up, she likes to learn more about the patient and his or her life story.
“It’s a cool little snapshot into the life of Penn,” she said.
At the same time, students who join MERT must navigate the unique and sometimes difficult path of providing medical help to their peers during some of their most vulnerable moments. Victoria explained MERT’s policy: never discuss patient information outside of the organization.
“Everything that we do stays within the people who actually saw it,” she said. “We’re pretty good about respecting everyone’s privacy.”
Still, Victoria says she has often run into people she knows while attending calls, while other members say that seeing patients they’ve treated around campus can be awkward. And despite Penn’s medical amnesty policy, many students are intimidated by MERT, especially when they’re called to help with alcohol–related issues.
MERT doesn’t charge a fee to its patients, but ambulance services can be expensive, sometimes in the thousands of dollars. When a student is intoxicated, they aren't allowed to refuse hospitalization, leading some students to avoid calling MERT in the first place.
One sophomore remembered a time she stayed up all night with an intoxicated friend who said he couldn't afford the ambulance fee. Another sophomore, whose ambulance bill amounted to $1,500 at first and then $900 after insurance, said that paying the fee was a “huge pain.”
But a third sophomore, who needed emergency help after drinking too much a month into her freshman year, explained “the responders were direct and patient with me, but they also seemed sort of annoyed.”
Despite students’ discomfort seeking medical help, MERT is trained to treat such situations professionally, even in cases where the social dynamics are difficult to overcome.
“You put on a uniform, and you’re like, okay, I can easily differentiate this part of my life from other things,” Sara says. “And I think that really helps with mitigating that awkwardness.”
Ultimately, MERT is just another college club, and like most groups, connections are forged through late nights and shared work. Universally, members of MERT spoke positively about the friendships they have made through the organization.
“As you take more shifts, you get to know a lot more people. You all get really close,” says Sandra Loza–Avalos, MERT’s Disaster Response Team Officer. “It’s kind of like a little family.”
It’s a family that's seen a lot. Sara says that MERT has responded to at least one squirrel attack, and intoxicated patients have been known to invite emergency responders back to their rooms.
But after Brett, Neville, Jacob and Carly return from their calls, take off their backpacks, and complete their paperwork, they go back to being everyday students—reclining on couches, munching on snacks and reliving their Friday night adventures.
Their adventures, though, have nothing to do with fraternities or hookups. “It’s so fun constantly getting calls and going to different places and meeting different people,” Sara says. “The excitement and adrenaline of that is definitely awesome.”
"You can't call 911," a MERT sophomore adds. "You are 911."
Caroline Simon is a sophomore in the College studying English and Communications. She is a Deputy News Editor at the DP.