First-year PA student awarded EMS Person of the Year

Zach HarmonBy the time Zach Harmon and his team of paramedics arrived at a crash scene on Interstate 20 in Weatherford, Texas, the man they’d been deployed to help was already unconscious. He was breathing just six times a minute with a dangerously low heart rate. The truck driver was pinned inside the cabin of his tractor-trailer rig — a jumble of twisted metal and broken glass by the time Harmon pulled up. The man’s leg had been amputated in the crash; and the crew quickly learned their patient’s lungs had also collapsed.

“The first thing we saw was the mangled truck,” said Harmon, first-year physician assistant studies student at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s School of Health Professions. “The first thing that we thought was that we had to get access to him somehow so that we could start care because we knew it was going to be a prolonged extrication due to the type of vehicle it was and how damaged it was.”

That late-afternoon call on Valentine’s Day last year earned Harmon and the three other members of his team the Texas Department of State Health Services EMS Person of the Year award. The four paramedics were honored during the 2023 Texas EMS Conference in November.

The driver’s truck collided with another 18-wheeler at a high speed. The crew, led by Harmon, reached through a hole in the wreckage and opened the man’s airway. After tying a chain to their ambulance’s bumper to pry apart the cabin, emergency workers rescued the man and rushed into an ambulance. He was treated at Harris Hospital Fort Worth, where he underwent several surgeries and was fitted with a prosthetic leg. He eventually made a full recovery and is alive today thanks to the decisive action of Harmon and many others.

“Thanks to several swift, proactive decisions made by our paramedics, this patient was able to receive the critical care he needed in the field — which ultimately saved his life,” said PCHD chief executive officer Randy Bacus.

In his more than 17 years as a paramedic in different cities, Harmon has conveyed thousands of ailing people into ambulances, often saving their lives in the process. For the Columbus, Ohio native, acts of heroism have become almost routine. He’s never sought attention for his bravery.

“At this point in my career, I’ve been in almost any situation you could probably think about,” he said. “I was able to keep my emotions down and stay calm.”

Harmon, whose career began in San Antonio where he grew up, has worked in almost every imaginable facet of the paramedic world. He’s done stints in care flight EMS, neonatal pediatric critical care transport, rural EMS, urban EMS and more. He was drawn to PA Studies because of his many interactions with physician assistants.

“Physician assistants pretty much run the trauma bays at the trauma center in San Antonio, so I got to interact with a lot of PAs there,” he said. “My flight nurse partner’s husband was a PA, so I got to learn about the profession from him and just became interested in it. When I was able to kind of slow down and start going to school, I went with the anticipation of getting into PA school.”

Though he hasn’t yet zeroed in on a specialty for his future as a PA, his background as an EMT has prepared him for emergency care.

“I’m going to wait until I do my clinical time and see what I like most,” he said. “Of course, emergency and critical care are what I’m most experienced in. Those are things that I’m interested in doing as a PA as well. Part of me feels like, this is what I’m good at. This is what I know. And it’s where I’d be the most useful with my training and my skills.”

Harmon never had a chance to meet the man whose life he helped save — though two of his supervisors did. It was the hospital staff who recommended his team for the award.

“We couldn’t be prouder to have Zach in our program,” said Lauren Dobbs, PA-C, chair of SHP’s Physician Assistant Studies program. “His on-the-job experience is only going to help him in his studies and career as a physician assistant. We can’t wait to see the great things he’ll accomplish.”

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