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The Ultimate First Responder Talks About the Calling

Like climbing Mt. Everest, being in emergency medical services consists of hours and hours of doldrums surrounded by minutes of absolute terror, according to physician assistant and adventurer Jeff Evans.

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If you’ve watched Jeff Evans rescuing a stranded climber from the heights of Mt. Everest or heard about his exploits guiding a blind climber to the summit of Everest or sewing up wounded soldiers in Iraq or tending to sick patients as a physician assistant in a hospital emergency room, it might seem like an adrenaline rush, an exciting way to live life.

But that’s not it — it’s not what prompted Evans to become and EMT, or guide his friend Erik Weihenmayer to become the first blind person to summit Everest, or volunteer to try to save soldiers with half their faces blown off or lead wounded vets up mountains or even fly in a helicopter on Everest to help sick climbers.

But when Evans talks about being a first responder (he’ll be at the 2022 EMS World Expo in Orlando, Fla., in October), he talks about doing it for the right reasons. You won’t get rich and you better have the right intent and motivation.

“You have to really check your intentions at the door,” Evans said. “It’s a lifestyle that provides you some liberties to enjoy a fun and fulfilling life, but make sure your intentions and priorities are service-based.”

He said there has to be the understanding that it’s something bigger than you are. It’s a calling.

“I think some people get attracted to the adrenaline surge of getting a call and flying around in the bus and doing heroic stuff, but as we all know in EMS it’s hours and hours of doldrums surrounded by minutes of absolute terror.”

For Evans, it was a combination of a love of medicine combined with a love of adventure, especially rock climbing and mountaineering, that led to his exploits, although the service-oriented part came a little later in life.

“I think it happens as you get older,” Weihenmayer said. “At first, we were just really ambitious, we wanted to climb, do hard things together. Eventually, everyone starts to kind of go, OK, what’s the meaning behind the summit?”

“I think both Jeff and I realized over time, with maybe a tiny bit of maturity, that the real culmination is coming down from the mountain and taking the gifts you’ve earned through your struggles and using them in some way to elevate other people,” he continued.

Evans initially left the family home at age 19 to climb mountains. He became a guide and while guiding a physician assistant decided after the descent from a mountain that that’s what he was going to become, although there’s more to it than that.

He said he remembers watching the show Emergency! “back in the day” and that his parents got him a Fisher-Price doctor kit when he was a kid. “I just went around and examined parents and uncles and aunts and stuff,” he said. “All that was ingrained in me, and then I became an EMT in 1994.” He began teaching EMS courses and that’s when he met fellow teacher Weihenmayer.

They had similar interests in climbing and adventure, and those early days of climbing helped Evans develop his style of “sacrifice and service,” as he puts it. “Even early on when we were just climbing around in Colorado rocks and mountains, my task was to keep him safe and alive,” Evans said. “Although I was having fun, and it was enjoyable for me, my main goal was caring for him.”

That means guiding his every step with information.

“He’ll always let me know the consequences of things,” Weihenmayer said. “He’ll divide falls into categories. He’ll say that’s a pissed off fall to the right, which means maybe some blood. Or he’ll say that’s a hostile fall to the right, which probably involves trauma, or that’s a death fall. Once, we were in Greenland and climbed this peak and he said step to the left and you’ll never see your wife and kids again.”

Evans and Weihenmayer eventually summited Everest, making history, although Evans had to leave his job as a physician assistant in an emergency room to do it. “He went to them and said, ‘I’m going to climb Everest with my friend who’s blind,’” Weihenmayer said. “They didn’t get behind it, and he was like, ‘Later.’”

Weihenmayer said he trusts Evans with his life but doesn’t expect perfection from him. “That’s unrealistic. People sometimes say right when they mean left. Perfection is not something I look for because it’s impossible.”

What he does look for is someone who is motivated by doing things that are hard and someone who rises to the occasion when things hit the fan, which they do on mountains and in emergency rooms.

“He’s excited by challenge and that’s what I look for in somebody I trust.”

For Evans, the motivation never wanes.

“Every day with him is a lot. It’s a lot of responsibility to be responsible for another human being’s life,” Evans said. “There have been many times when I’ve had a long day and all I want to do is get down and have a beer and relax. Many times I’ve said, ‘Geez, if I could just drop this blind dude and be done.’ But I can’t.”

He took that same commitment back to Everest where he commanded a team to rescue stranded (some on death’s door) climbers via helicopter. It was featured in a television series called Everest Air.

And there was the time in Iraq when he was invited by the World Health Organization to lead a team of trauma specialists. “That was very unique and pretty sketchy,” he said. “A lot went right and a lot went wrong, and I didn’t have a whole lot of resources as I was trying to intubate dudes with half a face that had just gotten blown off.”

He said the experience was worth it but he wouldn’t do it again. “It was a lot of death and blunt and penetrating trauma and blast trauma,” he said. “We saved as many lives as we could.”

He said in the wake of such an experience, it’s important for first responders to communicate and not to suppress the haunting visions and dreams that are inevitable.

“In EMS and emergency department staffing as a whole, especially the last couple of years, we have a tendency to push it away and move on to the next thing,” Evans said. “And we have to do that to operate, but you need to give air to those things and allow them to breathe and communicate about them because if you decide not to your subconscious will take it and run with it and then you’re screwed.”

That experience was part of the reason Evans co-founded No Barriers Warriors, an organization that takes wounded veterans around the world for mountaineering trips, rafting, backpacking and other expeditions.

“At first it was one big mountaineering trip per year and now it’s really evolved into something really wonderful with all kinds of good stuff using the curriculum we developed over the years teaching about commitment, and purpose, community, and compassion,” Evans said.

“Jeff and I have led all kinds of expeditions with youth and vets,” Weihenmayer said. “They have that sort of drive, they want to climb, not just mountains, but they’re kind of stuck because they had an injury or fears or anxiety or post-traumatic stress or the myriad of challenges that might confront a person. I think both Jeff and I really connect with that.”