“Excuse me. Are you the guy from the TV commercial?”
Alan Smith got that question everywhere he went for years after starring in a commercial for North Mississippi Medical Center five years ago. The 29-year-old from Starkville has told his story hundreds of times – how he thought he was having a heart attack but was actually suffering from a rare heart condition and was saved only after being airlifted to NMMC in Tupelo.
The ordeal was life-changing. Beyond turning Smith into a local celebrity, it crystallized his calling, leading him to East Mississippi Community College’s Emergency Medical Technician and Paramedic programs where he learned the trade that transformed him from celebrity to hero.
“It played a big role in my decision to come to EMCC,” said Smith of his crisis. “I’m never going to be rich from being a paramedic, but to anyone who wants to make a difference to the public in the medical field, this is one of the fastest ways in terms of school and the pace of the job.”
Smith’s story begins one day in late October 2005. During a charity golf tournament in the morning, he brushed off a series of chest pains as a symptom of high anxiety. Later that day, while spending time with friends and his wife, Anna, he felt a pain he couldn’t ignore.
“Out of nowhere I had a sharp pain in the middle of my chest radiating out to my left arm. I could feel my heart rate beating out of my chest. I was real dizzy, nauseated, could hardly breathe,” he said. “I thought I was having a heart attack.”
Anna rushed him to Oktibbeha County Hospital where doctors gave Smith medicine to stop and restart his heart. When that didn’t slow his heart rate they shocked him three times with a cardiac monitor.
“I hated it. It felt like a horse kicking me in the chest,” he said of the shocks.
Unable to treat his symptoms, doctors made the decision to airlift Smith to NMMC in Tupelo.
“At this point they still didn’t know if I was going to live or die,” he recalls.
In Tupelo, doctors were able to bring Smith’s symptoms under control. For 72 hours his doctors worked around the clock to discover what went wrong. They knew it hadn’t been a heart attack.
“I had what’s called Wolf Parkinson White syndrome, which is an abnormal conduction chamber in the heart where electrical impulses that make the heart contract get trapped in a loop and cause your heart to speed up,” said Smith.
To solve the problem, doctors performed an ablation, which required inserting a catheter into an artery in Smith’s leg and running the tube all the way to his heart, where they used a laser to seal off the abnormal pathway. The condition had never affected Smith before that day and he remains symptom-free now.
The harrowing story led the hospital to ask Smith to appear in a commercial. Grateful for all the hospital and its staff had done to save his life, he agreed. When the commercial remained in regular rotation on television for years, Smith found himself being asked again and again to tell his story.
“Everywhere I went in North Mississippi, someone would recognize me. I had to tell the story a thousand times, but I’m still grateful. It’s something that very easily could have taken my life,” he said.
Smith returned to the forestry program at Mississippi State University the semester after his operation, but found he was no longer interested in the educational path he had chosen.
“I was sitting in physics thinking, ‘Not only do I not understand what’s going on in this class, I know what I really want to do,’” he said.
Because community colleges are the only institutions in Mississippi which offer EMT and paramedic courses, Smith left MSU and enrolled in EMCC’s EMT program. Training to become an emergency responder was a natural fit as Smith had served as a volunteer firefighter in Oktibbeha County for years before his health crisis. Now, he was taking his call to service a step further.
At first he intended only to complete the EMT program. On an ambulance team, EMTs generally drive the truck and assist the paramedic, but aren’t cleared for medical procedures such as administering medications, intravenously or otherwise, or using a defibrillator.
“I realized how much I enjoyed it and knew I wouldn’t get to help people the way I wanted as an EMT Basic,” Smith said.
Instead, he worked as an EMT at Oktibbeha County Hospital while continuing through the paramedic program at EMCC with instructor and program director John McBryde.
“It’s funny, because that was in the early years of the program and Alan started the class with one other student. Then that student dropped out and it was just the two of us until we picked up a combat medic from the Army,” McBryde said.
“Alan’s smart and he picked up the material and skills easily. He had the feel and the passion for the job. I knew from the beginning he would make an outstanding paramedic.”
With the combination of McBryde’s instruction, working as an EMT and receiving help from the paramedics on staff at OCH, Smith completed the program and passed the rigorous national registry exam for paramedics.
Despite his training and experience responding to emergencies as a volunteer firefighter and an EMT, Smith felt the pressure of the job during his first call as a paramedic. The variety of situations he might encounter seemed overwhelming.
“I’m not gonna lie, the first call I went on I was bad nervous. I had to talk myself down all the way to the call. But once I got out of the truck I was amazed how calm I became, I guess because my mind was so focused on what I had to do,” he said.
“I used to worry in school, ‘Am I going to know what to do when the time comes?’ because we learn so much in such a short period of time. But when I got to my first scene it was amazing what came back to me automatically.”
As a paramedic, Smith still receives 48 hours of refresher training and 24 hours of continuing education every two years. His boss, OCH Director of Emergency Medical Services and Oktibbeha County Coroner Michael Hunt, said Smith has been a natural.
“Alan didn’t require but one month of orientation and has become a really seasoned paramedic. I can say EMCC grads are very well trained,” Hunt said.
To register for the EMT or paramedic programs, visit www.eastms.edu to begin the application process. For more information, contact program director John McBryde at (662) 243-2689 or email@example.com.
“Excuse me. Are you the guy from the TV commercial?”
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