From pioneering doctors like James McCune Smith who was the first Black person to earn a medical degree and own a pharmacy in the United States to this generation of community health workers who are ensuring quality healthcare is accessible in underserved neighborhoods, African Americans have historically made pivotal contributions toward advancing medical care. A new book will delve into the unsung stories of the pioneering Black men who became the country’s first EMS workers, Time reported.
Titled American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics, the book—which was penned by author Kevin Hazzard—captures the journey of a collective of Black men from Pittsburgh who were part of Freedom House EMS. Following a 1966 report released by the National Academy of Sciences that deemed America’s emergency response system inefficient, Nobel Prize-nominated physician Peter Safar developed the model for the contemporary ambulance that included life-saving equipment. He also cultivated a medical course designed to train paramedics.
Amongst the first individuals to participate in the program, which launched in 1967, was a group of Black men who worked at the Freedom House; a nonprofit created to combat hunger by delivering food to families in need. The men pivoted from a delivery service to providing care during medical emergencies. After five years of operation, a report showed that the Freedom House transported 1,400 patients to local medical facilities and delivered accurate care to patients in critical condition 89 percent of the time compared to the volunteer ambulance services’ 13 percent rate. Their revolutionary efforts towards transforming the landscape of healthcare would prompt other cities to adopt their EMS model.
The Freedom House was dismantled in 1975 after then-Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty replaced the unit with an all-white group of paramedics. Despite being a literal lifeline for the residents of Pittsburgh, overt racism and discrimination led to the erasure of the Freedom House. The stories of its members have been left in obscurity until the release of American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics.
Hazzard, who is a former paramedic, says their narratives deserve to be told. “These were really successful people who came from nowhere and where it all began was an opportunity in 1967,” he shared in a statement, according to the news outlet. “All it took for a group of young men that the world had written off was one opportunity, and they never looked back from that point. Anyone can reach great heights. They just simply need a single opportunity.” John Moon, a Freedom House paramedic, told NPR that being a part of the collective gave him a sense of motivation to see things through “no matter what it is, no matter what the hurdle, no matter what the barrier.” The book hit shelves in September.
Black medical trailblazers are getting long-overdue recognition for their contributions. Earlier this year, Dr. Joyce Yerwood—the first Black woman physician in Fairfield County—had a street renamed in her honor.
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