By Kate Hunger
When Vicky Smith arrived for her first shift as an EMT paramedic, she didn’t even have time to put down her gear before heading to the scene of an accident on a foggy coastal road. Smith and her team arrived to find four teenagers dead and another critically injured. The trauma of that first shift briefly caused Smith to question her decision to pursue a career as an emergency medical responder, but she stayed and built a career that spanned four decades.
Smith served as a firefighter/paramedic before finding her calling as an instructor and specialty rescue expert. As a medical specialist and clinical instructor and rescue training coordinator for the Department of Emergency Health Sciences for more than 31 years, she trained thousands of paramedics, firefighters and other emergency responders to save lives when seconds count.
Smith will retire on Dec. 31.
A military brat who grew up mostly in Texas, Smith’s interest in life-saving began when she took a job as a lifeguard for a daycare center at the age of 15. She went on to volunteer as a firefighter trainee with the Bexar County Fire Department before landing her first full-time position as a paramedic/firefighter-engineer in Port Lavaca.
“I found out I had an aptitude for it,” she said. “I was the tomboy in the family. It was my avenue, and I was good at it.”
Smith joined UT Health San Antonio as the rescue training coordinator in 1989. Never content to just stand by and observe, Smith was always ready to help when needed during ride-a-longs to evaluate the San Antonio Fire Department medics in the field.
“I’ll get down in the mud and blood if I have to,” she said.
Her service extended far beyond the university. A U.S. Marine Corps-trained HRST master (helicopter, rope, suspension techniques), Smith served for six years as a major with the Texas State Guard and 12 years on Texas Task Force One, a search and rescue team run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Smith taught responders how to perform rescues in a wide variety of situations, including high angle, vertical, swift water, confined space, and cave rescue. She has served as an anti-terrorist driving instructor and an off-road driving instructor, and she traveled abroad to help establish the first paramedic system in Trinidad. She was one of only two female trainers from the U.S. in the first-ever international water rescue training program in Costa Rica, where she helped create curriculum and skills test stations to train water rescue teams, instructors, and instructor trainers.
She believes women should not assume they can’t handle working in emergency response and specialty rescue.
“There is such a huge need for specialty rescue,” she said. “Girls think, ‘I can’t be a firefighter’ or ‘I can’t be rescued.’ It’s all about teamwork and adaptation. Girls can do this job, and they need to be encouraged to do this job.”
Smith witnessed massive changes in EMS education and innovations in out-of-hospital treatment over the duration of her career, said Lance Villers, Ph.D., LP, associate professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Health Sciences.
“She has literally served on the front lines of emergency medical training while helping thousands of EMTs and paramedics be part of that monumental change,” he said. “In particular, her expertise with water and vertical rescue helped bring increased levels of expertise to first responders around the region as well as with rescue teams internationally.”
When Smith reflects on her career, what she most values is the opportunity she has had to pay it forward.
“That’s what needs to happen,” she said. “It’s important that there are people out there who love doing this kind of work.”