PEABODY — Peabody High students got a taste of what it’s like to respond to real medical emergencies this year, as part of a medical assisting career program at the high school.

A dozen seniors got to ride along in an ambulance to see firsthand how ambulance crews help patients as they respond to 911 calls. Several of them, now recent graduates, spoke this week about their experiences, calling it “life-changing.”

The students encountered emergencies ranging from a severe nose bleed to someone injured in a fall. Sometimes they just transferred patients from one medical facility to another. One student was there when a patient died of cardiac arrest.

One of the biggest lessons they learned was patients had emotional needs as well as medical ones.

“You have to have empathy,” said Leah Dang, 17, one of the students. During her ride-along, the only emergencies she encountered were people who’d fallen in retirement homes, she said. But she found it instructive to watch how crews handled frail, elderly patients, took vital signs and monitored them with an electrocardiogram.

Gisady Mendoza, 17, got a perfect example of empathy in action.

“I remember the guy — he had, like, swelling of the feet. When I saw him, I knew he had heart problems,” she said.

But something the man said stuck with her, and almost made her cry, though she did her best to keep her composure. The patient said he had lost hope in himself given his numerous medical problems.

“Then my paramedic person was like: ‘Oh, don’t worry ... I won’t lose hope in you.’”

Calvin Anton, 18, said one of the things he learned is that the job is nothing like you see on TV. On his ride-along, they responded to two calls, including a woman who had fallen. Neither was a life-threatening situation.

“You know, the TV depicts it as a job where they are always doing something ... and it’s wicked exciting and stuff like that,” Anton said. In reality, “it’s exciting, but it’s the worst day of that person’s life that you are going to visit, and you have to transport that person to the hospital to get them better.”

‘The best experience’

For Kathryn DiGiulio, 18, it was so exciting that she stayed an extra two hours the day of her ride-along.

“We got called to a cardiac arrest, unfortunately,” said DiGiulio, and the patient died. She said it was good to see how things worked in an ambulance, but it was also a “weird” experience.

“But I saw an upbeat one. ... It was a transfer.” The woman, an amputee, had been dropped off, but she could not get up the stairs. She was happy for the help.

Now, DiGiulio wants to become an EMT and work summer breaks, something she’d previously considered but rejected.

“I was like it’s just too busy, but then I have to find room for it (becoming an EMT) after that ride because it was the best experience of my life,” DiGiulio said.

All of the students are looking forward to careers in medicine.

Peabody High’s medical assisting program is four years old, but this is the first time it has partnered with an ambulance company for ride-alongs, said Maria Ferri, the high school’s director of career technical education.

Students are already familiar with working in a medical setting, she said. As part of their program, they leave school three days a week, for 3 hours a day, to get clinical experience at Lahey Medical Center. That training lasts for 30 weeks.

To start the ride-along program, medical assisting teacher Shannon Spinosa reached out earlier this year to Robert White, a director of operations for Atlantic Ambulance, which is a division of Cataldo Ambulance Service. They started putting the program together in February, and in May a dozen students began their rides in an ambulance.

“It’s given students a real-life opportunity,” Ferri said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.