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'Paramedics' reality shows slice of Tampa

At a glance

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 1999


Looking back, 20-year Tampa paramedic Hubert "Mac" McNeeley has just one regret about cooperating with the Learning Channel's new reality-based documentary series, Paramedics.

The lack of action.

"We really hoped each call would set the cameras on fire," says McNeeley, laughing, as he remembers two weeks spent in August with cameramen from the show tailing along. "We had two double shootings the week before they came. But when they got here, we were searching for calls."

Indeed, as the debut episode of Paramedics unfolds tonight, viewers see the kind of emergencies that wouldn't get a moment's notice on fictional dramas such as ER or Chicago Hope: a victim of a car accident with a concussion, a young man who is resuscitated after nearly drowning, a child who just had a seizure.

According to producer Chuck Smith, that became the attraction of filming in Tampa -- along with Tampa General Hospital's Aeromed program, which allowed them to feature paramedics working in helicopters and on the ground.

With a lack of dramatic calls, cameras instead captured the medics' personalities; a key element for Paramedics, a spin-off of TLC's popular Trauma: Life in the E.R. reality series.

In Tampa, Smith spent a month shadowing various paramedics -- sometimes sleeping in the firehouse with those working 24-hour shifts. He also is spotlighting Aeromed medic Kathy Koch, then five months pregnant, and 18-year veteran Troy Basham.

"We're not (Fox-TV's) COPS . . . nobody wants a show with endless film of drug dealers hurting people," the producer adds. "We wanted people who were really dedicated to their jobs . . . lifetime paramedics."

It would be tough to imagine a better example for Smith's cameras than McNeeley, 48, a gregarious guy with more than 20 years' experience as a paramedic with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

He quit the job a few years ago for a position with Hillsborough High School. But it didn't work out -- McNeeley was forced to start over in 1997 as a rookie working under paramedics he had previously trained.

"People think we're always rushing to life and death situations, but we play a multiple role, from life-threatening (incidents) to just talking to people," he said. "And I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Paramedics shows McNeeley and his partner, Audra Stenger, in a variety of situations -- visiting elementary school kids, then patching up a stabbing victim who refuses to go to a hospital.

Along with the inherent drama, such episodes highlight the respect and camaraderie between Stenger and McNeeley. (She explains his astrological chart, for instance.)

"You got a black male/white female, older male/young female; she's vegetarian, I eat meat," adds McNeeley, who initially trained Stenger. "But there's a respect there. She still treats me as if I'm Mac the training officer."

"You learn that a lot of their job is staying ready," adds Smith. "Also, you learn Tampa's a place with too many cars and not enough roads. Lots of auto-related incidents . . . (that) make you very careful when driving around."

It's an electric profession for McNeeley, the son of a migrant worker whose problems with dyslexia in elementary school convinced him he could never hold a job so intellectually demanding. A stint as a medic in the Navy taught him otherwise.

Now, he can't imagine any other life. "We don't save lives. . . . That's not in our power," McNeeley adds. "We do make contributions . . . and when things go in that person's favor, they make it. And sometimes, just talking to somebody is the best care you can give them."


At a glance

Paramedics airs at 8 p.m. today and again at 11 p.m. on the Learning Channel. Grade: B+

. Rating: TV-PG.

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