The Ride of Their Lives
“I had no desire to be a paramedic. But I fell in love with it. I truly love the work we do—I tell people I’ve never once felt this is my job; it’s my calling. And I think we all serve such a higher purpose when we take care of other people.”
Matt Ward never expected things would turn out this way. His career, which started off as a firefighter, eventually landed him in the role of Clinical Manager for EMS Operations at UK HealthCare. It’s given him front-row access to Thoroughbred racing at Keeneland, PGA tournaments, and the sidelines of UK football and basketball games—always ready to provide lifesaving care in the event of an emergency.
Matt was introduced to emergency medicine during his firefighting training. He fell in love with the field, becoming one of the few paramedics hired to work part-time at UK HealthCare’s emergency department—while still working full-time as a firefighter. During one of his shifts, he learned about extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), an intensive lifesaving technology that serves as a patient’s heart and lungs—keeping them alive when nothing else can.
UK HealthCare has the only formal adult ECMO transport service in Kentucky, picking up patients within three to five hours of Lexington and bringing them to the UK HealthCare Cardiovascular ICU. Transporting a patient on ECMO takes a skilled team: a perfusionist who operates the ECMO machine, a nurse, a paramedic and an EMT driver.
“Everyone’s working as a team—we all have our tasks and our jobs to do,” said Matt. “But the main goal is that person laying on the bed, and everyone works hard to make sure that patient is taken care of.”
“People who work on our ECMO team are willing to push out of their comfort level to provide patients with a chance to survive,” said Julia Jones Akhtarekhavari, Heart Failure Operations Director at UK HealthCare. “They believe in the technology of ECMO.”
After retiring from the Lexington Fire Department in 2016, Matt was hired into a leadership role as a full-time employee at UK HealthCare as the ECMO program continued to grow. The team has doubled in size, added the ECMO Specialist role, and expanded the ECMO transport team to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With 120 to 130 cases every year, the program is now one of the largest in the country.
“For a lot of patients, it is their Hail Mary,” said Julia. “These patients either have incredibly sick hearts or sick lungs, or sometimes both. We’re doing ECMO because there’s literally nothing else left to do—we’ve tried it all and this is it. ECMO gives patients one last opportunity to survive whatever has happened to them and to hopefully go home.”
ECMO is just one of the ways UK HealthCare’s EMS department cares for Kentuckians. In fall 2021, UK HealthCare was named Official First Aid Provider for Keeneland, covering first aid and emergency medical services for jockeys, fans and staff on race days.
“The best part is seeing behind-the-scenes,” said Matt. “All the safety measures, all of the ancillary people, each doing small tasks that make the operation work, from the starting gate workers to the staff working the horses to the officials in the racing office. I never knew how much work it takes to make the production look seamless.”
Matt also helped coordinate the chase vehicle: a Chevy Tahoe that carries first aid equipment, two paramedics—and a horse trainer. The vehicle follows the horses and jockeys around the track during each race, providing an immediate response in case of an incident. It’s not a role Matt could have imagined when he first entered the field, but, as always, he’s adapted.
“Matt’s a visionary,” said Julia. “He’s willing to look forward, push limits and ask himself and others to do new things. He’s always looking for ways we can help more patients and how we can grow UK HealthCare to support more patients.”
For Matt, it’s a joy and an honor to play such a critical role in every patient’s journey—whether they’re riding in an ambulance or in a race at Keeneland.
“A lot of the work we do at UK HealthCare is above and beyond what most people do, and it really makes you feel like the work that we do here matters,” said Matt. “The work we do has an impact on patients’ lives and their families. We’re fortunate to provide a second chance at life for a lot of patients.”