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.”

A candid photo of Matt assessing the contents of one of the compartments inside his ambulance.
“The work we do here matters,” said Matt.

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.

A photo of Matt typing on his keyboard and looking at his computer monitor as he works at his desk.
“We’re fortunate enough to provide a second chance at life for a lot of patients,” said Matt.

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.

A photo of Matt posing for the camera in front of a display at Keeneland.
Since UK HealthCare was named the Official First Aid Provider of Keeneland, Matt has represented Emergency Medicine on-site.

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.

A close-up shot of Matt’s hands as he reaches inside his emergency first aid kit.
Matt’s ability to find solutions in challenging situations has driven the Emergency Medical Services team forward.

“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.”

A photo of Matt looking off-camera while standing in front of one of the buildings at Keeneland.
“I want everything I do to be about the patient,” said Matt.

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.

A photo of Matt reading the screen of one of the pieces of equipment inside the ambulance.
The ECMO program at UK HealthCare is one of very few in the region.

“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.”

A photo of Matt looking into the camera as he leans against the wall outside of the Keeneland First Aid clinic.
Matt knows that first aid means caring for a patient’s physical and emotional well-being.

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.”

A photo of Matt driving the Keeneland First Aid vehicle with the driver’s side window down and his elbow resting on the door.
“I truly enjoyed the experience and will gladly do it again,” said Matt.

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.

A photo of Matt looking down the race track as he leans against the railing.
“Watching the turf races from the track and seeing the horses from the rail was amazing,” said Matt.

“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 candid photo of Matt standing over the gurney as he moves around the ambulance.
“What’s kept me in health care is the desire to help people,” said Matt.

“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.”

A photo of Matt standing in front of the race track and posing for the camera with his arms crossed.
“I can’t tell you how blessed I’ve been to work with ECMO,” said Matt.

See how we care for Kentuckians

at UK HealthCare.

Matthew Mitchell, an older white man with short gray hair, poses in his home with a basketball that celebrates his 300th win. He is wearing a blue and white checkered button-up shirtA photo of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist standing in front of a staircase as he smiles for the camera with his hands in front of him. He is a young Black man with short black hair. He is wearing a blue button-down with white stripes over a purple t-shirt.