Erik Larsen, MD, has no memory of the labor meeting he attended 39 years ago while working at an Ohio factory following college. That's because Larsen was severely beaten when the meeting turned into a brawl. However, the event changed the trajectory of his career.
Erik Larsen, MD, has no memory of the labor meeting he attended 39 years ago while working at an Ohio factory following college. That’s because Larsen, an advocate of improving health and safety conditions at the plant, was severely beaten when the meeting turned into a brawl.
“My memory stops the night before,” Larsen recalls, “and then is completely gone for the first two weeks that I was in the ICU. I actually underwent hypnosis by a criminal psychiatrist and I was unable to bring it back.”
What Larsen does remember, however, is that emergency medicine saved his life. He had stopped breathing before he arrived in the emergency room, and it was an emergency department physician who resuscitated him.
Today, Larsen is the associate director of the emergency department at White Plains Hospital in New York, and has dedicated his life’s work to emergency medicine.
Focusing a Career
Larsen says he first thought about a medical career as a youngster growing up in the 1960s.
“I was a science-oriented person, and wanted to do something that would use science to help people,” he says.
That made medicine a natural choice. His experience of being saved by an emergency medicine team, and of being an advocate for people’s health and safety, helped narrow his focus. It didn’t hurt that in 1980 emergency medicine became a brand new specialty.
“It is a specialty,” Larsen says. “Our focus is in those first minutes, hours of time, getting someone critically evaluated and stabilized. And the vast majority of the cases we see are not immediately life threatening, but it is a specialty in terms of how do you approach someone who you’ve never met before, don’t have a relationship with, and get an idea of what is going on with them and get them treated as best as you can.”
But Larsen’s commitment to emergency medicine reaches far beyond the 55,000 patients who are treated each year in the emergency department at White Plains Hospital.
In 1989, Larsen learned of the existence of a relatively young federal agency—the National Disaster Medical System. He obtained an application, submitted it to the Federal government, and received a card welcoming him as a member of the National Disaster Medical System.
“Things were a lot looser back then,” he recalls. “All I had to do was take the card to hospital security, have them take a photo of me, emboss it on the card, and I was a member. Basically, all I had to do was show that I was a doctor.”
Larsen was working at the Westchester Medical Center at the time, and took the lead in building a disaster medical assistance team (DMAT) comprised of doctors, nurses, paramedics—and today, mid-level practitioners, pharmacists, and EMTs—that share on-call time. Members of these teams have a six-hour response time when on call, and need to be ready to move into action within 24 hours.
“I like the challenge and excitement of emergency medicine,” Larsen explains. “I guess I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie. But that’s what I went into medicine for, was to help folks in those trying times when they have an emergency.”
Since then, Larsen has been involved in emergency response both nationally and internationally. As chief medical officer of the US Region 2 National Disaster Medical System, he has led response teams in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; in Florida following Hurricane Wilma; and in Haiti and Pakistan after devastating earthquakes. He has even played a vital role protecting the country at what he calls pre-planned events of national significance, serving as chief medical officer at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration; the 2013 Super Bowl; and the 2013 and 2014 opening sessions of the UN General Assembly.
“When we have advance warning we’re able to put a plan in place based on pre-planning with known assets, known positioning, and knowing what’s available,” Larsen says. “You have some of that advantage even in a hurricane because there’s some preparation time or advance notice of the hurricane.”
No-notice events, such as earthquakes, are much more challenging, especially where local infrastructure may have been destroyed.
“That’s part of our planning is that we have to be able to deploy all of this equipment to get in place to support us,” Larsen says. “And often what happens with the DMAT teams is we will just subsidize the personnel at a hospital, because regular staff can’t get in because they have their own problems and tragedies being affected by the disaster.”
Sometimes that means arranging transport for those affected by the disaster. For example, Larsen was stationed at the New Orleans International Airport following Hurricane Katrina. As medical director, he organized the triage, care, and transport of the injured, sick, and dying, evacuating 40,000 people out of the flooded city to hospitals across the country capable of treating them.
Larsen sits on the board of a group called NYC Medics, a non-governmental organization that responds to disasters. He is also the director of several emergency medical service agencies, and says it has been extremely rewarding working day-to-day with the paramedics and EMTs who are out on the streets.
“They’re the first line of response,” he says. “And seeing what they do, trying to work with them, learn from them, I enjoy the education aspect of it.”
He acknowledges that being a part of emergency medicine—whether it’s providing direct patient care through the emergency department at White Plains Hospital or during disaster situations—has been tremendously rewarding.
“It’s working with people at their most challenged time, trying to give them some hope that they’re going to get through everything,” Larsen says. “And that gives me hope for humanity and the world.”