In the 1960s, Pittsburgh, like most cities, was segregated by race. But people of all colors suffered from lack of ambulance care. Police were the ones who responded to medical emergency calls.
“Back in those days, you had to hope and pray you had nothing serious,” recalls filmmaker and Hollywood paramedic Gene Starzenski, who grew up in Pittsburgh. “Because basically, the only thing they did was pick you up and threw you in the back like a sack of potatoes, and they took off for the hospital. They didn’t even sit in the back with you.”
Ambulances existed, but they were privatized and didn’t offer emergency care or go everywhere.
That changed with the start of the Freedom House Ambulance Service, the city’s first mobile emergency medicine program. Starzenski tells the story in his documentary Freedom House Street Saviors.
The service became the national model, but it started out by serving Pittsburgh’s mostly black Hill District. Nowadays, the Hill District is famous because of its prominence in playwright August Wilson’s work. In the 1960s, like many city neighborhoods, it teemed with racial unrest.
Riots that erupted in the wake of the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left Hill District shops gutted — and hundreds out of work.
Freedom House provided a solution, creating jobs for the unemployed and providing a crucial service for an imploding community.
Blacks were not the only Pittsburgh residents who suffered from lack of care in those days. In 1966, the city’s mayor collapsed. By the time he reached the hospital in a police car, he had gone too long without oxygen; he later died.
Starzenski’s family also experienced the difficulties before Freedom House services existed. His grandfather suffered a fall in the early 1960s. “When they came to the house,” Starzenski says, “they didn’t have any equipment. My grandfather, his head was bleeding pretty bad, and the only thing they did was they asked us for a towel and they slapped a towel around my grandfather’s head and they took off to the hospital.”
Things were more perilous in predominantly black neighborhoods, where people would wait longer for police transport.
“No one would go to the Hill District, in the same way that taxicabs were hesitant to go there,” says Phil Hallen, who ran a foundation at the time that focused on bringing health care to the poor.
He helped form Freedom House with Dr. Peter Safar, a University of Pittsburgh physician who pioneered the use of cardiopulmonary resuscitation and emphasized the importance of treating patients en route to the hospital – not just transporting them there. Safar wanted to teach laypeople to deliver care in emergency rooms on wheels.
Freedom House recruited young black men as emergency medical technicians. Some were high school dropouts and most of them were considered unemployable.
George McCrary was one of those EMT’s. Today, in the Hill District, he remembers what it was like in the late 1960s and 1970s: “A lot of people came to a lot of activity … people had seizures, strokes, gunshots, stabbings, heart attacks, the whole nine yards, right here in this area.”
It wasn’t long before everyone was benefiting from Freedom House. In 1969, a car hit Sue Schilling as she crossed a boulevard that separated her predominantly white neighborhood from the Hill District.
Freedom House responded. When the city erected a plaque commemorating Freedom House last year, Schilling wrote a letter thanking the ambulance technicians.
“I don’t think the men got enough credit for what they did, because it was a different time,” she says.
Freedom House became so successful that it attracted the city’s attention, and in the mid-1970s, the city took it over. Pittsburgh has since become a healthcare hub.
Some of the EMTs went on to work for Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Services, but George McCrary was not one of them. For the last three decades, he’s been driving a yellow cab. He loves to tell his passengers the little-known story of Freedom House.
“You can’t say you can meet the first doctor,” he says. “And you can’t say you can meet the first police officer. But you can say you met one of the first American, worldwide, EMT paramedics.”