Health Care Heroes: Travis Estes has ‘heart for the people of Loudon County’
Once a month, Travis Estes studies a table-sized map of Loudon County marked with the locations of where ambulances responded to 911 calls in prior weeks.
Estes, the Emergency Medical Services director of Loudon County for Priority Ambulance, then reviews the color-coded response times for each call.
"Before I came here, the average response times were well over 15 to 20 minutes with a high percentage of calls taking 20 to 25 and 30 minutes-plus to get an ambulance to a patient, which is unacceptable," he said. "Most of the life-threatening emergencies we see are time-sensitive issues. The shortest amount of time it takes to get an ambulance to the patient and then get them to a tertiary care center, the better the outcomes they will have."
So Estes, who became Priority's EMS director in March 2015, made some changes.
He strategically placed EMS stations around the county to improve coverage and implemented a backfill protocol in which the ambulance responding to a call is temporarily replaced by one not en route to a call.
"These two things have been the key to dropping the response times dramatically," Estes said.
Now, ambulance response times have decreased to 15 minutes or less for about 92 percent of the calls with ambulances arriving within five minutes for 23 percent of the calls, he said.
"It's just phenomenal to see the improvement that's been made in response times in the community," said Rob Webb, Priority Ambulance's vice president of Tennessee operations. "It's reviewed every month by a large group of people Travis has helped to assemble."
That group, known as the EMS Council Board, includes Estes, local fire and law enforcement heads, representatives from the 911 Center, local government, and the hospital. They review ambulance response times, locations and protocols each month, seeking ways to improve patient care.
The creation of the council stems, in part, from a mentor's advice to Estes at the start of his career.
"You need to realize you don't know everything, won't know everything and can't do everything," he said of the advice to surround himself with people who have varied talents. "You have to be caring, compassionate and treat the community and patients like they're your family."
Estes, whose family has lived in Loudon County since the late 1800s, decided to become a paramedic after helping his parents care for his younger brother, Eric, who had muscular dystrophy and used a wheelchair most of his life.
"He was a big encourager for me to give back to the community and be able to help people," Estes said.
After graduating from Lenoir City High School in 1991, Estes joined Loudon County Fire and Rescue as a volunteer firefighter while serving as his brother's at-school caregiver.
"(Eric) was able to see what I was doing and he would ask me about calls," he said. "(EMS) was a field that he thought I was cut out for."
After his brother's death in 1993, Estes completed his firefighter training and earned his EMT license. He then became a full-time firefighter with the Lenoir City Fire Department while working full time as a paramedic with Fort Sanders Loudon EMS.
"After his passing, I wanted to ensure I could reach the highest level I could so I could give the most appropriate and highest level of care I could," Estes said. "It just seemed like I could touch more people and be more beneficial to them if I was providing medical care."
Webb said Estes' career has been marked by giving back to Loudon County.
"Travis has a heart for the people of Loudon County," Webb said. "He is very entrenched in the community, involved in his family, involved in his church, and with sports. Travis is truly part of the fabric of the community."
He served the county as an EMT, achieving the rank of captain and serving as a supervisor, until 2005 when he fulfilled one of his career goals to become a flight paramedic for UT LIFESTAR, the helicopter critical care transport service affiliated with the University of Tennessee Medical Center that serves East Tennessee and the surrounding region.
"In the ambulance bay, you may not see critical care people," Estes said. "On the aircraft, more times than not, you're in those situations where every time you flew it was life or death. It makes a difference in somebody's life."
Estes said the experience he gained in the 10 years he worked for UT LIFESTAR informs the decisions he's made as an EMS director.
He has overseen first aid, CPR and AED portable defibrillator training for the county's first responder agencies, as well as teachers, school resource officers and coaches who work with the area's youth.
Estes also regularly hosts community outreach events and speaks to civic groups to share health and safety information in an effort to build stronger relationships between emergency responders and the people they serve.
This summer, Estes began serving on a state board overseeing a pilot program to bring community paramedicine to Tennessee. He said Loudon County has been selected as one of the test sites for the program, which aims to reduce the number of emergency room visits in a community by allowing EMTs to visit people, many of them elderly or recently released from the hospital, in their homes to make sure they are taking their medications properly, eating well and are living in a safe environment.
In addition, Estes has been writing new protocols for transporting certain types of patients and adding new medicines to the fleet of four ambulances he manages.
"I want our service to be on the leading edge to benefit our community and give them the highest level of what we can do," he said.
Webb said Estes also had his staff's best interest at heart when he established a chaplain program at Priority Ambulance.
"Our people see devastating, traumatic events day in and day out," Estes said. "They see stuff most people will not see in their lives and we see it often. It really gives them the ability to vent and it gets some of this stress off of them to be able to talk to somebody."
As a group, paramedics aren't good at accepting help from others because they're accustomed to being the caretakers, Estes said.
But he humbly learned how to be the person receiving care after he was diagnosed with colon cancer in September 2015 during a routine colonoscopy. He underwent surgery to remove 21 lymph nodes and a cancerous mass and then completed six months of chemotherapy in early summer.
"It's been a struggle, but I've been very blessed with support from my family, my kids, my parents, our church and the employees here," said Estes, who continued to work while undergoing treatment to serve as an example to his children and colleagues.
"I wanted them to see that no matter what life hands you, you have to look for the positive side," he said. "If you're looking over your shoulder at what happened in the past, you're going to stumble and fall flat on your face because you're not focused on forward."
Estes' bout with cancer also reminded him of why he became a paramedic.
"We're here to take care of you, regardless of the circumstances, and to do everything in our power to provide the best care," he said. "That's what's satisfying, knowing we're making a positive difference in their lives and the community."