While working as a paramedic in college, Mark Merlin—now a longtime emergency medicine physician—responded to a horrific call: A teenage girl had been pinned underneath an 18-wheeler.
Merlin recalls that the “tire was on her abdomen and pelvis” on that awful day back in 1987, and that he and his fellow first responders had to wait until the equipment needed to lift the truck arrived on scene.
“We sat there for an hour or two while she died,” he says. “I thought, ‘There must be a better way to do this.’”
That tragedy sparked the idea for MD1: Merlin’s New Jersey nonprofit that brings doctors to the site of an emergency.
“If you can’t get them to the hospital, the hospital has to come to them,” says Merlin, who is the vice chairman of emergency medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center/RWJBarnabas Health.
Paramedics, Merlin says, “bring most of the emergency department to you, but if you really need the hospital and all the services available—surgical procedures, blood, platelets, plasma—and you can’t get to the hospital, MD1 is perfect.”
911 dispatchers—as well as police, fire and Emergency Medical Services personnel—all over New Jersey call on MD1 and its seven doctors when they need help. The physicians keep MD1’s vehicles with them, create a rotation schedule and respond to calls when they are able.
MD1’s doctors take on all types of emergencies—crashes, strokes, natural disasters, mass casualties—and have performed surgeries and procedures including tracheotomies and amputations.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, MD1 answered 30 calls per week, mostly for intubations, Merlin says. Now, the organization responds to roughly five calls each week.
Since MD1 started in 2002, the group has saved more than 1,400 lives, says Sarah Scharf, MD1’s chief administrative officer. MD1 relies on donations to treat all patients free of charge, and pays its physicians for their time and skill when the organization can secure grants, Merlin says.
Success stories—like the time a young boy got stuck in a truck that had flipped—keep the team motivated, Scharf says. “His lung was being crushed,” Scharf recalls. “The…EMTs on site didn’t have the supplies or advanced training to provide the level of care required at that moment. Our MD1 physician had the supplies and was able to stabilize the boy until he got to the hospital.” Otherwise, she says, the boy likely would have died.
“There are so many of those stories…that make it worthwhile every single time.”