nside a refugee camp in conflict-ridden Sudan, a young Mohamed Hagahmed received care from doctors from around the world as he fought malaria three times.
He admired the work they did, leaving their homes and their loved ones to come to a foreign country and help people in need, in the midst of political divide, working in an unstable environment.
“That sense of altruism and selflessness really affected me,” he said. From an early age, Hagahmed was determined to someday come to the United States and become a doctor.
It took a lot of work and determination, including four years of college in Germany, playing two seasons in NFL Europe to save up enough money to move here, and working nights as a paramedic while attending medical school.
Today, Hagahmed serves in a number of leadership positions in the Pittsburgh medical scene, including his appointment last year as the new medical director of Medical Rescue Team South Authority [MRTSA].
“I’m grateful and humbled to be here,” he said.
Hagahmed is just one of many new faces at MRTSA, which underwent a complete overhaul of sorts in the last two years. MRTSA provides pre-hospital care to six South Hills municipalities, including Mt. Lebanon, where the authority is headquartered.
From three brand new ambulances that increase patient and provider safety to station upgrades and a restructuring and hiring of new leadership, MRTSA has seen a resurgence.
MRTSA’s board of directors, composed of two representatives from each of its six member communities—Mt. Lebanon, Whitehall, Castle Shannon, Dormont, Green Tree and Baldwin Township—authorized $2 million in capital upgrades that came to fruition in the last two years. That also included a new command vehicle and supervisors’ vehicle, along with new equipment bags.
“There’s a re-focus on what’s at our core: It’s that we provide the six communities that we serve with excellent patient care providers…. But we also provide them with the best equipment, the safety equipment and a level of excellence that is unmatched in the region,” said Chief Josh Worth, who took over the reins in May. In late January, MRTSA added its most adorable member yet. C.J., a 10-week Aussiedoodle, joined the MRTSA team and began training to become the authority’s therapy dog.
Over the last two years, the board of directors worked on a new leadership structure focused on making MRTSA sustainable for the future, according to former interim director John Trant. Today, it’s run by new executive director Jeff Kelly, who oversees the administrative and financial side, and reports directly to the board of directors. As chief, Worth oversees MRTSA’s operations and has three lieutenants and 35 paramedics and EMTs reporting to him.
“We really want to make sure we’re putting MRTSA on the map as a premiere agency, not just in Western Pennsylvania but in the commonwealth and in the country,” Kelly said. “Our goal is we really want to make this an EMS agency where folks would want to come and work.”
From Sudan to Mt. Lebanon: A Progressive MRTSA
It was a long and winding road that led Hagahmed to Pittsburgh.
Born in Wad Madani, Sudan, his family fled amidst a civil war when he wasn’t yet a teen. They moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where he graduated from high school.
“I’ve wanted to do medicine all of my life, but I didn’t have the financial resources,” he said.
So, Hagahmed moved to Germany, where the cost of medical school was extremely low. He spent two years as a wide receiver in the NFL Europe playing for the Dusseldorf Rhein Fire and finished what is the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in health sciences and biochemistry.
He saved up enough money to move to the United States in 2005. He took to Google to find a city where he could relocate, taking into account financial and educational factors.
“Pittsburgh kept popping up when I was Googling, because it has a unique medical history,” he said.
Polio killed a large number of people in Sudan, so for Hagahmed, it was a big deal that its vaccine originated here. He learned about the Freedom House Ambulance Service, the first emergency medical service to staff its ambulances with medically trained personnel. The majority of their staff were Black and served the Hill District.
“EMS is really born in Pittsburgh and has this unique history of pre-hospital care. I knew this is where I wanted to go,” he said.
Hagahmed moved to the United States on temporary protected status, which meant he received no financial aid for his education. He later obtained refugee status.
He went on to receive his EMT and paramedic certification at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Emergency Medicine, and worked as a paramedic while putting himself through college. That meant sometimes studying in the middle of the night between calls.
It was hard. He had no family here. But he was resilient. “What kept me going mainly was my family support from overseas,” he said. “I just kept pushing to get things done and work harder.”
Hagahmed received his bachelor’s in emergency medicine from the University of Pittsburgh in 2009 and his M.D. from Drexel University in 2015. He completed his residency at the University of Pittsburgh before moving to San Antonio to work.
Amidst the pandemic, he realized he needed to come back to his American home: Pittsburgh. This is where he made connections and was the city he grew to know and love.
Today, he serves as the associate medical director for the Center for Emergency Medicine, where he got his start. This was a full circle moment for him.
“It’s bringing me a lot of joy, I teach the students and the paramedics here at the same place where I graduated,” he said. “Every time that I tell this to someone it gives me goosebumps.”
He also serves as the University of Pittsburgh Physicians director of diversity, recruitment and relations, helping fight for social justice and increasing diversity in health care, along with working as an emergency room physician at St. Clair Health.
As medical director for MRTSA, he provides clinical oversight and training for paramedics and EMTs. With first-hand experience on the front lines and the toll that it takes on first responders’ mental health, Hagahmed wants to make sure the EMTs and paramedics at MRTSA feel supported. He sat down with all of them in late 2021 to better get to know them and learn how he can support them and their professional growth. He occasionally accompanies the medics on ambulance calls when he is at the station.
“One of the things that we were looking for was a progressive medical director that was really going to help our providers continue to be cutting edge, continuing to be right at the top of their game,” Worth said.
Hagahmed has made it his mission in life to give back to Sudan and someday establish a strong pre-hospital system in the country.
“The simple care that we take for granted here in America, a lot of people in my town cannot take advantage of that. My main goal is to be able to at least train people to provide emergency care and provide the level of education, the level of treatment, the level of care that we’ve already established here in America.”
Safety first: New ambulances roll in
Patient care and provider safety were at the forefront of five MRTSA paramedics’ minds as they spent more than a year designing three new ambulances for the emergency service provider.
The customized ambulances—which represent almost half of MRTSA’s fleet—arrived in late 2021 at a cost of $218,000 each. MRTSA plans to replace its other four ambulances over the next five years.
The sleek new design features a retro-meets-modern look, and a 360-degree camera system that allows the driver to see all around the outside and inside the back of the vehicle.
Worth credited the team with designing “one of the best ambulances that I’ve seen in my career.”
When designing the ambulances, “Safety was Number 1,” said paramedic Kenny Picard.
The new camera system takes away blind spots for the driver as they’re changing lanes or about to exit a vehicle on a busy road. A camera and intercom system in the patient compartment allows paramedics in the front of the vehicle to communicate with those working with the patient. Like current ambulances, each new vehicle is equipped with a traffic preemptive system that changes traffic lights to green when their sirens are on.
The ambulances’ light system has variable flash patterns to increase other drivers’ awareness while responding to a call, which then can be dimmed when the vehicle is parked.
A new siren system, called the Rumbler, adds a low-frequency current that causes a vibration to nearby vehicles. It’s another way to alert them that the ambulance is coming.
In the past, paramedics and EMTs would sometimes need to leave their seats to access equipment to treat the patient. The new ambulances have seats that slide back and forth along a track, allowing the medics to move around the compartment without leaving their seat. The vehicles also have a four-point harness that, if a provider were to leave their seat, would make them safer in the event of a crash or a vehicle rollover. Air bags in the rear compartment protect for side-impact, head-on and rollover crashes.
The new ambulances have a power lift system that will lift the stretcher into the ambulance, easing the physical strain of loading the stretcher by hand. The lift can handle up to 800 pounds. An upgraded ventilation system exchanges the air inside the vehicle with clean air, creating a negative pressure room—something that’s useful when treating patients with COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses.
Picard had a large smile on his face as he looked at the new ambulance that pulled up into MRTSA’s bay.
“This is two years in the making. It finally came to fruition,” he said. “Safety is everything here.”
New leadership takes charge
MRTSA’s board of directors spent nearly two years formulating and putting in place a new leadership and financial structure that is sustainable for the organization’s future.
Jeff Kelly started at MRTSA November 1 as its executive director. Kelly brings with him 30 years of experience in emergency services, beginning as a volunteer firefighter. Initially, he planned on going into sports medicine, but was so impressed with paramedics he met while working as an athletic trainer at Baldwin-Wallace University that he made a career change, getting EMT certification in 1993 and becoming a paramedic in 1997.
While he didn’t realize his calling until then, his mom knew early on that he would end up in the medical field.
“My mom always brings up a day when I was in fourth grade and came home super excited that we were learning basic aid training,” he said.
Kelly moved to Maryland to work for Montgomery County as a firefighter and paramedic, then returned to Pittsburgh to work as a paramedic at Ross/West View EMS, where he moved up the ranks.
He graduated from Community College of Allegheny County with an associate’s degree in general studies and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in emergency medicine.
His career includes stints as executive director at Cranberry Township EMS, director of operations for the Washington, D.C., office of American Medical Response, with 400 employees and as many as 50 ambulances. Returning to the Pittsburgh area, Kelly became the manager of Canonsburg Ambulance Service, working for Allegheny Health Network, where he was promoted to the director of transport for pre-hospital care.
He obtained his fellowship from the American College of Paramedic Executives in 2018.
In 2021, he completed his master’s in public administration from Grand Canyon University and sought out a role where he would work with or in municipal government and have a better work/life balance.
Kelly lives in Gibsonia with his wife, Lynne. He has three children.
He was drawn to MRTSA because of its reputation as a top-flight emergency care operation. As executive director, his role is to oversee finances, budgeting and strategic planning. It’s his responsibility to ensure that the crews have what they need to do their job, while also making sure the organization is being “financially prudent.”
His focus is to ensure that MRTSA continues to be known for its great clinical care and its role as an important community resource.
Kelly wants people to know that when they call 911 in MRTSA’s response region, “you’re going to get professionals who are going to take the greatest clinical care of you and your loved ones, hopefully for the best outcomes…. We want to be the driving force of pre-hospital care in the South Hills…. We want the residents to be as proud of MRTSA as we are.”
Cost: $60/individual; $80/household; $100/business membership
MRTSA will submit your claim to your insurance carrier for the ambulance service, and as a member you will only be billed for half of what your insurance doesn’t cover.
Join online at www.mrtsa.com.