Penn’s Undergrad Chief of the Medical Emergency Response Team Helps Save Lives

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | | 215-898-4820March 24, 2014

Grace Kunas knows that every second counts in a crisis.

Kunas, a junior from Madison, N.J., is chief of the all-volunteer Medical Emergency Response Team at the University of Pennsylvania.  For her it is a chance to fulfill a personal and professional goal to help others.

Penn’s student-run MERT consists of nearly 70 undergraduates who are state-certified emergency medial technicians. During the academic year, MERT provides emergency medical services across the Penn Patrol Zone, every night from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. and prides itself on its ability to reach a person in need of help in less than five minutes.

Early on Kunas knew she wanted a career in medicine, and at the age of 16 she became an EMT as a way to get hands-on experience. She was most interested in the pathology and medicine behind the conditions in the patients she treated.

When looking at colleges, Kunas was adamant about choosing one with an active EMT squad because the volunteer group in Madison had become an important part of her life. She also knew that her experience participating in New Jersey State Task Force drills and multiple large-scale events gave her valuable leadership skills that she could incorporate in a student-run EMS squad.

Kunas fondly remembers taking her tour of Penn’s campus. Like many potential students, she had lots of questions -– but one stood in the forefront for Kunas: does Penn have a student-run emergency medical services organization?

Her tour guide was a member of MERT and was excited to tell Kunas all about the great activities that the team is a part of: Penn Recreation sports club games, Move-In Day, Hey Day, the Penn Relays, Spring Fling and Commencement.

“I wanted to attend a school that I could contribute something to, beyond academics,” Kunas says. “Penn offered the perfect combination of academics and extracurricular opportunities for me, and I was excited by the prospect of contributing to MERT.”

As head of MERT, Kunas is responsible for overseeing daily operations and finances, speaking to freshman at New Student Orientation and maintaining relationships with the University administration, Division of Public Safety, Student Health Services and Philadelphia Fire Department.

“We are supported by the Division of Public Safety, Student Health Services, Fox Leadership and many other Penn administrators, who make what we do possible,” says Kunas.

Last summer, the biology major completed an internship with a New Jersey medical center, which allowed her to shadow physicians and witness everyday procedures in the operating room, everything from amputations to brain surgery. 

Kunas says the internship not only informs her current studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, it also enhances her clinical experiences as an EMT by providing scientific context.

She adds that MERT is a unique extra-curricular activity on campus.

“We operate like a professional organization, but, because we are student-run, we foster an amazing sense of friendship and support,” she says. “Being able to serve the community with my peers has been incredibly rewarding. MERT is my second family and the place I feel best about myself. It is the culmination of all of my college and life experiences.”

With medical school in mind, Kunas is doing a clinical research internship in the Department of Orthopedics at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves on the Student Health Advisory Board and is a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed service fraternity.

In addition to academics and her volunteer service activities, Kunas enjoys travel and intramural sports. “I enjoy exploring new places with friends,” Kunas says. “I also enjoy any and all sports and see them as a great way to relax and unwind.” 

Her passion for travel has already taken her as far as Japan and Argentina, and she is active on the Penn Ski and Snowboard Team club.

Kunas wants to become a neurosurgeon or a trauma orthopedic surgeon. She hopes, too, to continue her volunteer work and travel to Africa on a medical mission.