Amera Gilchrist wears her heart near her sleeve.
Look on her right front of the crisp bright white collared uniform shirt she wears every day at work. It’s not an actual heart, but a red cross — a tiny one that she slides into the bar of an American flag pin that she wears just above her name plate that is engraved, for now:
On her left sleeve is the big blue and gold patch of “Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Services,” and on her left front is a gleaming gold badge.
If she happens to take a rare break from EMS headquarters in the 125-year-old Engine Co. 28 on Filbert Street and walk up to Shadyside’s busy Walnut Street business district, people tend to mistake her for a police officer and ask her questions such as, “Can I park here?”
Few notice the red cross nor know what it means or means to Gilchrist, who for now is the only member of the bureau who wears it.
It represents a story she once knew nothing about, but that she now is a part of, and that she wants other people to know and remember.
“Paying homage,” she says.
The red cross is the same one that used to be worn by the medics of Freedom House Ambulance Service, the 1960s brainchild of the Falk Foundation’s Philip Hallen, Dr. Peter Safar — the University of Pittsburgh researcher credited for inventing CPR — and James McCoy, the then-president of Freedom House Enterprises that provided services such as job training to predominantly Black residents in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Freedom House trained several of them to be the world’s first emergency medical technicians, and they started saving lives in 1968. Before that, medical emergencies were handled by police cars or hearses.
Freedom House’s cutting-edge emergency medical treatment became the envy of other neighborhoods around the city, so much so that Mayor Pete Flaherty shut it down in 1975 and created Pittsburgh EMS. The city used a lot of Freedom House’s protocols, but only a relative few of its Black staff, including one of the original medics — a guy named John Moon, who would stay with the bureau, fighting for Black jobs, including his own, while also continuing to grow Pittsburgh’s EMS excellence.
Growing up on the North Side’s Mexican War Streets in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Amera Aquil Gilchrist knew nothing about Freedom House. Given an Arabic name for “Princess,” she was a girl who wanted to be a fashion designer. In her Oliver High School yearbook, she was named best dressed. Despite her height, she didn’t play sports: “I couldn’t sweat!”
Ironically, her straight-A grades earned her a scholarship from the Pittsburgh Steelers and she attended Robert Morris College. But then at age 19 she got married, then pregnant, then divorced. She was a single mom working in the back office at a bank, wondering, “Is this all there is?”
While riding a Port Authority bus one day, her 3-year-old son was fussing, so she gave him a piece of candy and went back to worrying. Then, she noticed he was too calm — and not breathing. She didn’t know what to do.
Blankly following a co-worker’s barked advice, she put her son down so hard that the candy popped out of his throat and he resumed breathing. Gilchrist couldn’t stop shaking.
Later, at the bank, she noticed a co-worker at lunch studying books for an emergency medical technician class. Where some might have looked away from the graphic photos, she wanted to see more. Gilchrist was intrigued at knowing what to do in an emergency, such as someone choking.
While continuing to raise her son and work at the bank, she started taking EMT and paramedic classes at the Community College of Allegheny County. One night while doing her clinical training at Allegheny General Hospital, she talked to a rare Black paramedic and asked him, “How can I get to where you’re at?”
He gave her the phone number of the person in charge of hiring, a guy named John Moon.
Moon will never forget it, because Gilchrist was the first person to call him wanting to be a city paramedic. He usually had to chase recruits, but here she was pursuing him with a “unusual tenacity,” including coming to his office on Filbert Street.
Looking back, Gilchrist said, “That set the trajectory of my life.”
Moon hired her in 1999 as an EMT, and soon Gilchrist was working out of the old Shadyside fire station. She got the next available paramedic job and worked at stations around the city, helping in every imaginable emergency. She fondly remembers the time between calls, relaxing in recliners at the station with a colleague while they crocheted like grandmothers. Gilchrist loved the camaraderie.
Her mentor, “Mr. Moon,” as she calls him to this day, kept an eye on her, offering advice and encouragement — for instance, about the crew chief exam.
“I remember the phone call I got [from her] … ‘Well, I don’t know about this test. What if I failed it?’” Moon recalled. “I said, ‘What if you passed it?’”
Even after Moon retired as assistant chief in 2009, they met regularly as Gilchrist rose through the ranks — district chief, assistant chief in 2017, then deputy chief in 2018.
By then, she and her husband, a retired city firefighter named William, had three kids — daughters Ma’Ali, now 15, and Sanaa, now 12, and son Amer, now 28 — and Gilchrist had started studying public administration at Point Park University, where she noted in an interview, “The experience I will gain as deputy chief will prepare me to hopefully assume position of EMS chief someday.”
Moon knew that was her goal. He could hardly keep the sort-of secret to himself this January at the Hill District premiere of the WQED documentary, “Freedom House Ambulance — the First Responders.” Gilchrist briefly appears in the film with him and his fellow pioneers, saying, “But for the shoulders of the giants I stand on, who are the members of Freedom House, I would not be here,” as the first African American deputy chief.
Even before Chief Ronald Romano officially announced his retirement at the end of March after 45 years with EMS, going back to 1975, Gilchrist knew she would be moving to his office in the front of Filbert Street headquarters.
She moved one step closer Thursday morning, when, at a press conference on the steps of the City-County Building, Mayor Ed Gainey nominated her to become the city’s eighth EMS chief. City Council is expected to approve, and Gilchrist will be sworn in later this spring as the first Black person and first woman in the role.
Sitting in her homey office, with a wall of her daughters’ artworks, for a March interview with the Union Progress, Gilchrist only hinted she’s going to bring a lot of change “that might be uncomfortable but necessary.” And that includes the uniforms, is all she’d say.
Gilchrist knows she’s completely different than she was in high school and in college, saying, “I think life changes you into something else.” But she still loves to have her hair and makeup right, and she is one of the few in EMS to wear the uniform skirt. She still loves gory movies. To do her job, which has included regular off-duty run-ins with everything from attacking dogs to children falling out of cars to suicides, “You have to be a little off.”
Public Safety spokesperson Cara Cruz is used to seeing Gilchrist’s name in reports: “She’s always at the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the right time.”
This April Fools’ Day, Gilchrist was roused from her bed at her North Side home by a woman screaming because her husband had been stabbed in the neck. Gilchrist, then off-duty acting EMS chief, slowed the bleeding with towels and pressure until an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital.
Gilchrist, who keeps medical gear in her big black Ford SUV, has to stay busy and likes to be in charge, even though, as she learned as district chief, that doesn’t mean being liked: “When I want something done, I need to get it done.” Moon and others say she does her job with remarkable compassion and empathy.
She said she plans to finish what Moon started by affixing the Freedom House logo to all Pittsburgh EMS vehicles, but she’s not stopping there. She wants to have it painted on a wall in the chief’s office, beside a big logo for Pittsburgh EMS.
And another way she plans to pay homage is to give out tiny red Freedom House crosses like hers, including to graduates of the Freedom House 2.0 program with which she and Moon are involved. It prepares high-risk youths and nontraditional students for careers in health, including with Pittsburgh EMS.
She tells those students her story, including how she almost lost her son and about how, on a call years later, and not without trembling, she saved the life of another choking boy. She has red cross pins to give to the city’s first hires from the program.
Its medical director, Dr. Emily Lovallo, is a big fan and thrilled for Gilchrist.
She is “a constant reminder of both the challenges faced by the original Freedom House medics as well as their rich history and legacy,” Lovallo said. “With her in this new role she will inspire our residents young and old to believe in themselves and their dreams, knowing it really is possible.”
Gilchrist wants to continue improving the bureau’s diversity, which in 2022 was 68.5% white male, 20.5% white female, with 2.8% black males and 4.5% Black females and only 3.4% unspecified ethnicity.
“It’s even worse now,” she said. “It’s startling.”
“Diversity is not just Black and white,” she added. “Pittsburgh is not just Black and white.”
Having different faces makes it easier to work with different faces, she said. “We’re all different. We all think differently, and we all treat people differently.”
Gilchrist says she is “ecstatic and so excited” about changing the title on her shirt to “Chief.”
And she’s not the only one.
Her mentor, Mr. Moon, very much wants to be there to see her officially sworn in.
“It’s one of the desires of my heart,” he said, “and my heart is smiling right now.”
Update: Amera Gilchrist was sworn into office as Chief of Emergency Service on Friday afternoon, May 5, in City Council chambers, Downtown.
Bob, a feature writer and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and serving as interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.