While there have been many changes and advancements in Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in the last few decades, there was one constant on the scene, at least in Ponoka: Jeff Ellison.
Ellison officially retired Oct. 14, after 38 years as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).
In November, 1990 he started with Guardian Ambulance as their operations manager and stayed in management until 2005. In 2005, he decided to step back from a leadership role and went back onto the car as an EMT.
Ellison said his life as an EMT was very rewarding and nothing could beat the satisfaction or sense of fulfillment it gave him.
“I wouldn’t change my career for anything. It’s been a ride.”
Ellison said the changes that have happened in EMS over the last few decades are comparable to the difference between living in the 1900s to the 2000s, or going from horse-and-buggy to landing things on other planets.
While his fixation with a career in EMS started early and proved insistent, he took a bit of a meandering path to ultimately get there.
He remembers watching an ambulance zoom by with lights and sirens blaring in downtown Winnipeg when he was a teenager.
“I said to myself, ‘I want to do that.’”
He admits, though, that he was also influenced by a popular T.V. show at the time, Emergency! with main characters, EMTs Gage and Desoto.
Believing he wasn’t smart enough to get certified, however, he pursued other things.
He was a jack-of-all-trades, working a variety of jobs. At some point, he became a volunteer firefighter, serving for six years, thinking that would quench his need to be on an ambulance.
It did not. But he said it did help him move forward.
In about 1982, a recession hit, and suddenly finding himself out of work and with a family to support, he began thinking about a new career.
Although he started down the path to study computer technology, an astute guideance counsellor perceived it wasn’t his true passion and asked what he really wanted to do with his life.
When confronted with it, the admission came easily. He wanted to be an EMT.
Learning his ambition wasn’t as far out of reach as he’d thought, he completed his GED and was soon training as an EMT.
The only EMT training program in the province was at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s outreach location, which was at Red Deer College.
Before starting training, however, he wanted to be sure of his new career choice.
He did his first ride along with Sylvan Lake EMS in November, 1984, and was working for them by December.
Times were tough, with lower pay, long shifts and less advanced personnel on cars.
Back then, he was paid a flat rate of $15 per call.
The standards were different and the qualifications are more advanced nowadays for medical responders.
While a paramedic was almost equivalent to a registered nurse, an EMT was just two steps above an advanced first-aider.
Very few rural areas had true paramedics.
What paramedics learned 30 years ago is what EMTs learn now, according to Ellison.
“That’s how high they’ve been elevated,” he said.
“The progress of EMT has been pretty phenomenal.”
In 1985, he joined the ambulance service in Rocky Mountain House — for a salary.
“I thought I was in the big leagues,” he said.
After three years there, he went on to manage the EMS in Olds and Didsbury. From there, he moved to Ponoka, and has been here ever since.
When he started with Guardian, he was working six 24-hour shifts in a row, and then three days off.
In those days, he said, people worked EMS because they wanted to, not for the money.
“Now people can make a living on it,” he said.
There is no doubt that work as a medical first responder takes a toll on the body and the mind.
One of the best advancements in equipment he’s seen during his career is the power stretchers used now, which save EMS from having to lift a person on a stretcher themselves.
The old two man, or man-and-a-half stretchers, were very hard on a person’s body and back with all the heavy lifting involved, he said.
While almost all Alberta Health Services’ (AHS) ambulance services now have power stretchers as well as power loaders, which load a patient on a stretcher into an awaiting ambulance, most rural areas don’t have loaders yet.
Because of the mental and physical demands of the job, the average career for an EMT is only about seven to nine years, said Ellison, adding making it as long as he did is almost unheard of.
“I think there’s only a handful of people who make it that far,” he said.
Now, because of increased job stress in recent years, that average may be as low as five years, he said, adding he knows a number of paramedics who walked away from EMS.
“It’s been that bad and getting worse.”
Every job has highs and lows, but with EMS, they are more extreme.
“The coolest part is actually being involved in bringing someone back to life,” he said.
“That’s the ultimate high. Unfortunately, you spend much more of your time dealing with death.”
The hardest part of the job is fatalities involving children, he said.
“They bust everybody up.”
Seeing how someone died can be horrendous, and he’s glad the families are spared the exact details, he said.
In multiple casualty scenarios, when there are more patients than medical personnel to help them, EMS have to triage.
One of the hardest parts in those situations is having to look at people and tell them you can’t help them, he said.
One of the biggest struggles facing medical responders is burnout, he said, adding a lot of paramedics end up with PTSD and the suicide rate is also higher for them.
So how did he last 38 years on the job, with all he had seen?
Ellison said he’s not really sure.
Somehow, he just had the ability to process his experiences internally and continue on.
“When it’s over, it’s over,” he said, adding when the radio went off, he’d be out and at it again.
As he sees it, paramedics aren’t being mentally prepared before going into the field.
He highly recommends doing ride-alongs first, as many are getting into the field without knowing if they can handle the stress and mental demands.
He said medical responders also level up as they complete training before they have any field experience, which can be jarring.
After more than three decades in such a demanding job, his body finally told him it was time to stop.
He’s been off work since June on WCB because of his back. He said even if he had been approved for light duty, he would then have been laid off as there are no light duties for an EMT.
While changes are coming to EMS and all paramedics (as EMS staff are now called) will be able to get a pension whether they worked for AHS or private services like Ellison did, that progress came too late for him.
While perhaps deserving a better conclusion to a long career of saving lives, Ellison said he has no regrets and would do it all again.
“I still love the job. I would still love to keep doing it.”
He’ll also have is own company, Nite Owl First Aid, to keep him busy. He’s operated Nite Owl for about 40 years, teaching CPR, first aid and oxygen therapy, and plans to continue.
Earlier this month, members of the Maskwacis and Guardian Ambulance services surprised him by showing up at his house to honour him and show their appreciation with a traditional “last call,” to give him a proper send off.
Over the radio, EMS from Ponoka to south of the border paid their respects and wished him well in his retirement.