On behalf of the residents of Clearwater County, the Clearwater Tribune would like to honor three retiring Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) with a combined 80 years of service as EMTs for Clearwater County Ambulance Service (CCAS): Mary Anne McLaughlin, Nick Rhoads, and Clarence Howard.

It seems fair to say that not everyone is cut out to be an EMT. I met with each to learn more about their experience and as they share what it’s been like, I hear three different perspectives when it comes to saving lives. What I found most amazing was the collaboration of a team, and it does take a team. Each talked about feeling totally supported by their co-workers through training and experience, often knowing what their team members would do, even without having to discuss it beforehand.

Every call is different. Most of the time the crew has a fairly good idea of what to expect on arrival. Other times, the scene is nothing they could have ever anticipated.

All three have worked with Leonard Eckman, Les Eaves, and present Ambulance Director Darby Zick. All have been instructors, training others to eventually join the crew and follow in their footsteps.

In the past three decades, the responsibilities of an EMT have changed significantly, it has taken a great deal of training to keep up with the latest developments.

What hasn’t changed is the passion to make a difference, to comfort and support those in need, to save a life. How fortunate we have been to have them there seven days a week, day or night, regardless of the weather. We thank you for each and every call.

Mary Anne McLaughlin

Mary Anne became certified as a Basic EMT in 1991 and has worked for the county ever since, Next, she became a certified CPR Instructor and taught classes for Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation for many years. In 1994, Mary Anne earned her Advanced EMT certification.

“The job allowed me to be able to stay at home and raise our kids. At that time I kept the books for our family business part-time. I also had an interest in doing something to help my community. A good friend and role model, Neal Johnson thought that becoming an EMT might be something I’d like to do, and as soon as Kindergarten was over and my kids were in school, he brought me an application.

“My mom and grandmother were both in the medical field as nurses. Maybe it was something I should have looked into, but I was in my 30’s and thought I can’t go back to school, so I chose this option. I missed a lot of things as our kids grew older, but still they supported me 100 percent.

“One can never be sure what the next call will bring. I was scheduled to be on call during the day. Some weeks there would be nothing and the week after, one after another. Sometimes we would be dispatched for a call only to learn when we get there that it’s totally different than anticipated. You have to be ready to adapt and move forward.”

I told Mary Anne that it took a very special and courageous person to do what she does. She thanked me and said, “I enjoyed it, but it was never just me – we work as a team and you’ve got to be able to work together.”

I asked about the changes she’s seen in the past 29 years. “Oh there’s been lots of changes, but let me start with the paperwork, we used to have to fill out three different forms for the same call, now it’s all computerized.

“At one time, Advanced EMTs were able to intubate a patient if necessary, now they’ve changed their minds. It has changed even more so in the past couple of years. Many things have changed but we still fall back to the basics, the ABC’s of first aid – Airway, Breathing, and Circulation, if those three aren’t functioning, nothing else will. When in doubt, we go back to the basics. Even with all of our technology, you can’t always rely on them to be right.”

She tells me there have been a lot of memorable calls, some good, some bad. She shares one that makes us both laugh.

Mary Anne and Leonard Eckman were called to assist a patient who had been kicked in the leg by a cow.

“We had to enter the corral and were warned about the ornery cow on the other side of the pen to have inflicted the damage. A ranch hand had offered to help divert the cow’s interference with a piece of plywood to hide our actions from the cow. Neither Leonard nor I were very comfortable around livestock and kept looking over our shoulder to see where the cow was. It was quite possibly the fastest splinting and transferring situation we had ever accomplished.

“I am thankful for having been able to save lives with CPR, it’s so amazing and rewarding to see a person up walking around that you were able to save, and of course, some did not make it. That’s hard. Being called to assist children is always hard, but it’s part of my job and you do what you have to do.

“We’re a small town and most people know each other, sometimes I think it’s been a blessing to pull up and have the patient or the family see a familiar face.

“My work has been interesting and rewarding. Leaving is bittersweet, but it’s time to move on. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity, always with the support of my family. I’ll still be doing the books for my husband, but now I think it’s time to enjoy all eight of our grandkids with the ninth soon on the way.”

Nick Rhoads

In 1996, Weippe was down to just a couple EMTs, so Nick became an ambulance driver in order to help out. The next fall he was hesitant to take the EMT class because he said (with tongue in cheek) that he was afraid his wife, Ronda, would get a higher grade than he.

He ended up taking the class, taught by Leonard Eckman, the first ambulance supervisor in the county. Bob Brown, one of the first EMTs from Pierce, assisted in teaching. Nick and Ronda both passed with an 85%.  

Shortly after the end of the classes he went on a very traumatic call. Two other students on that run never went on an ambulance call again. There were very few critical incident debriefings at that time.

Nick determined that he would make sure that there would always be stress debriefings after bad runs from then on. Nick, along with Les Eaves, the new ambulance supervisor, attended a class on how to do in-house debriefings.  It helped him to counsel other EMTs after the bad calls.  He kept at least two EMTs from quitting because of stressful runs.

Nick continued with his EMT training, becoming an Advanced EMT three years later. Then he became an instructor.  He said that he wanted to train people to be able to take his place, because someday he might need them. He finally found someone to replace him as lead EMT on «the hill, and mentored her, then she got hired away to work in the Clearwater County Ambulance Office in Orofino.

He felt privileged to teach his daughter, Ruth, and later, his granddaughter, Anna.

His other job was doing contract trail maintenance for the Forest Service. Ronda says that he always knew when it was time to leave in the spring because the ambulance crew would be asking when he was going to head to the mountains. He would come back with a better attitude in the fall.  It was his version of stress debriefing.

After a stroke in 2018 Nick finished teaching his last class.  In spite of Darby Zick’s (the newest supervisor) trainings, he found it increasingly difficult to adapt to all the new equipment and programs the ambulance crews needed to learn to use.

Nick decided it was time to step down and see if his teaching had done the job he set out to do.  He’s had a chance to be a patient on the ambulance.  He says the crew that he leaves continues to work well together and to improve their skills.

Clarence Howard

In a sense, Clarence Howard, became a certified EMT because he was on the Ski Patrol at Bald Mountain.

“It was 1995. We needed more members on the ski patrol. I got a friend of mine who was an EMT to join the ski patrol. He told me that the ambulance crew needed more EMTs. Harry Walrath was an instructor for both classes. My friend and I ended up swapping jobs. He became the ski patroller and I became an EMT with the ambulance service.”

A little later, Clarence spent four days a week in Pierce for medical instruction when he was taking the course for Advanced EMT and teaching the First Aid portion for the Ski Patrol.

He explained that he had considered continuing his education to become a paramedic, but a paramedic needs to perform a certain number of on the job skills per year. “They weren’t the types of skills we needed for the ambulance service here. It would have been very difficult to maintain a paramedic status just in this community. I never pursued the idea further.

“The training is an ongoing process, we are always training. We are required to have 50 hours of training or classes every two years, and not something one can accomplish in a weekend.

“The Rule of Thumb is if you aren’t getting many calls to keep your skills up, one needs to increase their education. We rely on our training, skills need to be practiced routinely to follow through correctly, and to have the right mindset. Much of the training concerns remaining calm and within a professional manner.

“In this job you’re exposed to everything, every kind of bodily fluid there is, you’ve been in it. You know how to handle yourself around it. You’ve adapted to walking in on just about every situation you could possibly imagine in a household. We’re exposed and trained how to protect ourselves and respond professionally.

“Every call is different, but you learn to trust that competent people have your back. We watch out for all involved. A team learns to trust each other in extreme situations. It takes a good team and we certainly have one here.

“Before they had changed some of the addresses here in the county, some of the calls were just miserable. You could drive up one road and the numbers would be going down, and where you expected to find the address given, hit a section in which the numbers occurred to go the other direction. It was exasperating! They knew where they lived, because they had been there their entire life, but it falls on the people trying to find them in a timely manner. It’s hard to accept change, but it made a world of difference.»

When asked if there was a particularly memorable call he could share in his 25 years of service, it was an open question and I wasn’t sure what might come of it.

Clarence began by telling me that almost every EMT has another job. “On one particular call, one responder worked as an assistant coroner, one was an undertaker at the funeral home, and then there was myself, the pastor. Upon arriving the patient was taken aback with a visit from the coroner, the undertaker, and her pastor.

“Oh dear,” she exclaimed, “I didn’t think it was that bad!”

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