By LeAnn R. Ralph
GLENWOOD CITY — From the time she was a little girl, Paula DeWitt had always wanted to be a nurse.
Instead, she became Glenwood City’s very first certified Emergency Medical Technician.
That was 44 years ago.
And now, after more than four decades of service to the community, Paula decided to retire this past November.
“I have a very low number for licenses,” she said.
Her EMT license number is 2,985 and was first dated November 7, 1974.
Contrast that with her son, Shawn DeWitt, who has been an EMT since he turned 18 years old, with a license number of 29,329.
“Shawn took the class when he was a senior in high school, but he couldn’t be licensed until he turned 18, which was in January. He was done with class, and then he took the test. He’s been doing it since he was 18 years old,” Paula noted.
Glenwood City ambulance co-director Charl Draxler has great admiration for Paula DeWitt’s service to the community.
“Paula is an amazing woman who has shown such great dedication to the people in our community. I’ve had a pager riding on my hip for just over 20 years. I understand planning all you do around an ambulance schedule and when you come on or off call, but, 44 years of it?!,” Draxler said.
“From what I understand there were years that Paula and a couple of others covered it 24 hours a day. She has always just humbly done her job, never complaining, always willing to help when she could. I join the rest of our community in thanking her for her years of caring dedication to so many,” she said.
The class Paula DeWitt took to obtain certification was a six-month course of study.
“The way I got started, I always wanted to be a nurse, from when I was a little kid. I signed up to go to the Cities to nursing school. I got accepted,” Paula said.
With her dream-come-true clearly in sight, and being engaged to be married to Carlton DeWitt, Paula Klatt thought she knew what she would be doing with her life.
But it was not to be.
“Then [the nursing school officials] found out I was getting married, and they said, ‘No, we can’t accept you, because you might get pregnant, then none of this will be any good.’ This was in 1963. I cried and cried. Because that’s what I wanted to do. I was going to commute back and forth,” Paula said.
The refusal to admit Paula to the nursing school where she had been accepted seemed to be the end of her dream — until 10 years later at the Cucumber Festival in Boyceville in 1973.
“The firemen had the water fight, and then we went to the fire hall. On their bulletin board was a [flyer] for their EMT class to sign up. I asked Herb Dow, ‘What’s this all about?’ So he told me, and I thought, ‘Oh, hey!’ I ended up signing up,” Paula explained.
“I went to class with Herb and some others from Boyceville. And Joe Jilek — he used to teach here and coach. He was in my class. Little did I know (because) he lived in River Falls at the time. And there was a bunch of them from Clear Lake. The class met in Baldwin at the hospital once a week,” she said. “A guy from the state would go around to different municipalities in different sections and teach the class. It was really a fun class. We always had a good time. I ended up passing, and they gave me a card,” Paula recalled.
In 1974, Glenwood City had an ambulance but no certified EMT, and in fact at that time, a certificated EMT was not required when the ambulance went out on a call.
Before Paula was certified, “Carlton, Johnny Peterson, the Jeskes — you’d go out and do the best you could. We had Dr. Allen (Limberg) and Dr. Phil (Limberg) here,” she said.
For those who may not remember them, the Limbergs were brothers who operated a clinic in Glenwood City.
“One time there was a really bad car accident north of town. A couple of girls got killed. Some of them were injured. So they put them in the ambulance, and back then, you could put four people in. One of them had a broken arm, and Dr. Allen told Carlton to hang on to her arm. She’s in pain. Carlton is ducking her because she’s swinging at him because she hurts. But that’s what you did,” Paula said.
“So then I took the class, passed, and ‘knowing it all’ — ‘you’ve got to do this and this and this. You have to be careful. This is how you do it.’ Well, after you’ve done it for a few months, you learn shortcuts. Of course, not (shortcuts) so that it hurts patients,” she said.
After Paula DeWitt set the example, then a few more took the class.
“We ended up with Mike Mounce, Koos (Jerome Koosmann), Matt Simpson, who went on to be a paramedic at the hospital in Menomonie. Now I think he’s in Ellsworth. That was basically it,” she said.
Those few who were certified EMTs at first were not just on call — they were ON CALL.
“You were on 24/7. We had the phones that would ring. They were fire phones, but they would ring for the ambulance. No pagers. We’ve come a long ways. A very long ways. The equipment we’ve got, well, it’s probably more advanced than what the hospitals had back in 1974,” Paula said.
The ambulances are more advanced too.
“The first one we had was a van with windows all around. The second one was a box. But for what we pay for them [now] you could have a very nice [recreational] vehicle,” she said.
Sometimes the ambulance drivers inadvertently created humorous situations too.
“We had Ralph Thompson, the pastor at Holy Cross, who would drive. And every once in a while someone would ask, ‘Am I dying?’ ‘No. Why?’ ‘You’ve got the pastor driving.’ ‘He’s just helping us out.’ Can you imagine what people thought when they were in the hearse?” Paula said.
Before ambulances came into use, the hearse from the local funeral parlor often was used to transport the sick and the injured.
Over the past 44 years, Paula has witnessed many changes in emergency services.
“We used to make our own sand bags that we used to stabilize heads and necks. Get some sand and some bags, old IV bags, and fill them with sand. Now you pay big bucks for that stuff. Backboards were wood. Now they are some kind of plastic composite. They are lighter. AEDs [Automatic External Defibrillator]. There was no such thing. CPR and that was it,” Paula said.
“CPR has changed. Every time we do a class, it’s different. Not for people on the ambulance, but for people like you. They say you don’t have to do the breathing anymore, just the chest compressions because people didn’t want to touch other people’s mouths. Doing just chest compressions, they found, circulates enough oxygen to work. It encourages somebody to do something rather than to not do something,” she said.
“AEDs. That all gets transmitted to the hospital. And not just monitoring. You can put in their age and other information and transmit, so the hospital, when they get the patient, they have some idea of what’s going on,” Paula explained.
Another change for EMTs has resulted because of the epidemic with addiction to opioid drugs.
“Years ago, we never had any [drug overdoses]. You might have had somebody who went out and drank too much. But now. Now you can administer Narcan. And that’s a miracle drug. We never had Epi pens. We couldn’t do aspirin. That’s all new stuff that’s come into use,” Paula said.
“I don’t know how many years it was, but they got the idea we should have refresher courses. And we were thinking, ‘oh really?’ But really, it was a good idea because new stuff comes up. New ways of doing things. Refreshing on those things you knew, but you haven’t done it in a while. We don’t do CPR all the time. They are always coming up with a new way of doing something, a better way. New equipment,” she said.
“We used to be able to put more than one person in [the ambulance] if you had to, too. Now they frown on that, unless it would be absolutely necessary,” Paula said.
A natural disaster that resulted in mass casualties would be one instance in which ambulances would likely carry more than one person, she said.
“I remember there was one time up on 64 a bad accident and numerous patients. We had a desk area where you could do your work. We had one of the kids on that, and one on a cot and one on another cot. We used to have hooks and stretchers, and you could put patients on a stretcher and hang the stretchers on the hooks. There’s no such thing as that anymore. I don’t think I ever used that. But if you had to, you’d put them wherever there was vacant space. And if they weren’t too bad, you’d have them riding up front,” she said.
All in the family
“I always joked that I did it so I could keep an eye on Carlton at fires,” Paula said.
In addition to the DeWitt family owning the Tribune Press Reporter, and Carlton being one of the ambulance drivers, Carlton DeWitt has been a firefighter in Glenwood City for decades and served as the fire chief for 25 years. His father, Ross, served as fire chief for 25 years before that.
In the early years, “[Carlton] and I went out a lot. He drove. I was in the back. You only had to have one, not two like you do now. There were a lot of Christmas Eves, we’d get home Christmas morning just in time for the kids to see if Santa Claus had been there,” Paula sad.
“Back then we did a lot of transports to Regions [Hospital]. Now they want your ambulance to stay in the area, so you transport them to Baldwin, and their paramedics take them the rest of the way. That’s another thing we can do. We can call the Baldwin paramedics at any time, and they will meet us at the scene, and they can do the drugs,” she said.
Rural ambulance services sometimes call another service with paramedics to administer pain medication.
The whole DeWitt family, as it turns out — mother, father, and all three sons — have been active in emergency services.
“I enjoyed what I did. Carlton has been on the fire department. Shawn is an EMT. The other two boys have been on the fire departments in the cities they live in. Joel moved out of his area, so he’s not on anymore. Alex retired … And Carlton’s brother-in-law, Denny, was fire chief in Elk Mound,” Paula noted.
“When we used to go on ambulance calls, then Carlton’s mom and dad came over, or sometimes just his mom. One time we left, and the doors were locked. She came over, but she couldn’t get in. She saw Shawn sleeping on the couch in the living room, and she went over and knocked on the window. She couldn’t wake him up. He was probably 10, 11, 12, and she couldn’t wake him up. Ross had to come over and take the hinges off the door so they could get in to watch the kids. But that’s what they did. They didn’t live far, and we’d give them a call, and they’d come right over. It’s a community thing. The kids coming up now don’t always have that. Mom and Dad don’t always live right there in the same community,” she said.
“There are places I go [and remember] there was a car accident there with a fatality. A farm pond where grandpa and grandson drowned. A tree where a kid hit with his brother’s three-wheeler. There’s places along the road, ‘Yes, I’ve been here,’” Paula said.
Sometimes Paula can even remember what she was wearing.
“Back when I started, you knew everybody. So it was either a relative or a friend or a friend’s parent. Or when the boys were growing up, there’d be a car accident. You’d hold your breath. Then you’d find out it’s not them. But it would still be somebody you know. I can remember there was a car accident north of town. The guy was dead. We were asking ‘who is it?’ And a voice said, ‘It was this person.’ And it was Alex talking. So then I knew he was okay. But you still feel terrible because it’s someone you know,” she said.
“Over the years, I’ve seen friends’ kids die. But sometimes, at least you were there, and they knew who you were. Mom and Dad were following behind,” Paula said.
“I can remember one guy, an older guy, he had suffered cardiac arrest, and he was basically dead. We did CPR and took him to the hospital. The next day, I woke up, and I thought, ‘Why do I hurt?’ I could hardly move. Oh, yes. CPR and lifting someone who is probably 250 pounds. That’s probably why I am stiff and sore. You have that adrenalin going, and you’re just doing what you have to do. I wasn’t that old at the time,” Paula said.
“And I can remember one time, we did CPR from the trailer court to Menomonie. We got there. We transferred the patient. And all of a sudden I thought, ‘Boy, my little finger hurts.’ I looked down and it looked like a sausage. I had broken some blood vessels. It goes away after a while. One [EMT] does the breathing, and one does the chest compressions, but you’re talking at least 20 minutes,” she said.
“Now the new thing is, when the fire department goes out, the ambulance, instead of just sitting there, not doing anything, we go around to the firemen and we do blood pressures, oxygen saturations. One fire I was at it was really hot, so we made sure they had water,” Paula said.
“We trump them when it comes to taking orders. [The firefighters will grumble], but we tell them, ‘You’re not going anywhere until I take your blood pressure, check your O2 and you drink some water.’ That’s something they have to get used to,” she said.
At one particular fire, “it was just such a hot day. They were all worried about Carlton. We did his blood pressure, and it was really good. One of the younger guys, on the other hand … but nobody collapsed,” Paula said.
“When you’ve got the ambulance, you’ve got someplace to put them where it’s cool if it’s hot outside, and if it’s cold, you’ve got someplace warm to put them. That’s why, when they had one fire up by Somerset where a house burned, they did the MABAS [Mutual Aid Box Alarm System]. They brought in [multiple] fire departments, and it was so cold out, the [firefighters] had to go in and get warmed up. They still had a hard time because their trucks froze up. You always wonder how they can get cold at a fire. Carlton says the front side is warm, but the back side is cold,” she said.
“I’d been thinking about retiring for a while. EMTs are a family. We all know what we can do. I know what they can do. They know what I can do. You don’t have to say, ‘get this and get that.’ I hated to leave that,” Paula said.
“But all of a sudden, the equipment, the technology, got so it’s over my head. The young kids can catch on. Like the AED. You put it on, and it can transmit to the hospital by phone. I have no idea how all that works. I thought — it’s time,” she said.
But Paula also believes something else was at work.
“I think it was divine intervention, because three or four weeks later, I found out I had cancer. I would have had to quit anyway. And physically, it got so I couldn’t run down into a ditch the way I used to be able to or crawl around in a car,” Paula said.
Paula was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December. She is currently in chemotherapy, and the tumor appears to be shrinking. She still comes to work at the newspaper every day when she’s not at treatment.
“You’ve got to keep going. I think that’s what our ancestors did,” Paula said.
She paused for a moment.
“I have enjoyed the 44 years. But it was time. And they are still my family over there,” she said.