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Embracing Life, Death, and Friends

February 21, 2009

In the early days of my EMS career, I worked in NW Portland.  The original Buck Ambulance station was on the corner of NW Broadway and Glisan – across from the main Post Office.  There was a long and colorful history in that building – back to the days of horse-drawn ambulances.

We worked 48 hour shifts in the late 70s and 80s.  Not that we were paid for the whole 48 hours, but we were there – ready to serve the city.  This ambulance was the busiest in the state at that time; we often ran 16-20 calls in a 24 hour period.  When you realize each call takes about 90 minutes, you see that we were not left with much time to sleep and eat.  But for a young punk like me, I was in heaven.  I loved working downtown.

Every other morning, at shift change, my friend Nina would relieve me.  Over the course of my entire 20 year career, no shift change was ever better.  She always greeted me with a big, warm hug.  It was awesome – I remember those hugs well.

Well, time marched on and people go their separate ways.

While working at Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, I became involved in a number of activities.  One of the more fun projects was a training video I was commissioned to produce.  Washington County EMS gave me the task of dealing with some of the chaos in our scene management, that was a result of the 9-1-1 system.  Through this process, I became friends with our studio producer, Alida.

I enjoyed working with Alida because of her creativity, sense of purpose, and willingness to pursue excellence.  We had about three days of work in the field, video taping vignettes, and probably another month in the studio editing, all for a total of 20 minutes of video.  During that time, I felt like we became pretty good friends.

Again, time and space cause people to go in different directions and for the most part, I had lost track of Alida.

Shortly after I went into EMS management, I was tasked with the hiring and training of 20 new fire recruits.  In this group were the first women TVFR had ever hired.  This created some fun and unique opportunities on many levels.  Having worked with women in EMS, I knew this change would be a benefit to the fire service.  But, it was a time of growing too.

One of the women we hired, came from Buck Ambulance.  I hadn’t known her before, but we had some mutual friends.  Mary Pennicooke jumped into the fire service with both feet.  She was loved, respected, and did a great job.  Most of all, I remember her smile.

I left emergency services in 1995, and I just learned that Mary had left a few years later.  I had not heard anything about her until recently.  My friend Alida informed me that Mary had died of stomach cancer.  The memorial service was yesterday.

As soon as I hear, I knew I needed to attend.  This is what we do – we support our comrades in arms.  As people began to arrive, it was good to catch up with old friends.  Firefighters and paramedics I used to work with – now retired.  There will always be a bond with someone with whom you’ve shared death.  Even if it was the death of a stranger wrapped around a tree on Scholls Ferry Rd.

My friend Mark Stevens was there.  Mark and I worked together some at Buck, and had some mutual interactions, but we really came together as friends when we brought him over to Tualatin Valley.  He is now the EMS Chief there, and doing a great job.  I greeted him with a hug, and we talked almost non-stop until the service started.

The service was interesting.  It was a smooth blend of Christianity, mountain culture, New Age Enlightenment, and emergency services.  Looking around the pyramid shaped chapel of the First United Methodist Church in SW Portland, my overwhelming impressions was, this, is Portland. There we firefighters and mountain people, hippies and politicians, lesbians and clergy, mothers, fathers, brothers, and cousins.  There were people from the church, and people who normally would never be found in a church.  People wore jeans, shorts, suits, earth-mama dresses, and uniforms.  There were hymns, organ processionals, and homegrown folk music on guitars and a mandolin.  There was scripture, poetry, and readings.

The service was this incredibly eclectic mix of what makes Portland great, and why someone like Mary was so loved.  As one speaker put it, “Mary’s spirituality was not only deep, but wide.  She had the incredible desire, and ability to connect with all people and all creation.”  We, those in attendance, represented not just Portland, but the circle of Mary’s life.

As we were leaving, I saw my old friend and colleague, Nina.  It was good to catch up with her.  She is still a paramedic.  For a few moments we reminisced – and then parted with a hug.

Alida and I reconnected, and we talked almost non-stop.  She told me about her job, her writing, and I was able to meet her husband Jim.  It’s amazing how much we still seem to have in common.

I wasn’t able to say goodbye to Mark, but we’ve already made arrangements to reconnect.  Apparently his wife has been following me on Twitter.  Small world – and getting smaller.

I have fond memories of my days as and ambulance medic on the streets of Portland.  I met some good people – it’s what really endeared Portland to my soul.  My 15 years at TVFR were awesome.  There are good people that I worked with.  It was really good to reconnect with some of them.

It is days like yesterday that bring out the best of my melancholy side.  I’m OK with that – I embrace these feelings, just as I embrace friends for life.

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