Charlotte – Most people don’t start a full-time career in their 60s.
Lyle See isn’t most people.
At 80 years old, he’s been an EMT for decades alongside a career in human resources and working as a firefighter.
His first run was in 1962, shortly after he graduated from Olivet College, responding to the call of a woman with a heart issue. At that time, he didn’t have equipment on the ambulance to save her life in time.
“We had none of the technology,” See told the Lansing State Journal.
That’s changed over the intervening 58 years.
“I have (the ability) now to have certainly gotten her to the hospital,” he said.
It’s also become more in demand.
Before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for See to work 60 hours a week as he and his colleagues responded to increasing numbers of calls.
See jokes that while he’s working fewer hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, his wife, Judy, would “just as soon I wasn’t doing any of this.”
“But I can’t sit,” he said, even as he acknowledges he’s coming close to the end of his career.
He couldn’t even sit right after his honeymoon.
The first night the couple got home, there was a medical call, and See hopped in the ambulance in their garage and left to help.
“She said it wasn’t funny that night,” See said, though they laugh about it now.
See has been an EMT since 1962. His dad was a firefighter, and his years learning about safety and fire in scouting “just kinda snowballed.”
In that time, his wife has gotten used to dinners and other events being interrupted, See said.
For most of See’s time as an EMT, he’s been making runs alongside a full-time career in human resources.
That changed after the housing crash, when he was laid off because of the 2008 recession.
“I was going stir crazy at that point,” See said.
He was around retirement age when he started full time with Eaton Area EMS, though he’d been a first responder since his 20s.
In that time, See has changed along with the profession. While he can’t do everything he could when he was younger, he’s still able to do many of the things he did 20 years ago.
See adds a caveat – he works “a lot smarter,” at things like heavy lifting, and technology and his co-workers help with that.
What hasn’t changed is the chance to work with people, which is why See loves the job so much.
It’s especially gratifying when the people he helps or their loved ones come back afterward to say thank you, he said.
‘You got to be able to set it aside’ after a hard call
Then there are the tough calls.
Years ago, See and his partner at the time were coming back from a run when they got the call that a mother had stabbed two young children.
By the time they got there, it was too late.
“There was nothing that I could do,” See said.
His partner, who was a full-time police officer, quit on the spot.
See said while you don’t get a lot of those kinds of calls, they always have an impact.
“You got to be able to set it aside,” he said.
It helps to talk it out, he said, and it’s crucial to have a good person outside work to turn to for support.
For many in the profession, that’s been more true than ever during the ongoing pandemic.
Dan Sowles, who’s worked for Eaton Area EMS for 26 years and with See for 20 years, said calls decreased in volume from mid-March to about Memorial Day.
People weren’t calling for smaller injuries or even for major problems, Sowles said, because they were worried about being exposed to the virus.
After Memorial Day, though, it “went right back to 100 mph,” he said. They’re now doing more runs with fewer staff members – they’ll run one or two ambulances for the whole county when they used to run four.
“It’s been the most stressful time probably in my whole life,” Sowles said of being a paramedic during the pandemic.
See said he’s noticed people were, at least initially, nervous and uncomfortable.
“I think it’s just the unknown,” he said. “We’ve always dealt with things that we could handle, encompass.”
See did take a few months off because his wife, Judy, has health problems – the couple spent a week in isolation at the end of January.
And while See is still “very cautious,” he couldn’t stay away from work for long.
That’s not surprising to Roy Gilberston, who’s worked 22 years for Eaton Area EMS.
See has “gotta have something to do,” Gilbertson said.
Gilbertson describes See as a dedicated but easy-going guy who doesn’t get stressed. He’s never seen him “lose his cool.”
He doesn’t usually work shifts with See, but he does encounter him a lot when making runs to Olivet while See is on shift as a firefighter there. He’s always grateful to have someone on the other end of the call who can handle the stress, he said.
“He doesn’t panic,” Gilbertson said. “He’s not going to blow a situation out of proportion.”
And See manages to keep his cool despite working long shifts then going back to being on call or even on shift for Olivet’s fire department, Sowles said.
“He never misses a day of work,” Sowles said. “Never.”
There’s a reason for that, See says. The job requires commitment.
See stresses there’s more to being an EMT than hopping in an ambulance with flashing red lights and a screeching siren and rushing off to save the day.
He says it’s a tough but rewarding profession that requires compassion.
“I think you’ve got to be a caring person,” See said. “You’re helping older people. You’re helping people in distress who need attention.”