News Column

Paramedic: 'You see horrific things -- and it changes you'

August 3, 2014

By Mike Tighe, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Aug. 03--A series of part-time gigs as a rural emergency volunteer led Crystal Wallin to conclude that her true calling was to the emergency medical field instead of banking.

"I started volunteering because in rural areas where I live, volunteers are about all we have," said the 37-year-old Wallin, who began volunteering in her hometown of Seneca, Wis.

Now a critical care paramedic for Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance, Wallin also served as a volunteer first responder in Soldiers Grove, where she worked at the bank, and Prairie du Chien, where she lives with her husband, Kurt, and the six children in their blended family.

Her first paying job as an emergency medical technician was at a Richland Center business involved in transferring patients between hospitals, after which she became an EMT at Vernon Memorial Healthcare in Viroqua.

"All of my little part-time jobs gave me better respect for each person in all the roles," she said. "The more I did, the more I craved wanting to help more. I grew to realize that this is what I love to do."

Before becoming a paramedic, Wallin worked in the Gundersen Medical Communications Center, fielding 911 calls handed off from La Crosse County Emergency Medical Dispatch.

"I used to look up to the paramedics, and I wanted to be hands-on like them," she said. "We have some dispatchers who are phenomenal, and their voices can calm any situation. I'm better outside. I find it easier to let go.

"If you hear a mom screaming on the phone and a paramedic hangs up the phone, you can feel nauseous because you don't know," Wallin said. "If you're there, you know you did the best you could."

Wallin's ultimate impetus to become a paramedic came on May 10, 2008, a date fixed in her memory because that was the night a University of Wisconsin Hospitals' Med Flight that had transported a patient to Gundersen crashed near La Crosse, killing the pilot, a doctor and a nurse. The crash occurred about 10:45 p.m., but the wreckage wasn't discovered until about 8:30 a.m. the next day.

"That began the longest night ever," as would-be rescuers sought the helicopter, she said.

Noting that the crash still is a sensitive topic among Tri-State, MedComm and MedLink AIR workers, Wallin said, "It was a very emotional night, one of the pivotal moments in the lives of the people it touched.

"I enrolled at WTC and graduated two years later," she said.

Her paramedic duties rotate between critical care, which usually involves transferring patients between hospitals, and 911 calls.

"It's a nice blend," she said, with critical care usually less stressful.

During emergency calls, Wallin said, "You have access into the most intimate moments of strangers' lives, and you sometimes see some horrific things -- and it changes you."

The most trying calls for Wallin are when babies or children are suffering, she said.

"Pediatrics and bad crashes -- those are the ones that wake you up at 3 a.m.," she said. "The mommy gene kicks in, and I like to pick them up and snuggle them."

Kurt "gets it" when she has a bad day because he is a police officer in Viroqua and "has gotten odd calls," Wallin said.

Wallin blogs as an emotional release, saying, "I write to cope," taking care not to provide details that would violate patients' privacy.

Excerpts from one of her entries, at, chronicle the yo-yoing emotions of she experienced while working in the old MedComm dispatch center in the basement of the old Nurses Home on Gundersen's main campus:

--I read the text in a chair there when one of my co-workers confirmed she was going to be a mommy again.

--I counted aloud on the phone with a very young caller, as he manfully performed chest compressions on his father, all the while begging "Daddy wake up please, please." His daddy never did wake up.

--I answered phones in that room as hillsides collapsed, a house fell and flood waters rose in a nightmare night.

--I went through our PAIP with a comm specialist two hours away the night three wonderful men gave their lives in the service to strangers. I fielded phone calls as friends of the crew called, looking for information.

--I threw up in the restroom down the hall after my first SIDS caller.

--I stood in a medic uniform in that room and took a call from my now-husband, hearing his tight voice say his father wasn't breathing -- whirled, asked for an ambulance, and watched time slow to an agonizing crawl.

--Another entry, titled simply "unguarded," says, in part:

"Children, running dirty and unkempt haunt me long after I clear a call, nowadays. Unbidden their faces remain with me and the facade I keep between myself & my patients -- for my own protection -- crumbles. I can't help them or the lives they are born into, and my heart breaks for every one of them.

"There's a line, and the world of the nighttime street paramedic must remain on the far side of it. There's simply too much pain and hurt and senseless harm to fellow human beings out there. At arm's length it must be kept."

Wallin explains the psychological value of her journaling: "I write for myself to process. If I can write, I can let go -- it's cathartic."


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Source: La Crosse Tribune (WI)

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