Above and beyond: Tom Lemke recognized for his dedication to emergency services
WORTHINGTON -- Tom Lemke's first ambulance run as an emergency medical technician was a memorable one -- not due to any horrific emergency situation but because of a glitch.
"I was very nervous," he recalled. "This was before enhanced 911. We were dispatched to a nursing home where this person had resided, but when we got out there, we found out she'd moved back home. Turned out, she was only about a block from the hospital. Luckily, it wasn't a critical call."
Tom has been an EMT for 11 years, seven with the Worthington Ambulance Association, and he was recently named as the recipient of the 2006 President's Award from the regional Minnesota Emergency Medical Service Association. The award is presented at the annual MEMSA meeting to the person who goes above and beyond the call of duty and is based on nominations from peers and co-workers.
"I was there, and I hadn't the foggiest" idea that the award was forthcoming, Tom said. "They started talking about a person who works in a community of 12,000 people on a service that averages 1,200 runs a year and reading all these things that people at the hospital had written, and I had no idea it was me. When they said my name, I almost fell off my chair. I'm pretty outgoing, and it probably one of the few times that I've been speechless."
Tom is a native of Worthington and a 1969 graduate of Worthington High School.
"I'm the old buck on the (ambulance) crew," he said of his senior status.
He left Worthington for a few years, living in Lake Crystal and Rochester, but felt the call to return to southwest Minnesota.
"You can't beat home. It's a nice community," Tom said. "I worked for the city at the liquor store for 16 years, until 1990. Then I worked for Rickbeil's for five years, three in the appliance store and two in furniture."
Tom did a brief stint in quality control at Swift & Co. before becoming employed at Bedford Industries about six years ago. He works as a spooler on the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, which allows him to be on call for the ambulance service during the day.
"I don't know if I'd go back to a day job," he reflected. "It gives me the opportunity to go home and sleep. ... But there are days when I get very little sleep."
He and wife Nancy have been married for 14 years, and he has two stepsons, Jeremy, 26, who recently got married, and Nathan, 22, who lives at home.
Although he'd always had an interest in the medical field, Tom first investigated the possibility of becoming an EMT while living in Rochester.
"Back in the mid-'70s, you could ride along with the ambulance in the Rochester," he said. "It was a chance to see if I had a taste for it. It was a burning desire."
To become certified as an EMT, a person must complete a 120-hour class, which in Tom's case consisted of taking classes two nights a week, four hours a night, for about four months. Upon completion of the course, there's a national board test, and instructors must also certify the EMT for specific hands-on criteria.
"You have to prove you're capable of doing the job," Tom explained. "Then every two years you have to recertify, take a refresher course."
When Tom initially completed the EMT training and test, he couldn't find an opening on an ambulance crew.
"Like a silly man, I let it run out, so I took the class over again," he lamented.
But since he's become an active EMT, Lemke has never regretted his decision, even though the work requires dedication and can disrupt family life.
"My family's been great, so supportive," he said. "The pager will go off when you're just sitting down to a nice meal, or at 3 o'clock on a Saturday morning. It's a real commitment, and a lot of times you end up working holidays, even though we try to rotate that."
Diversity is part of what Tom enjoys about his second job.
"It's a real passion," he continued. "No call is the same. When you get there, it could be something as simple as a bump on the elbow or a major cardiac arrest. They're all different."
In retrospect, Tom wishes he'd seriously considered a career in the medical field earlier in his life.
"Since I really got into it in-depth, if I had known all this in high school, I would have gone into the nursing program. It's by far the most rewarding job I've had, and it's so ever-changing. ... I've seen my share of misery, pain, but I've also seen people who call at 2 in the morning, and when you get there, they're out on the curb with their suitcase, ready to go. You just never know what you're going to get. Sometimes you'll get a call, and all it will say is that someone's not feeling well, and by the you get there, somebody's doing CPR on them because they've progressed that quickly."
Because he's lived most of his life in Worthington, Tom often recognizes his patients when he arrives on scene.
"The majority of the time, that's a good thing," he said. "A face they know will put them at ease."
In fact, one of Tom's letters of nomination for the President's Award stated: "Tom is the person anyone would want to come to their aid during an accident or illness because he treats you and cares for you as if you were his family."
As he's become more proficient at handling medical emergencies, the way Tom views the job has changed.
"When you first start, it's an adrenaline rush. It's an excitement because it's something that's new to you," he reflected. "Then it goes to more the excitement of the knowledge that you have. You become more competent in the situations, and so there's that growing aspect of it."
Tom is grateful for the support he receives from his co-workers and the staff at Worthington Regional Hospital, not just in nominating him for the MEMSA award, but in the day-to-day work on the ambulance service.
"There's no way I would have close to getting such an award without the people I work with," he said. "We have one super medical facility here in Worthington and a great staff. Without everybody working together, it doesn't happen."