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EMS Excellence: Celebrating 50 Years and The Pioneers Who Helped Us Get Here

We’re also celebrating the 50th anniversary of ambulance service at NOCHS this year. We recently sat down with Dr. Jack Roossien, who trained at this hospital and served on the board for 10 years, including a term as both vice chair and chair. He shared his recollections of what things were like back in the early days.

Q: How did patients get to the hospital before 1969 if they were unable to drive themselves there?
A: There was no such thing as an ambulance prior to 1969. The national ambulance movement was just coming into being at that time. People who needed to get to the hospital and didn’t have transportation called the funeral home. It seems strange now, but it made sense back then. The hearses had roomy spaces where patients could lie down flat if necessary.

Q: How were your tools and training different that what we have today?
A: I think our first ambulance was a converted Chevy truck that could carry four people. Most of our education came from the nurses and physicians in the hospital. All the training requirements and checklists that an EMT follows today were still years ahead. That led to some interesting situations. For example, we had to load our own supplies in the ambulance. One night we missed a few things…like a stretcher! We got to the patient’s house and had no way to carry him out. So I took a door off its hinges and loaded the patient on it. Once we got him safely to the hospital, I had to go return his door! Communication systems were also still being developed. We relied on two-way radios and police band frequencies to stay connected.

Q: Any other significant “firsts” that you recall?
A: The folks on the leading edge of a new service always learn lessons the hard way. For example, our uniforms were all white, like the nurses. We wore short-sleeve white shirts, white shoes, light jackets and no boots. White wasn’t a great color for the work we did. I got stuck in the snow more than once, and pretty much blended into the drifts! I was glad when that uniform guideline changed.

Q: How did your work as an ambulance driver help you prepare to be a physician?
A: Driving an ambulance and being a physician are both high-pressure jobs. For example, I delivered my
first baby in the ambulance when I was still an orderly. Because mom and baby could not wait, I had to handle the situation right there in the parking lot. I admit…it shook me up a little bit. But mom and baby did fine.

Q: How did you begin your medical career?
A: I was a college student back in 1969. I was lucky enough to get a job as an orderly in the NOCHS Emergency Room while attending GVSU. They needed drivers, and I thought it would be interesting. So I ended up being one of the first ambulance drivers. I earned my nursing degree first, serving in hospital administration and developing many programs for nursing education. When I was accepted to medical school, I went back and earned my M.D.

Q: When did you stop working as an EMT?
A: I decided to stop driving the ambulance when I entered my first medical practice as a physician. By then, the EMTs needed to be able to deliver a lot more care out in the field, and also had to follow more state regulations. I had my hands full with other responsibilities, including my practice and my family, so I decided it was time to step down.

Q: Do you miss it?
A: Yes, I miss driving the ambulance. I lived for the moment when I could help someone. Emergency medicine is different than family practice. You’re serving people in life threatening situations. You have
to do something, or there will be serious consequences. I guess I’ll always miss the adrenaline.

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