By Lyonel Doherty
Firefighters like to tell stories, and one of their favourites locally is the one about Oliver paramedic Joy Peterson.
Nobody knew her name at the time, she was just referred to as this female paramedic in their rescue boat who stripped down to her skivvies and dove into Vaseux Lake after a car went into the water with one occupant inside.
The firefighters were quite impressed with her heroics and never stopped talking about it. Sadly, the lone motorist could not be saved that day.
Peterson, unit chief of the Oliver ambulance station, recalls the incident vividly. Because her safety came first, she proceeded very carefully.
“I was a member of a four-person team that had previously won the national lifeguard championships, so on that particular day, I was the best person to try to assist in the moment. Unfortunately my efforts were too late to make a difference, but I take comfort in knowing that I tried.”
Former Okanagan Falls firefighter Dale Stevenson remembers the incident well, saying Peterson definitely went beyond the call of duty.
“We were totally impressed (by her actions).”
Stevenson said firefighters couldn’t do much on the scene because they weren’t trained in underwater rescue. He noted the water was fairly deep and Peterson made numerous attempts to retrieve the woman, but to no avail due to a unique seatbelt.
“She was an inspiration to the rest of us,” Stevenson said.
Peterson is celebrating her semi-retirement from the BC Ambulance Service and reflects on her career in Oliver.
She noted that paramedics don’t generally like to discuss their worst calls, adding she has developed a safety mechanism that puts those incidents behind her.
“All I can do is attempt to make the situation better,” she says.
And she certainly has ever since her first call more than 21 years ago.
Someone called for a “staple in the finger,” which made her realize that paramedics sometimes find themselves in situations not deemed a serious emergency.
“Paramedics are problem solvers for people when their day is not going so well,” Peterson said. “We learn when to work fast and when it is more important to slow down and let the patient remain in control.”
In some cases, she has acted as a personal caregiver to patients. For example, she has fixed meals for them and has even arranged to have their animals cared for.
It comes with the territory, a territory she explored in high school.
She became enamored with the career after watching the television show “Emergency.”
As a youth, Peterson got bored easily but loved swimming and helping people. She was leaning towards a career in recreation but Critical Care Paramedic Ian McMillan influenced her to choose otherwise.
In addition to being a Primary Care Paramedic, she has a Bachelor of Commerce specializing in sports administration, and a diploma in adult education.
Peterson has been the unit chief in Oliver for nine years. She has also been a training officer and an emergency call-taker for ambulance dispatch.
She noted that working with the crew in Oliver has been terrific, and she has enjoyed forming strong links with the local RCMP, the fire department and hospital staff.
Peterson said the Oliver ambulance station has provided a great training ground for many paramedics, some of whom moved on to full-time positions in Vancouver.
She likes the Oliver station for its autonomy and diversity of calls, and the fact that all the old addresses have been changed.
“It is a relief that almost all of the old signage and numbers have been removed.”
Not only has Peterson had an impact on many people’s lives, her patients have taught her a thing or two as well.
“I respect that our older adults can teach us many things,” she said, recalling the gardening tips she has learned over the years, such as how to properly prune rose bushes and protect them in the winter time.
She notes there is an untapped opportunity for seniors to share their stories to help others in many ways.
Paramedics have to remain professional and cannot get caught up in emotions during a call. But Peterson has shed a tear or two thinking about some incidents.
“After a significant call, I think of the survivors and what is next for them.”
For Peterson, managing stress is all about balance. She maintains overall wellness and always makes time for friends. Nature is also a wonderful healer, too.
Statistics indicate that paramedics are one of the hardest hit in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But thankfully that has not affected Peterson.
“I’m not sure really how I do it; I just feel that I am appropriately suited for the role.”
Some calls have the potential to be very stressful, such as drug overdoses, which are more frequent than ever before, she pointed out.
Peterson said drugs are stronger these days and the calls that paramedics must respond to are heartbreaking.
“We have saved many lives but we have also lost a lot of lives.”
Peterson wants people to know that if they are using drugs, they should not be doing it alone.
“Many of the people who are dying have been found alone; there was no one there to call 9-1-1 for them.”
Regardless of the call, Peterson’s approach is methodical, and quite frankly, it takes a lot to get her rattled.
She doesn’t have an exact count of the people she has resuscitated, but there have been some dramatic life-saving moments in her career.
“I feel honoured to be welcomed into people’s homes on what could be the worst day of their life.”
That’s why she learned very quickly not to take anything for granted.
She remembers coming back from a patient transfer to Penticton when a cardiac arrest call came in. The patient was found under some tree branches that had been pruned.
After some quick work, she and her paramedic partner successfully resuscitated the patient
“It was a heartwarming experience to receive a poinsettia plant with a family photo each Christmas after that for a number of years.” The photo said: “Thank you for allowing me to have another Christmas with my family.”
Reflecting on her semi-retirement, Peterson said she has always wanted to ride her bike to work. Well, she will now get that opportunity. She was recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, offered a job-share with a paramedic in Summerland, where she lives.
She can’t wait for that 10-minute, green-friendly commute to work.