Veteran Chicago paramedics reflect on 38 years of saving lives
Back in 1974, a couple of twenty-something adrenaline junkies both saw the same ad in the newspaper. The City of Chicago was hiring for a position with the job title "para medics."
That's how Tony Scipione and Gunther Kettenbeil became part of the first paramedic crews in the city. They've been at it ever since – until this week when they retired after 38 years on the job.
When the two started in the mid '70s, most people had never even heard the term ‘paramedic.’ People relied on private ambulances or ill-equipped responders from the fire department. The system was so primitive that Kettenbeil had to bring his own stethoscope and blood pressure cuff to work. Firefighters scoffed at the equipment and called it his "bag of tricks."
Scipione said emergency responders were mostly making it up as they went along.
“At that time firemen were only carrying in oxygen tanks and maybe a couple roller bandages stuffed into their pocket,” Scipione said. “We didn’t have a lot of equipment. Either we didn’t have it, or it was nonexistent at the time. There were many of the ambulances that were just Cadillac Ambulances if you were lucky, or a station wagon.”
Once, Scipione showed up for a shift and instead of an ambulance or station wagon, all they had for him was a sedan. Just put the patients in the backseat, he was told. Kettenbeil said city hospitals weren’t sure what to expect from the new paramedics either.
"They were so worried things would not work right they had nurses ride with us for a week just to to make sure that these single role medics knew what to do," Kettenbeil said.
Since then, the job has changed dramatically – from station wagon backseats to high-tech ambulances – but one thing has remained the same: EMS workers still often put their own lives on the line to save others.
“I don’t think there’s a paramedic on this job now that hasn’t risked their lives and been in a situation where it was a close call,” Kettenbeil said.
Scipione remembers one particularly harrowing night during a snowstorm, when he responded to a car accident on Lake Shore Drive.
“I positioned the ambulance in such a way so that people would see it,” he said. “Or so I thought.”
He and his partner took two injured people into the ambulance. Scipione headed back to the car.
As he checked on the driver, Scipione noticed a car approaching from the corner of his eye.
“And I thought -- I don’t think this person can see us,” Scipione said. “And I’ll tell you, if I didn’t jump in on that woman’s lap, I would be dead. Because he literally took off the door of the automobile as he went past.”
The driver, blinded by the snow, skidded to a stop. Everyone survived.
“But I remember my partner sticking her head out the window saying ‘Tony, what was all that noise?’ As my heart was going 240, thinking I just almost lost my life,” Scipione said. “And the women in the car (was) looking at me like ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
Scipione said it wasn’t uncommon for paramedics to encounter all kinds of dangerous situations in the early days.
“I’ve been shot at,” Scipione said. “I’ve been chased with knives.”
“Held hostage,” Kettenbeil added. “I’ve been held hostage, shot at on both sides (of the job), the firefighter and paramedic side.”
But no matter how tough the neighborhood, when they got a call that someone’s grandmother was having a heart attack or a kid was having an asthma attack, they were almost always given space to do their jobs.
Scipione said responding to emergencies all over Chicago – from projects like Cabrini-Green to the highest-priced condos in the city – made him realize something early on.
“We’re all the same,” Scipione said. “Doesn’t matter where you come from. We all have the same hopes and dreams and wishes.”
When they started, there were only about 20 ambulances in the city. There’s more than triple that amount now. Scipione said less Chicago residents are dying from asthma attacks, strokes and even gunshot wounds thanks to better technology, medications and training for EMS workers.
But the hours haven't changed. It's still a grueling 24-hour shift, where paramedics are lucky to get a lunch break.
“Lot of times we would have food on the go,” Kettenbeil said. “I learned to put everything on a sandwich, including spaghetti. Eating was on the way to the next call.”
After a stressful day of work, most folks have the option of stopping off at a bar. But paramedics get off work at 8 a.m., so Scipione said they would often blow off steam over breakfast.
“Everybody would talk about what they saw, just talk about it to get it out,” he said. “Because you know if you tried to go home and tell your wife...they didn’t understand what we were saying. Where you could talk to another paramedic and they knew where you were coming from. One minute, you’re dealing with bringing life into the world. The next minute, you’re dealing with somebody dying.”
Despite starting out together, the pioneering paramedics worked apart for most of their careers. Then six years ago, Scipione was reassigned to a firehouse on the Northwest side. When he showed up, there was his old pal, Kettenbeil.
It only seemed natural that they should retire together. Their final shift was November 12, the same day they started in the department back in 1974.
“Gunther had a whole head of red hair and I had a whole head of black hair that we don’t have anymore,” Scipione laughed. “Things change a little bit. Got a little bit older, a little bit wiser.”
Scipione said he’s a little nervous about retirement.
“I really believe that the feeling that I’m feeling today... is exactly the same feeling that I felt the day I was hired,” Scipione said. “The excitement, the uncertainty of not knowing (what’s next). Because I don’t know.”
But Kettenbeil said he knows what’s next. He and his wife are going fishing.