Story and Photos by Julie Gerke
The men and women of Jacksonville’s LifeStar Ambulance Service come from different backgrounds, but share a desire to help those in medical crisis.
LifeStar is among a handful of ambulance and rescue providers in Morgan and surrounding counties. Some – like LifeStar – are for-profit professional companies. Others are connected to fire departments, staffed by volunteers, and financed by a combination of tax money and donations.
In addition to the staff at LifeStar, emergency medical staff in Jacksonville, South Jacksonville, Chapin, Meredosia, Arenzville, Murrayville-Woodson, Alexander, Ashland and Waverly are among those celebrated May 21-27 during National EMS Awareness Week.
The local LifeStar office, managed by Jason Shumaker, is part of a larger business founded in Centralia, expanding first to Alton and later to Springfield and Jacksonville in 1988. The offices operate independently, with occasional sharing of equipment.
“We are very, very proud of the folks at Jacksonville; they’re all top-notch,” said LifeStar President and CEO Roger Campbell. “They’re very loyal. We appreciate it and, actually, they are probably experience-wise probably the top site.”
Campbell, a former EMT and paramedic, founded LifeStar in 1973. “We’re fortunate a lot of people have been with us for a long time. We dearly appreciate those folks’ loyalty. … They are a group up there that gives back to their community.”
Shumaker, of Waverly, grew up watching his dad, the late Bob Shumaker, volunteer with Waverly Fire and Rescue and work at the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office. Jason spent several years shifting between law and medical work in Morgan and Jersey counties before joining LifeStar in 2013.
Today, the paramedic/manager oversees an office of 26 full- and part-time employees who provide both advanced and basic life support in a service area that includes Jacksonville and parts of Morgan, Greene, Scott and Cass counties. The emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics work 24-hour shifts, with 48 hours off between shifts; a fully staffed shift has six people and three ambulances. Each shift has at least three paramedics and three EMTs.
They work together to transfer patients from homes to hospitals or nursing homes and back again; answer emergency calls for accidents, falls, heart attacks or strokes — “kind of everything,” Shumaker said — and provide mutual aid to nearby agencies. “It’s anything and everything,” he said.
During slower parts of a shift, workers may check or replace equipment on an ambulance, fill out reports, work on required training, or do other needed work in the building. Several of the workers also volunteer or work with agencies in their hometowns; they may have a 24-hour shift with LifeStar, go home to a 24-hour on-call shift, then have a single day off before returning to LifeStar. Even when they’re not on call, almost everyone carries first aid kits in their personal vehicles and stops to render aid or offer help if they see an accident.
The LifeStar staff is part of a growing number of people in the EMT/paramedic field. Illinois is among the top five states in the nation for the number of its medical field workers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 261,000 EMTs and paramedics nationwide in 2021. The agency projects 7 percent growth in the field between 2021 and 2031.
In 2018, the last year for which figures were available from the Illinois Department of Public Health, the state had 15,761 paramedics and 20,888 EMTs (basic and intermediate).
Citing the 2021 numbers, the labor bureau said Illinois had the fifth highest number of EMTs in the United States. Some 5,400 of the EMTs were in the Chicago metro area, the second-highest number in the country.
The bureau reported 96,510 paramedics nationwide in 2021, with Chicago again in second place with 3,310 medics, sandwiched between New York and Atlanta.
The Jacksonville office receives between 17 and 27 calls per shift, Shumaker said. Although there is no “average” day, a recent Tuesday started with three calls around 8:30 a.m., then a two-hour lull, then a steady stream of calls until 8 p.m. before another two-hour lull. Workers then stayed busy until 4:30 a.m. Wednesday. The number of calls varies depending on weather, time of day, day of week, holiday, or whether there is a large sporting or entertainment event.
Now a paramedic, Tim Baldwin was 17 and considering a degree in music education when he saved a little girl’s life. He didn’t have any professional training, just hours of watching the reality TV show Rescue 911, stories from an uncle who was an EMT, and common sense from his mom, the family’s “go-to” person when anyone needed help.
The girl was choking when her grandfather handed her off to Baldwin, asking for help. Baldwin held her head down, gave her a few blows to the back and a strawberry popped out. Then the child started to cry.
He reassessed his goals and turned to EMT classes, starting his medical career in a lab before working for ambulance companies, a hospital, and then LifeStar.
As a paramedic, he’s seen a lot. His most challenging work is with burn patients, because the injury is not a typical call and has variations of pain, shock and burn severity.
“It’s human nature to be (somewhere) and want to help,” he said. “Over the years, … you gradually just learn to accept” the good and the bad.
Paramedics and EMTs are licensed by the state; EMTs can have basic or advanced training, with their ranks listed as EMT-I (intermediate, or advanced) and EMT-B (basic). EMTs at the basic level have roughly six months of training and time in emergency rooms and on ambulances. Advanced EMTs, who have extended classwork, can start intravenous medication, administer some cardiac medications and breathing treatments, intubate and monitor difficult airway adjuncts, explained EMT-I Cindy Childers.
Paramedics, with 18 months of schooling, spend time in emergency rooms, operating rooms, medical-surgical units, nursing homes, respiratory services, labs, ICU and sometimes mental health units. In addition to EMT duties, they can provide other advanced treatment a patient needs, including narcotics.
LifeStar has an “earn to learn” program that helps new employees get their basic certification, and supports current employees advancing to higher certifications, Shumaker said. All employees must take continuing education courses to keep their licenses updated.
Emergency medical service can help with “anything and everything,” Shumaker said. If a health issue is not serious (something, perhaps, that only requires a simple bandage), patients can drive to the hospital or urgent care facility by personal car. It’s a fallacy, he said, that arriving at a hospital by ambulance guarantees faster service – ambulance workers and hospital staff will triage needs regardless of how a patient arrives.
RICK CARIE, CINDY CHILDERS
Rick Carie and Cindy Childers often are paired as a team, and both have family members with medical backgrounds.
Carie is an EMT-B who volunteers with the Meredosia rescue squad and Arenzville Fire Department. Childers, an EMT-I, started her career as a volunteer firefighter in Litchfield before becoming an EMT. She and her husband both volunteer in Winchester, where they now live.
Childers decided to follow medicine after watching EMS workers help her grandpa, a Navy veteran who had emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “Just seeing EMS personnel take care of him almost every day,” she said. “They always had a good attitude. It was seeing them help people.”
She misses the “thrill” of fighting fires but gets satisfaction from helping people in immediate need. “It’s a big deal to make a child smile or an adult feel comfortable,” she said. “… We never know what’s next.”
Employees of the Jacksonville office of LifeStar Ambulance are Chad Dawdy, Laura Benz, Derek Huesman, Steven Albers, Alan McClellan, Jason Shumaker, Cindy Childers, Jeff McCormick, Cheyenne Gaillard, Dave Bye, Sean Taylor, Rick Carie, Christopher Lisenbee, James Vannier, Joe Bye, Matt Bobitt, James Geiselman, Tom McCarter, Jose Contreras-Sanchez, Dave Salcido, Lori Shumaker, Mark Pitchford, Tim Baldwin, Tim Casey, Eric Brockhouse and Edgar Padilla.