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Shirley McLinden

TROUT CREEK, MT -- Recently Shirley McLinden received a framed certificate of recognition for maintenance of her National Registry of Emergency Medical Technician's (NREMT) registration for 20 consecutive years. NREMT also sent a letter of congratulations saying this great-grandmother has made a rare achievement. Shirley's possibly the only member of a volunteer ambulance service in western Montana to earn that distinction.

    NREMT Executive Director William E. Brown, Jr. said in the congratulatory letter, "This is an honor held by few . It is a rare achievement that an EMT maintains 20 years of continual national registration and the citizens of your community should be made aware of your service and accomplishment."

    The letter said her "contribution of over 20 years represents the highest commitment to community and fellow man during the most vulnerable time period of their lives, immediately following a medical emergency."

    Shirley joined the Community Ambulance serving Trout Creek, Noxon and Heron, Montana as a First Responder just two years after NREMT, America's certification agency for EMTs, began in 1970.

    She was shocked into awareness of how vulnerable rural people are and motivated to become involved after two of her sons sustained serious injuries in a car wreck the fall of 1972.

    "That's when I realized volunteers are the lifeline for people who get sick or injured when they're fifty miles from the nearest hospital," she says. Recognizing the need, Shirley typically stepped in to help fill it.

    After completing the training offered, she became an attendant on "the red Pontiac I had to bend double to get into," she says. It was the service's first ambulance.

    "For a long time, during the 1970s there were only three crewmembers," she says. After a registered nurse and a Physician's Assistant joined the service in the late 1970s, that prompted reorganization and more training, and membership began increasing and stabilizing somewhat. However, attrition always concerns Shirley and she talks seriously about the always-desperate need for volunteers to keep the Community Ambulance a reliable service.

    EMT classes became available in northwestern Montana in 1978 and she received both her NREMT and Montana certification in 1979. Her Montana State License is #491, making her among the first 500 Montana-licensed EMTs.

    In addition to completing EMT refresher and training requirements every two years and being active on ambulance runs for close to 29 years, Shirley also served on various ambulance committees. Holding the offices of President and Board Member, and assisting with many of the workshops and annual training courses, has kept her busy.

    She also became an American Red Cross (ARC) Instructor, as well as an ARC Instructor Trainer, and is always recruiting others to get involved in that, too.

    While she talks about responding to just about every kind of emergency that happens in the 30 mile radius the ambulance serves, Shirley keeps one ear tuned to her scanner and the pager she wears, ever alert to hear of an emergency where she can help.

    "Bad trauma scenes don't linger in my mind," she says. "That hasn't been a problem for me." Emotional upheavals are part of EMT work, but she finds the support of teammates more helpful than tears and serving on the ambulance has been tremendously rewarding and helpful to her, she says.

    "I think it's easy to avoid conflicts within the ambulance service because it's terribly important to think about the patient first, no matter what your feelings are towards other team members. I just give good patient care to the level of my training, and don't worry about anything else." She spoke softly and her eyes misted ever so slightly as she told how she's also attended many families when the ambulance arrived to find the patient had died.

    "I've always tried to be a 'shoulder to cry on' for other members when scenes have been stressful; I keep confidences; I don't gossip and I show respect for each one. Many have become dear and close friends," she says. "Besides, I've had fun, too!" She explains how humor plays a big role in ambulance service and how crews really unwind and de-stress by including laughter in the serious work they do.

    "Motor vehicle accident (MVA), gunshot, falls, burns, medical problems, heart attack, poisoning, domestic violence, sawmill accidents, fires, hunting, logging and agriculture trauma scenes," she ticks them off on her fingers. "You name it, I've jumped in the car and ran. Danny, my husband, drove me to lots of them, too," she says, adding that without his unstinting support she could never have done it. "He's always been here for me, always caring and always comforting when I need it."

    Her reputation as an outspoken, tell-it-like-it-is person, using whatever spicy language fits the occasion, doesn't bother her one bit.

    She talked about how patients sometimes bond easily to one crew member, but may not to another. "I know when to back off at a scene, I try go get along with everybody, and to be amiable to suggestions if someone sees a better way to do things. I'm not in there to argue, I'm in there to provide patient care," Shirley sums up her achievement.

    "I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat," she says. Although she and Danny have celebrated 51 years of marriage, raised six children, and enjoy 24 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, she doesn't yet consider herself ready for the pasture. She didn't begin with the ambulance until her children were teenagers, but she has no intention of stepping down yet. In spite of having quadruple by-pass heart surgery in 1996 that sidelined her for about nine months Shirley says she's always been very healthy otherwise.

    Shirley is eager for volunteers to begin training now so that there will be qualified EMTs to step into her shoes -- when she is ready to retire. She looks forward to the day when her 20-year NREMT certificate won't be unique.

    And that's what the NREMT award is all about -- 20 consecutive years of maintaining certification to provide excellent patient care without suffering burnout and stepping down.

    "Shirley McLinden has proven herself a heroine for others to emulate," her co-workers say.

    Mona Vanek, resident northwestern Montana historian, and author of “Behind These Mountains” is delighted when she gets the opportunity to interview others, enabling our Home-Town-Heroes to share their meaningful experiences that forge the links in our society.


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Mona Vanek

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