It’s hard to find the most appropriate words to say when tragedy strikes. You wish you didn’t have to say anything, and you know your words don’t ease the pain and suffering. It is truly one of life’s most helpless and heartbreaking moments.
We as EMS providers face these moments far too often. The sorrow is particularly hard when it is for one of our own. I wanted to find a way to offer my support in such circumstances, to contribute more than just words of sympathy. This is when I found the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride. The organization’s mission is as follows:
The National EMS Memorial Bike Ride honors emergency medical services personnel by organizing and implementing long-distance cycling events that memorialize and celebrate the lives of those who serve every day, those who have become sick or injured while performing their duties, and those who have died in the line of duty.
Because I now live in Wisconsin, I decided to participate in the NEMSMBR’s Midwest Route. This route runs from St. Paul, Minn., through Wisconsin and ends in Chicago. Being new to biking, I decided to only sign up for two days of the ride. I did not really know what to expect other than I was excited to be able to spend time with people passionate about EMS who were coming together for a good cause. I was also happy to be able to give back in a tangible way.
Refilling the Cup
My friend and I packed up our bikes and headed to La Crosse, Wisc. The biking crew had ended that day there, and we would join them in the morning. We met them outside the hotel, and after a few brief introductions, we donned our jerseys, listened to the safety speech, and were on our way. Being relatively new to the state, I often joke about how flat it is. This perception was drastically challenged a few minutes into our route. Apparently La Crosse County has been hoarding all the hills, and we would be climbing them all day during our 100-mile “century” ride.
As we progressed through the bluff region and into the valleys, I was blown away by the vibrant green landscape. The humidity infiltrated the wildlife and created plump, lush foliage. We would occasionally pass a herd of cows or goats that would curiously inspect our blue and yellow crew crawling through their enchanted countryside.
Long-distance cycling unexpectedly offered me a form of meditation and peace I didn’t realize I desperately needed. This ride and the people associated with it were refilling my metaphorical cup. Throughout the hard climbs the riding atmosphere remained exceptionally supportive and encouraging. We joked about the never-ending hills and cheered each other on. We were being tested both physically and mentally, but the cause propelled us.
The hospitality and support we received from the local EMS and hospital networks cannot be adequately conveyed in words. All rest stops were hosted by EMS agencies, fire departments, and hospitals along the route. Our lunch break that day was held in Hillsboro, Wisc., at a local park. Our energy levels were depleted from the unforgiving hills, and we were in serious need of rest and sustenance. Gundersen St. Joseph’s Hospital provided our lunch and participated in our ceremony to honor the fallen. The energy, support, and gratitude from its staff was infectious. They expressed sincere appreciation for EMS and emphasized how integral their local departments (who were in attendance) are to the community.
The ceremony continued as the chaplain read a poem that’s traditionally read at paramedic graduation ceremonies. Its message was to live life to its fullest and meet death with no regrets. We stood in front of posters for the honorees throughout the ceremony, and I reflected on the poem’s sentiment and realized how blessed I am to be a part of this industry. The experiences and opportunities it offers me continue to leave me fulfilled and inspired. Despite the bad moments, I would not change or trade any minute of my time in EMS.
A Better Day
As the names of our honorees and tolls of the bell echoed through the trees, they intermingled with the rustling leaves and then dissipated into the wind. The gravity of the ceremony permeated the group, and we stood in heavy silence.
Prior to our departure a member of our crew asked to say a few words. She announced that as she was getting gas this morning for one of the support vehicles, a young boy had approached her and given her a card he’d made. It was dotted with stickers that cheered the bikers on, and he’d ended it with You make my day better. Moments like these remind me that you never know on whom you’re making an impact, and we should strive for kindness whenever possible.
We thanked our hosts and continued on our way with both bodies and spirits rejuvenated. Baraboo, Wisc., approached slowly but surely. Upon our arrival the Baraboo ambulance staff was at the hotel entrance with a warm welcome and even warmer food. Word spread that the NEMSMBR was stopping in town, and some locals had congregated in the hotel bar. The generosity continued as we dug in to a huge feast of pasta and meatballs sponsored by Baraboo Ambulance. We went to bed sore but definitely not hungry.
The next morning we assembled to receive our safety briefing and agenda for the day. Afterward one of our riders presented Dave Rogers, our coordinator, with a proclamation from the state recognizing the NEMSMBR. It was nice to see those who made this possible receiving well-deserved recognition.
Baraboo Ambulance escorted us out of the city, and we were on our way. This day brought less incline and more open terrain. We zoomed through country roads and were surrounded by calm, rolling farmland. Approximately 40 miles in we made it to our halfway mark, Madison. Our lunch ceremony was hosted by Madison Fire and sponsored by UW Med Flight. We rolled in and were greeted by the family members of one of our honorees. I’m not sure if it was exhaustion or simply the energy that pulsed through the group, but I was surprised by the range of emotions unleashed from within me. I spent many years suppressing those, an unfortunate but common habit in EMS. In any case, I kept my sunglasses on to hide the “sweat” pooling in my eyes.
The family was so appreciative of the NEMSMBR organization. One was very concerned about our hydration status and diligent about placing a water bottle in each rider’s hand. Their compassion melted away the fatigue and physical pain the ride had inflicted on us and replaced it with love, support, and a sense of family. One rider who knew the honoree wore his dog tags for the ride and presented them to the family.
We concluded another bell ceremony, gave our thanks, and said our good-byes. We were then escorted out of the city by Madison Fire. On the way we passed by the hospital where our honoree had worked. His coworkers were all waiting for us to pass by. They cheered us on and yelled words of gratitude and encouragement. This simple heartfelt gesture once again placed a lump in my throat.
Fort Atkinson was scheduled to be our final destination for the day, but as we rode out of Madison, we were all anxiously monitoring the weather. A severe storm was approaching. We decided to continue on to Stoughton and reassess the situation. At each bend I glanced over at the black clouds on the horizon, growing increasingly ominous. The last rider made it to Stoughton minutes before the storm hit. I have no doubt it was our fallen angels keeping us safe. We packed up our bikes and equipment into the support vehicles and shuttled safely on to Fort Atkinson, where we were met with yet another wonderful dinner, this one sponsored by the Fort Memorial Hospital staff. At the end of the day, I had completed approximately 160 miles with the crew. Many of the riders and support staff were participating in the whole Midwest route, which is around 550 miles.
EMS is a difficult industry. This is evident in the suicides, line-of-duty deaths, and realization of severe PTSD in the workforce. However, it is also the most exciting, rewarding, and resilient field one could be in, with the most passionate, sincere, and selfless people. It was a privilege and honor to ride among them for this important cause.
We are also so incredibly blessed with the local EMS, hospital, and public safety partners who show us such overwhelming generosity and support. This industry really knows how to come together as a community. We rode for the fallen, but we also rode for each other. The time we spent together emphasized the importance of community and kindness and that we are never alone.
Ela Rybczyk, EMT-P, is a regional coordinator in the Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ EMS Section. She previously served a decade in Rochester, N.Y.