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Giving her all: First responder offers inside look at job

A distinct odor of brain matter permeated the air as they ran up to the scene of a car crash. Not far from her own home, it was the middle of the night as she and another first responder approached. She remembered how the driver, who had been dri...

Terri Spielman (right) of North Crow Wing First Responders demonstrates CPR to Kasen Christianson during National Night Out in Pequot Lakes. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)
Terri Spielman (right) of North Crow Wing First Responders demonstrates CPR to Kasen Christianson during National Night Out in Pequot Lakes. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

A distinct odor of brain matter permeated the air as they ran up to the scene of a car crash.

Not far from her own home, it was the middle of the night as she and another first responder approached.

She remembered how the driver, who had been drinking, had been thrown from the vehicle, an SUV, which had rolled over with the back axle landing on the driver's chest. As they began to assess the situation she thought of running home and grabbing a jack to lift the vehicle but there was no time for that. This man they didn't know lay unconscious suffering from obvious head trauma, his life rested in their hands and he depended solely on their immediate actions.

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This man they didn't know lay unconscious suffering from obvious head trauma, his life rested in their hands and he depended solely on their immediate actions.

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Together they struggled to lift the back end of the SUV and pulled the man out.

"I just remember the smell, me and the other gal, we had sleepless nights," First Responder Terri Spielman said. "The thought process, the whole instance just kept playing over and over in our minds because it was very traumatic."

This is the very heart of what the first responders from North Crow Wing County Zone 3, where Spielman is a member, experience every day.

Although this particular driver did survive, the trauma Spielman witnessed was a tough blow. What was tougher for her is knowing that if she hadn't been there this man could have died. She thought of her own children. "I never had an issue when they were teenagers with drinking and driving and seatbelts," she said.

Her voice was sharp and authoritative when she added, "I shared every single story there was in detail, no names or places, because I wanted it to be ingrained in their heads that anything can happen."

Some things in their line of work first responders never forget and Spielman said the smell of brain matter unfortunately is one of those things.

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Some things in their line of work first responders never forget and Spielman said the smell of brain matter unfortunately is one of those things.

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As a nonprofit organization, North Crow Wing County Zone 3 First Responders rely on donations to keep members fully trained and stocked with the essential supplies they need to arrive on any scene prepared. Receiving no monetary compensation is only half of the battle facing the group.

"It costs about $7,000 to outfit a first responder, because our goal is to make sure each one has a defibrillator, a radio, pager, active 911 on their cell phone, oxygen, and all pre-hospital equipment with the exception of medications," explained Spielman. "A new member has to be certified in CPR and first responder training costs $350 for the initial class and if they stick with the group for six months to a year then they get reimbursed for training." Recertification for all members must be done every two years.

On call 24/7, the group is paged out on pagers and cellphones are alerted. "We just go straight to the scene. We don't have to stop at the fire station and we don't do schedules, we just go when we can," Spielman said.

Their group was formed in 1988 but Spielman has been involved for a little over 25 years. She is the longest standing member of the group that receives no compensation, no retirement fund, and little in the form of repayment of such things like gas, additional training, and expenses which are mainly paid out of their own pockets. "It's just what you give and what you get out of it," Spielman said. The original group had 30-40 members but today there are 18.

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The original group had 30-40 members but today there are 18.

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"There's been a lot," Spielman said of what she gets out of being a first responder. Next to the obvious life saving efforts and teaching CPR classes that she hopes has helped many over the years, she told the story of a woman whose young child was being air-lifted from the scene of an accident.

As the child was being loaded onto the gurney his mom arrived on scene, rushing toward the helicopter barefoot. Once helicopter personnel authorized her to ride along, Spielman asked her what size her shoes were and removed her own, handing them to the distraught mother.

Years later the woman saw Spielman handing out donation calendars in a campground. She came running out to her explaining how she had been trying to find her for over a year to thank her for her kindness. She pointed out her son to Spielman who was alive and well thanks in part to her efforts that day.

Many times first responders don't know what happens to the people they care for.

A privacy rule created in 1996 by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, prohibits covered entities from disclosing protected health information without authorization for specified public health purposes, according to its website. This prevents first responders from finding out about patients afterwards or from discussing personal details with names and addresses of people that they help.

People regularly do come up to her and say she helped a family member.

"That's the gratification I get," Spielman said.

Not knowing the outcome on all patients doesn't hinder Spielman's compassion for them. "These are our neighbors, these are our loved ones, that's one of the reasons why I got started doing this was because not only did I want to be able to take care of my parents and my kids but I wanted to make sure that I could take care of others and someday it would come back around to me as well," she said.

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"These are our neighbors, these are our loved ones, that's one of the reasons why I got started doing this was because not only did I want to be able to take care of my parents and my kids but I wanted to make sure that I could take care of others and someday it would come back around to me as well," she said.

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Spielman spoke of how first responders may be allowed to show that compassion more so than police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. "Since first responders are volunteers, we are not on a time frame when we go on a call," Spielman stated. "We are normally the first to arrive, and have the capability to be the last to leave. This allows us to show our compassion to the injured and their families in ways other emergency personnel cannot. This is not to say that firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and paramedics do not show their compassion in other ways to help the patient. I value all emergency responders and believe we all try to work together and as a team to give the best care possible."

Through the years of her service she has shared much more than shoes. Spielman has given victims blankets, taken care of pets, washed dishes and even tended to children until other family members were able to arrive on scene to take over. "People worry about those things being taken care of while they go in the ambulance or whatnot," she said.

Spielman's family has been extremely supportive of her efforts, helping her study for recertification exams and boosting her confidence when needed. Two of her three daughters have also joined the medical field.

Spielman admits there are difficulties to being a first responder.

"If it's a bad scene and somebody doesn't survive it affects your family life," she said. "In that situation they would have a debriefing (grief counseling), they bring in anyone who was on the scene."

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"If it's a bad scene and somebody doesn't survive it affects your family life," she said

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Debriefing is provided by Central Minnesota Emergency Medical Services. According to its website, this free service is put in place for all law enforcement, dispatch, ambulance, fire/rescue and hospital staff that experience more traumatic events than the general public.

"I don't think you get used to it but my husband tells me I can pull it back in and cope with the day," said Spielman.

"It's difficult to watch people suffer until a medical provider arrives," Breezy Point police officer Emi Dwyer said. "You may get called to a scene where they need care that is way beyond your training." Officer Dwyer is a first responder but is not a member of Zone 3.

CPR and emergency medical care aren't the only things first responders are trained to do. Most volunteers are well versed in scene safety, which can involve keeping crowds back, making sure they have the all clear from police or fire before they enter a potentially dangerous scene, traffic control and clearing a landing spot for air care.

They receive quite a bit of training on communication involving radios, new systems that become available and statewide emergencies. Spielman described one training session where a staged bus was tipped over in a wooded area near a swamp and volunteer students were used to play the victims involved in a crash scene. "They make it really realistic," she said.

When it comes to turning off the responder mode switch Spielman said, "I probably dive into something else like taking care of my grandkids, or taking care of my parents that live next door but that's taken lots and lots of years."

Spielman has five grandchildren all under the age of 5 to keep her busy, along with running their family dock service, Rikka Manufacturing, alongside her husband. She also tries to keep her life in perspective and be thankful for what she has.

"I cherish every day that my family is good. I have a car, I have a house, I have this training that I can render care," she said.

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"I cherish every day that my family is good. I have a car, I have a house, I have this training that I can render care," she said.

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Luckily, she has never had to respond to a family member in this capacity.

"I have always felt like the Lord has protected my heart in that way," Spielman said, though she knows she will not be exempt from that forever. Her fellow team members have responded when her dad needed medical care and she was very thankful that they took excellent care of him.

Most first responders are always in that yellow or caution mode, Spielman said. They are always prepared for what could go wrong in any situation.

"You could just drive by it but when you are a part of this group and this response plan you are always in response mode," she said. "I would never want to hear later on that there were two people that drowned when I already was aware and I saw something.

"Or that vehicle with a person slumped over, I don't want to get a call that there was a cardiac arrest and I just drove by that car."

Teaching CPR classes gives her an added sense of accomplishment. Having community members trained to administer CPR before responders get there can be crucial to a patient's survival.

"The more people I train (CPR), the better off my patients are going to be. You called us but you've already been working on that individual," she said.

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"The more people I train (CPR), the better off my patients are going to be." - First Responder Terri Spielman

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North Crow Wing First Responders have two annual fundraisers. The first is a calendar they create and distribute among the communities that they serve. Ads are sold to pay for the production. These calendars are informative, including tips on CPR, first aid and events in the area. There is a section on the front cover that tells about their group and how they seek donations to continue their efforts. Members distribute the calendars among campgrounds and local businesses.

Their second fundraiser is the Breezy Belle Cruise which is held the Saturday before Father's Day. It is sponsored by Breezy Point Resort, which donates the paddle-wheeler excursion boat for two-hour cruise along Pelican Lake. First responders charge $20 per ticket and provide lunch for the passengers. Raffle tickets are also sold on board for prizes. Although the boat only holds 100 people, the cruise is a hit among the community who fill every spot.

When will Spielman hang up her hat and retire from the challenge of being a first responder?

"I don't want to be done until we have a really strong group of people, you know, that next generation to be able to take over because I might need them some day," she said. After all, many community members are familiar with Terri's face and take comfort in seeing her on any scene, knowing they are in good hands.

For now, Spielman will continue to serve the people around her, providing that human touch that is so desperately needed during medical emergencies. Spielman hopes that new members will join their team and North Crow Wing First Responders Zone 3 will become even stronger in the years to come.

 

Editors Note: This story was updated to clarify a quote by Spielman on the compassion first responders are allowed to show because as volunteers they aren't on the same timeline as other emergency responders like firefighters, police and EMTs but all wok as a team to provide the best care possible. 

North Crow Wing First Responders demonstrate CPR during National Night Out in Pequot Lakes. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)
North Crow Wing First Responders demonstrate CPR during National Night Out in Pequot Lakes. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

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