Essentially an Islander: Ryan Nelson

This interview, by Janet Thomas, with San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services paramedic Ryan Nelson is the second in a series about essential workers.

What/who inspired you to take up this work?

It started as far back as middle school. In 9th grade I swam and played water-polo. I did life-guarding initially for class and in high-school it became a job. Then later, after a training I did in the Mountaineers Basic Climb Course, I became a volunteer with Tacoma Mountain Rescue. After a bit of time, I took the EMT class and moved up in the ranks with mountain rescue. I loved the EMT class and tried to find a job in Tacoma but I was under 21 and not able to drive the ambulance. As far as the people who inspired me to become a paramedic, I would say San Juan Island EMS Chief Frank Wilson, Paramedic Weyshawn Koons, and Paramedics Jan Clark and Jay Hurlburt. These four amazing people pushed me to step up and into a very different role in EMS. I can't imagine I'd ever be a medic without their encouragement and mentor-ship over the years.

How long have you been with SJI EMS?

I started as an EMT with San Juan Island EMS after moving here in June of 1997.

Where did you do your training?

Both my EMT-Basic training and my EMT-Paramedic training were at the Allied Health Program at Tacoma Community College.

What has surprised you the most about being an EMS provider?

I am surprised about how much it has shaped my views and appreciation for life. Life is short, try to live the one you want.

What is your history re: living on San Juan Island?

In 1997, I came here on a break from college to visit my brother who had recently moved here to help a friend start a business. I remember taking some food to the South Beach overlook and sitting down on the hill below to eat when a pod of orcas swam around in front of me. There was no-one around and I sat there wondering why I lived in Tacoma and drove every weekend to places like this to get away. In June, after my first year of college, I packed up my stuff and drove up here. I volunteered with the Town of FH Fire/Ems and District 3 Fire and then moved back to Tacoma for two years while going to paramedic school and working for Rural Metro Ambulance. When I was hired by Skagit County Medic One, I moved back to San Juan Island part-time and then full-time in 2008 when I was hired as a paramedic at San Juan EMS.

Do you have family here on the island?

My older brother lives here. I live here with my wife, Briana, and our dog, Ollie.

How do you personally deal with the trauma, stress and sadness of your work?

I like to get out and do the things I enjoy. I try to clearly separate my personal life from my professional life. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. I've had the very best and the very worst days of my life in this job. The difficult calls usually affect me days later. If I'm having a tough time, I reach out to other emergency responders as they fully understand the stresses and challenges of a traumatic event.

What do you want the public to know about EMS on SJI?

No matter the challenges faced by our agency and our community, there is an amazing core of people who are doing the best possible job in the interest of serving our island community.

Do you imagine being an EMS provider for the rest of your working life?

Sure do. I can't think of another career as rewarding as this one.

Do you experience challenges regarding the confidentiality requirements of your work?

Not too often. On the island, there are plenty of people who are concerned about their neighbors' well being. Usually, it easy enough to let folks know that they, too. would appreciate respect and privacy if they were hurt or sick. I'll happily greet a patient who approaches me but I don't seek out people directly when I see them. I don't want to put anyone in an awkward place. That said, my favorite moments have been when patients approach me outside of an emergency and we get to catch up.

When you are not at work, what activities do you enjoy?

Hanging out with my family and friends. Activity wise, I'm pretty much hooked on kite-surfing. I love mountain-biking and surf-kayaking but it's mostly to stay in shape for when it's windy enough to kite-surf. A couple years ago, I started getting into amateur radio and I enjoy working out the challenges of communication without internet or cell phone.

Other thoughts you wish to express at this COVID 19 challenging time?

I think it's important to be patient and respectful because we are all in this together. I hope people will follow our county/state public health recommendations and take them seriously enough to protect themselves and each-other.


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