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A career spent saving lives

Sheila Lehrke received her nursing degree from the Abbott Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis, where she worked for a short time, but has spent most of her career in Detroit Lakes. Photo by - Vicki Gerdes1 / 2
Sheila Lehrke has spent the past 40 years as a nurse with Essentia Health-St. Mary's -- and most of that time has been spent with St. Mary's EMS, helping to transfer patients to hospitals in Fargo and the Twin Cities when a higher level of care is needed. Photo by - Vicki Gerdes2 / 2

Being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year -- a nurse's job at Essentia Health St. Mary's EMS is more than just a career, it's a way of life, says Sheila Lehrke.

And she should know. Lehrke has been a nurse at St. Mary's for 40 years now, and "I've worked in EMS pretty much that whole time," she says.

A native of Aitkin, Minn., Lehrke moved to Detroit Lakes in 1972, to start a new job as a recovery room nurse at St. Mary's Hospital. She later moved up to become the head nurse on the surgical floor, and then the daytime supervisor.

"I started doing transfers with the ambulance service, which was privately owned (at that time), and provided basic life support," Lehrke said. "It was pretty much just me and the driver."

Lehrke had gotten to know the owner of the ambulance service because he was also a physician's assistant on the surgical floor where she worked.

For about eight years, Lehrke operated the ambulance dispatch service out of her home, along with the owner of the ambulance service and the bookkeeper, who covered for her when she wasn't available.

"I was pretty much tied to the house for almost eight years," she said.

At that time, the ambulance service only offered basic life support.

"We didn't have the technology we have now," she said. "Some of the patients I cared for back then -- I wonder what the outcomes would have been if we'd known then what we know now.

"I think about that sometimes... there are different patients you work with over the years that you never forget."

In 1982, Lehrke stopped dispatching for the ambulance service and started teaching clinicals for the nursing program at the local technical college.

"That's when the sheriff's office took over the dispatching (with the 9011 emergency service)," she said.

In 1987, the ambulance service was sold to Dakota Hospital and Clinic in Fargo, "and we became an advanced life support service, with paramedics and EMTs," Lehrke said.

She continued to do transfers -- taking patients from the local hospital to a facility with a higher level of care, whether in Fargo, the Twin Cities, or wherever it may be.

But the level of care they were now able to offer was much higher, she added.

"There were cardiac monitors, blood pressure monitors and medications on board, and we had oxygen and suction as part of the (ambulance) truck," she said.

In 1992, the ambulance service was sold again, to another private party, and in 1995, it was purchased by St. Mary's Hospital, at which time it became known as St. Mary's EMS (which it still is).

When Lehrke started with the ambulance service, it was just one vehicle and a driver. Today, there are three ambulance crews available for service at St. Mary's EMS at any given time -- and even then, they sometimes have to call for mutual aid from neighboring towns.

"We used to average less than 100 calls a month -- sometimes less than a call a day," she said. "Our volumes now... from 2002 to today, our call volume is up by 1,000 calls a year. That's a big increase. In our last month (alone), we had 250 calls."

Even when the call volume was much lower, however, Lehrke still carried a pager 24/7 when she was on duty. These days, she said, she is only on call from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"I did 28 years of 24/7 (being on call)," she said. "It's a lifestyle, and it's a mindset."

Lehrke herself doesn't often go out on 911 calls, however. She's usually called upon to do transfers only.

As difficult as it is to be available 24 hours a day, she said, she feels the job of the First Responders and area rescue squads are even harder -- because not only are they volunteers, who have to be able to leave their jobs and families at a moment's notice, but the people they treat are often friends and colleagues.

"They're living their lives, and when the call comes they have to drop everything and run," she said. "They're a very special group."

She also lauded the work of the EMTs who drive the ambulance, noting that their job is often extremely difficult because they never know what the driving conditions will be -- yet they don't have any choice but to keep going.

"We're like the Pony Express -- rain, sleet, snow, hail, we have to get there," she said, adding that sometimes they have needed an escort by both law enforcement and a snowplow driver in order to arrive safely at their destination.

"Picture this," said Lehrke. "It's the middle of the night, in a blizzard, and they (the ambulance crew) are supposed to find their way to a location, figure out what's going on, start treatment -- and it had better be right, or if it isn't right, you'd better have a Plan B."

On a transfer call, however, the crew's main job "is to keep everything as stable as possible until they can get (the patient) to that higher level of care."

Which isn't always as easy as it sounds. Fortunately, Detroit Lakes is just 50 miles away from Fargo, where two hospitals are available that offer that higher level of emergency care. But sometimes, a transfer must be made to a facility in the Twin Cities, such as for burn victims or those suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

"For the first five years we were an advanced life support (ambulance) service, we did all the Park Rapids critical care transfers, because they were still a basic life support service," she said.

One Christmas morning, Lehrke recalled, she had the table all set for the family's big dinner, when she got a 10 a.m. call for a transfer from Detroit Lakes to Fargo -- which was followed immediately by another call for a transfer from Park Rapids to Fargo, and then another from Detroit Lakes to Fargo.

"I walked in the door (at home) at 10 p.m. that night, and the table was still set exactly as I had left it," she said.

Her family had waited for her. In many ways, Lehrke said, she feels her children have learned to be better people because they had to be so patient about her job.

"They were better able to see the bigger picture, be more selfless and empathetic toward what really matters in life," she explained.

Lehrke had to have an extremely good support network of family and friends to pick up the slack when she couldn't be there, she added. So why has she kept working in EMS for so long?

"The job satisfaction is incomparable to anything else you can do," she said. "That one-on-one patient contact... it's so rewarding, to be able to focus on that one person.

"I try to view every single person I work with as a member of my family. It doesn't matter how they came to us, but we've signed on to care for every one of them (equally)."

By asking, "What would I want for my family," Lehrke said, "that really helps you stay focused on what's important."

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454