"Our town needed better access to medical care."
Photos by Megan Monday
Ruth Ann | Hixton, WI
“I grew up in Hixton, Wisconsin, on my parents’ farm. My sister and brother are 20 and 21 years older than me.
Because my parents were older by the time they had me, my mom and dad always felt that I didn’t get the best of everything. But I never, ever felt that way. They instilled in me many qualities, like the importance of church and spiritualism. Being raised on our farm also taught me about the care of animals, the love of animals, and how they give back to you.
If an animal got hurt, hungry, or sick, I was the first to figure out what to do to help it. If a stray animal came by, I insisted that we needed to take care of it. My dad was like that, too. His cows were also his kids. I think that’s probably where my love of helping came from. It’s just something that’s in the Thompson family.
We lived on a very small farm, around 20 dairy cows that my dad milked. It was hard work, especially at my parents' age. But they just kept plugging along until I graduated from Chippewa Valley Tech. By that time, they were about 67, so then they retired and really enjoyed their lives after that.
They stayed on the farm for a while, but our big, sprawling lawn and garden were too much for them to care for, so they moved to a senior citizen apartment in Hixton, which was the best thing ever. They enjoyed life so much at that apartment.
But they were also getting older and their health deteriorated a bit. While they were living in those senior apartments, my mom had a stroke. Not knowing what to do, my dad called me first. I was the one who called the ambulance. It had to come all the way from Black River Falls, and that takes at least 15 minutes.
When I got there, I knew what was happening, and I knew my mom needed care right away. My dad, he needed support, too, because he didn’t know what to do. The ambulance was still far off. In that moment I thought, my mom, my dad—and the rest of our town—need faster medical care.”
“When my mom had her second stroke, it was much more severe. Time was critical. If we had caught the stroke early enough and got her proper care fast, there is a chance my mom may not have suffered some of the losses that she did, like paralysis.
That’s when I knew for sure that we just had to have something different. I had read about volunteer first responders in other cities, that come before the ambulances and stabilize patients and support the families.
If Hixton had first responders, they would have been there within minutes. That would have gotten care to my mother more quickly, but also would have been so much help for my dad, who didn’t know what do and could have really used the support, as well.
I wasn’t quite sure where to start in getting a group of first responders together. But I went to our local fire department to talk to them about the idea. At first I met some opposition, not because they didn’t like the idea, but because they were worried about liability. 'What is the liability when you go out to help these people?'
Then I went to each of our town meetings—the town of Curran, the town of Hixton, the town of Northfield, and the Village of Hixton—and explained to all of them how important this was. I needed their backing. Again, I met a lot of concern about liability.
One of the towns said, ‘Well, we’re not going to pay for you to help people on the interstate,’ and I said, ‘What? We should be helping anyone that would come into our community. Why wouldn’t you want to help someone, even if it was on the interstate?’
It took a lot of convincing, but finally the village president of Hixton stepped up and said, ‘We need this service. Our village is going to sponsor you.’ I still had to work on the funding part, but we finally had the sponsorship we needed from the local government to pursue this idea. He was absolutely wonderful and helped us all that he could. If we needed something, he would be the one to sign the paper and encouraged the other town boards to back us.”
"With support behind the idea, I met with people from the technical college to see what we, as first responders, needed for education and what we would be able to do to help. I found out we all needed to take a course to get certified.
Next I needed to find volunteers. I had to look for a certain type of person who cares about people and understands children and seniors, who could work with a very large selection of people.
Then I had to ask the volunteers if they could possibly afford to pay for the course on their own. That was probably the worst part of the whole thing, because it was a lot to ask. The good share of us paid for our own class, but there were a couple that just couldn’t afford it, so I went to a couple of businesses in Hixton and those businesses sponsored those volunteers.
There were about 12 of us. We worked hard, we worked long, we practiced and practiced, and tested and tested, until finally all of us were certified first responders.
It was coming together, but there was still a lot of work to do. Our community began to pitch in. The fire department donated refurbished pagers, some local businesses donated the funds for our medical kits and the telephone company stepped up and gave us one of their older vehicles so we could have a first responder van.”
"When we first started 30 years ago, communication was different. I had a pager and a radio and someone clear on the other side of town had a pager and a radio. We had a call tree set up, so if I got a call for first responders on the pager, I would call a certain person, who would, in turn, call the next person. Everyone is notified, but nobody is required to go.
For our first call, we had every first responder show up except one. The only one who couldn’t show up was part of a husband and wife team. They were both volunteers, but one of them had to stay home with their young kids. The rest of us were all there. It was just awesome to see a huge, wonderful team excited to get together to help people.
The one call I remember the most from the past 30 years was for a rollover on the interstate. There were three young guys. One—my patient—was in the third seat of an old station-wagon-type vehicle who was sleeping when the crash happened. Something came off the car and went through each side of the top of his nose. He was pretty shook up, because he was asleep one moment and then all of a sudden he was upside-down in this car and hurt.
That’s when I learned not to keep the stethoscope around your neck, because he grabbed hold of that and wouldn’t let me go; he was so frightened. I rode with him in the ambulance all the way to the hospital with him holding onto my stethoscope, comforting him. Fortunately it was all repairable damage and all of the lucky young men survived.
The dad of that young man came back to Hixton and went around to different businesses asking who that gal was that took care of his son. He wanted to say thanks. That was just remarkable.
Part of me was scared to start this service. You have so many people say, ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ But you learn what you need to do to help, and you do it. It makes a huge difference in how you feel about putting yourself in those life and death situations where you can really make a difference. All you do is go and do what you need to do. You don’t even think twice about it.”
“Our volunteer-run first responder group has been going for over 30 years now. A lot of people have worked really hard on this. Our community is what made it possible. Our community just came together so well, and that was the foundation for building this group.
At one point we needed to replace our older first responder vehicle that was donated by the telephone company. We put one of those thermometers that tracks donations up on the main street of town and told people to contribute if they could spare anything. The response was just awesome. The thermometer went up and up and up until we finally had enough money to buy a brand-new first responder van.
We’re only a village of about 300 people, but it’s remarkable how well we support each other.
Another example is from when we used to have an elementary school here in town. I remember whenever we had a Christmas program, even though there were only about 100 kids, there was standing room only in the gym. The whole town was there. Everybody just loved the kids and supported them so much, whether they were family or not.
The people here come together if there’s a tragedy or a celebration. As first responders, we’ve seen a lot of both. One day we got a page that there was a woman in labor coming into Hixton that didn’t think she’d be able to make it to Black River, which is 10 more miles. So we were all paged and were all on our way, but by the time we got there, the baby was already born and so we cared for the mother. Even last fall there was a baby delivered in the back of a van, at about 10:30 at night. Beautiful moments to offset the more trying calls.
You get really close with your first responder friends, as I like to call them. You save people together...and you watch other people that die. You help your friends and your community through struggles. We didn’t always get along; that would be a lie if I said that. Everybody has their own ideas, and everybody, including people who have no idea what they are talking about, can give you a lot of advice. But usually you can take one good thing out of something and put them all together, and I think that’s what we have to do.
Today, we still have a group of about 12, between ages 18 and 71. My husband just retired and he’s 72. I’m 65 now, and I’m looking forward to seeing the younger ones step up to the plate. It’s time to pass the torch.”
-Ruth Ann | Hixton, WI