For 27 years, Doug Benson has gone to work each day not knowing what to expect.
"You could be up on a mountain in the morning and delivering a baby in the afternoon," he said of his career as a paramedic with the Salt Lake County Fire Department.Benson, 60, who retired last week, was honored for his service by Salt Lake County commissioners Wednesday morning. He is the last of the county's original nine paramedics sent to California to train in 1973.
"Back then nobody knew anything about paramedics, except from the TV show `Emergency,' " said Benson, who met the TV heroes John Gage and Roy Desoto while training in California.
But taking the paramedic's job from TV to reality in the Salt Lake Valley was an uphill road to travel, Benson said. Many area doctors didn't feel comfortable allowing a handful of cross-trained fire-fighters to treat patients who had sometimes life-threatening injuries.
"By doing it right and handling the situations well, Doug was instrumental in setting the stage to be accepted by the medical community," said Salt Lake County Fire Assistant Chief Dave Limberg, himself one of the original nine.
Benson seemed to have a real knack for paramedic work, said Limberg, who was Benson's partner at the Millcreek fire station for about two years.
"He was very cool under fire. He had a good recall of drug dosages, protocol, he could easily start an IV or intubate a patient. He
knew how things worked," Limberg aid.
And Benson had the personality to go with the job, he added.
"He's a level-headed guy. A very intelligent person. Not loud or flamboyant. He doesn't push his weight around. He's quick on his feet when things are out of control. He always complemented the team very well and could pick up the slack if you were having an off day," Limberg said.
Benson is quick to brush off the compliments, although he admitted that during paramedic training his instructors called him "a natural."
"I just kind of took to it," he said. "I realized that you're doing something for the person that they can't do for themselves. To be of service to people."
That desire to help is what has kept Benson doing the paramedic job instead of seeking promotions and climbing the management ladder in the department.
"I had opportunities, but I dreaded the possibility of promotion. I didn't want to get away from being a paramedic," he said. "It's a unique calling. But I was never really attracted to the lights and sirens part of it. I like going home and feeling like I did something worthwhile today."
Over the years, Benson has had plenty of opportunities to feel good about his daily contributions. Get him talking and you'll find the stories are better than anything created for television paramedics.
There was the woman who everyone thought had committed suicide. Lying in a ditch, dressed in her Sunday best, she held a pistol in her right hand and had a bullet hole above her right ear.
"All of a sudden she opened her eyes and asked `Am I dead?' I assured her she was not and she said `Rats. I just can't do anything right.' The bullet had bounced off her skull," Benson said.
Then there was the time Benson stumbled onto a crying and trembling man with a shotgun, who had intended to kill himself. Benson talked to him gently and took the gun away.
"Then it was my turn to cry and shake," he said.
Or the woman who gave birth in the bathtub.
Benson responded to the call the night his own father, a West Jordan mink rancher, had a heart attack and died.
"We couldn't save him, but I was happy to be the one who responded," he said.
But there were also happier endings, luckier nights, he said. The night Benson's uncle had a heart attack, they saved him. And a teenage girl once brought her birthday cake to the Millcreek station to share it with Benson and thank him for having saved her from choking 16 years before.
On his last shift as a paramedic, Benson came to the rescue of a young boy who fell out of a tree, dislocating his shoulder.
"The hardest part has been working with little kids who are severely injured or die. Especially when they were about the age of my own children," Benson said.
But despite his storied career and fine reputation among his peers, Benson has also been called a liar.
On a psychological evaluation conducted to measure burnout among paramedics, Benson scored so low a psychologist thought he had cheated.
"I've got to hand it to him. There's a large burnout factor to the job," said Limberg. "But he's always seemed to be challenged and rewarded by the job."
In retirement, Benson's challenge will be building and flying his own experimental airplane. A pilot since the age of about 15, Benson once flew planes for the U.S. Forest Service before getting behind the wheel of an ambulance.
"I'm looking forward to being able to do something I haven't been able to while I've been working," he said.
But he will miss the sirens, the lights and the people.
"I will miss the camaraderie and the good people of the fire department. We have a lot of them," he said. "You know, everybody talks about looking forward to retirement, but I didn't anticipate how difficult it would be."