Oak Lake: A town of paramedic excellence

Mom, two sons, and friend all receive awards

Four EMS (Emergency Medical Service) professionals from Oak Lake have been honoured for their years of service as paramedics – a combined total of 110 years. And three of those recipients are from the same family.

Judy Podobni, her sons Morgan and Logan Podobni, and family friend Louise Stitt all received Exemplary Service Awards last week in a ceremony at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg.

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Stitt received her 40-year bar, Judy Podobni her 30-year bar, and her sons each got their 20-year medals. Mike Wiens, another Oak Lake paramedic, received his 20-year recognition last year.

So why are so many residents of this town of 400 involved in the health and helping professions? Census data from 2016 shows about ten per cent of the town’s working population is in a health-related job compared to seven per cent in Virden and five per cent in Elkhorn.

Stitt: 40 years

As a young woman, Louise Stitt did clerical work at a Winnipeg hospital where she saw the paramedics coming and going. She decided to try it, even though there were no women paramedics in the city at that time.

“I was my dad’s firstborn son! I never let gender stand in my way. I realized I had the stomach and the interest to do the job so I applied and six months later started training.”

On the job, she says, it felt like she was being watched by everyone: coworkers, managers, and the rest of the medical community including her own EMS partner.

“I know he had questions like: Can you lift? Can you be an effective partner? Can you handle the emotional side of the job?”

She could.

Now, more than four decades later, Stitt has left the front lines and is the EMS director for Prairie Mountain Health (PMH) at its Souris office.

Along her career path, she met Judy Podobni, became friends and then partners in the Meandher Creek Pumpkin Patch, which is how Stitt came to settle in Oak Lake.   

Of her friend and colleague, Podobni says, “Louise was the person I looked up to when I was getting into this business.

“She inspired all of us to believe that rural EMS could be every bit as good as that in the city.”

The Podobni effect

Judy Podobni moved to Oak Lake in ’85 to run the gas station with her husband. At that time, Oak Lake Ambulance was a volunteer gig and they always needed warm bodies. She was invited to sign up.

The pay was more like a token gesture: $5 for a trip to Virden, $10 to Brandon and $20 to Winnipeg, paid out annually at the Christmas party. She joined anyway.

“I had recently taken a first aid course,” she says, “And my only knowledge of what an ambulance did was from watching the TV show Emergency from the ‘70s, but it looked interesting and so I joined.”

Her two young sons were watching her closely as they grew. When they reached Grade 12, both Logan and Morgan took the Emergency Medical Responder course offered in Oak Lake and eventually became paramedics.

Logan even married a paramedic. Although he’s no longer on the ambulance, he still works in EMS managing the IT department at the Manitoba Telecommunications dispatch centre.

Judy’s younger son Morgan is still an Oak Lake paramedic, often working alongside Judy who picks up ambulance shifts when she isn’t busy with her regular job as an EMS training officer for Prairie Mountain Health.

She says mother and son have had some amazing experiences on the job together, including delivering three babies. She calls her work “a privilege”.

“I’ve stayed in the business for 33 years because I enjoy the work and feel that it’s a privilege to be allowed to care for people and families, sometimes making a difference in their outcomes, and sometimes just being there to let them know they are not alone during the worst day of their lives.”

The award

The EMS Exemplary Service medal recognizes paramedics who have given commendable service - good conduct, hard work and efficiency - for at least 20 years.

The awards were presented Nov. 21 to 22 Manitoba recipients at the legislature by Health, Seniors and Active Living Minister Cameron Friesen.

“I’m proud that we’re able to recognize the high standards of work, sacrifices and good conduct of these hard-working professionals who give their all to save others.”

© Virden Empire-Advance