By Scott Tedrick
Walk down main street Granite Falls under more inviting weather conditions and chances are good that you’ll cross paths with an individual who is either alive, or functioning at a higher capacity, because of the direct or indirect impact of Granite Falls Ambulance Director Gene Hughes.
“That’s something you can say without a doubt,” said ACMC Family Physician, Dr. Art Rillo. “You can probably walk downtown and see quite a few. Really, it’s hard to explain just how much impact he had, but he was a real difference maker.”
The news that the thirteen-year Granite Falls Ambulance Director succumbed to a heart attack while vacationing in Mexico hit the area health community hard this past week. The 64-year-old Hughes, is recognized as the guiding force behind the ambulance’s transformation from a 6-8 member volunteer Basic Life Support (BLS) crew, to a 40 member Advanced Life Support (ALS) service viewed as one of the most cohesive and best, if not the best, small ambulance squads in the state.
Hughes meets a need
It was just over a decade ago that an initiative to upgrade local ambulance capabilities paved the way for Hughes’ arrival in the community. At the time, Hospital Administrator and CEO George Gerlach, recalled how Dr. Rillo and fellow Family Physician Dr. Darrell Carter were heavily advocating for improved pre-hospital care in spite of recommendations of the hospital’s former management company.
“Our advice from Allina Health Systems was that we shouldn’t do it because we wouldn’t have the volume to maintain the skills of paramedics,” said Gerlach. “Then in 2000 we left the corporation and became independent and the push to upgrade the service was even greater.”
Hospital adminstration would interview a number of candidates before coming to Hughes, who arrived with a significant degree of praise from Rillo. It was during a prior working relationship — where Interestingly, Dr. Rillo’s wife, Billie, was a paramedic student under Hughes, and Hughes’ wife, Cindi, was a nurse under Dr. Rillo–– that Rillo said he was able to witness the impact Hughes had on the transformation of North Dakota Ambulance service and so knew he had the capacity io achieve desired local outcomes.
With a contagious passion for his work and a long list of certifications and skills, ” He was the leader we were looking for,” said Gerlach. ”We wanted him to bolster the ambulance service and, if he could, to bring it from Basic Life Support to Advanced Life Support, and from my perspective he not only met but far exceeded what I expected him to do. Just consider, we were a small volunteer service of 6-8 EMTs and now we’re operating four rigs with paramedics cross-trained as Registered Nurses (RNs) and RNs that have crossed trained as paramedics, and then we’ve also added the Special Transportation Service (STS) besides.
According to Rillo, the volunteer, BLS ambulance offered prior to Hughes’ time essentially limited crew member responsibilities to just the pick up and drop off of patients. ALS certification, on the other hand, equips squads with the tool sand training necessary to begin administering care procedures immediately.
In a world where mere minutes can be the difference between life and death, this change in approach is hugely important. And Hughes set the tone in terms of attitude and work ethic inspiring success in all department members enabled only through their whole-hearted buy-in.
He meant everything
Appointed Interim Ambulance Director in the wake of his death, Jana Berends is able to offer insight attesting to Hughes’ impact from the rare perspective of somebody who has been there since before he arrived.
“Honestly he meant everything to this department,” she said. “When he came here we were a BLS service and he took us from the point where we were at––when we thought we knew and were doing everything we could––and brought us to the level it’s at today.”
Berends said it was at the urging of Hughes that she would make the years of commitment necessary to achieve her own accreditations, first, as a paramedic and, later, as a nurse, so to further develop her abilities to meet patient needs.
“Gene was a father figure to most of us, especially those who have been here for a really long time,” she said. “He saw potential in each and every one of us and he pushed hard and drove hard, he was always adding one more thing.
“That was the expectation, she continued––that we take care of every patient like they’re our own.”
Beyond the individual motivation, Berends, Rillo and Gerlach all echoed one another in recognizing Hughes’ impact on the cohesion of the Granite Falls health services as a whole.
“There are a lot of hospitals where there is a turf line drawn: “this is hospital care and this is pre-hospital care, and we keep those two separate,” Rillo explained. ”Here it has gotten to the point where the pre-hospital crew and our ambulance crew work with our nursing crew and it works out very well–and it should.”
Previously unthinkable, it is this spirit of cooperation and mutual support that Berends said the Granite Falls Ambulance hopes to tap as they come to terms with having to move forward without Hughes as the tone setter and torchbearer for the ambulances ascension.
“Our ambulance service is such a tight-knit group that he has shaped and molded with bonds built to carry us through this year and the years to follow,” said Berends. “Gene would want this to be bigger and better because, again, it’s never enough. We need to do more and learn more and work with our doctors more and continue to build and strengthen those relationships that he has worked so hard to build.”
If there’s a silver lining, it is that Hughes did have the time to make establish a legacy that will go on serving the community well after his passing. And even though he wasn’t able to realize every components of his vision––for instance his most recent effort raising funds for a new ambulance garage to adequately house personnel and equipment––others, who have come to hold a reverence and passion for the vision Hughes laid the foundation for, will see it through.
“Leaders don’t make better followers,” said Berends. “Leaders make leaders. And that’s what he did with us.”