When Susan Bailey recently received a letter from the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, she assumed it was a membership invoice, set it aside and went about some household chores.

Bailey, a captain and paramedic instructor at East Baton Rouge Parish’s Emergency Medical Services for the past 14 years, was shocked when, hours later, she finally did open the letter congratulating her for winning a national award as Paramedic of the Year.

“It was unbelievable — I didn’t know I was even nominated,” Bailey, 48, said with a big smile. “It’s humbling — unbelievable.”

Bailey will receive her award at the association’s annual meeting on Nov. 10, in Nashville, Tennessee, one of only five awards nationally, and hers is the top prize, according to the association.

She became a paramedic, she said, because she wanted to help people but didn’t want to be a nurse.

“If you are interested in helping people, then this is the job for you,” Bailey said, advising young people who express interest in the career.

Her first job, after graduating from Grant High School in 1984, was as an accountant at an Alexandria newspaper. She became a “basic” emergency medical technician in 1990 at her former husband’s behest. Six months later, after taking 240 hours of further training, she became an “intermediate” EMT and finally a fully certified paramedic in 1992.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would have done this straight out of high school,” she said.

Bailey’s first few years were serving in rural Concordia Parish responding to car wrecks, farm accidents, and transporting people to and from hospitals. She even responded to three crop-duster airplane crashes.

The job is strenuous and stressful, she said. Many times, people are so distressed they don’t even thank those who help them. But when they do, it’s memorable.

“The first time it happened was in Concordia Parish when a little girl fell in Lake St. John, and when we got her to the hospital, she got her pulse back,” Bailey said. “Her grandpa was like, ‘We wouldn’t be this far if it wasn’t for you.’ It makes you feel good. All the other (stuff) we go through makes it worth it.”

In her current position, Bailey teaches classes, focuses on quality “patient care” and reviews procedures to make the often complicated process more workable for the medics in the field. She also spends a lot of time working with lawmakers and officials to raise their awareness of how vital emergency services are.

“We had a (state) senator say once, all we did was drive ambulances,” Bailey said with exasperation. “For the same reason you don’t call a nurse a bed-pan pusher, you don’t call a paramedic an ambulance driver. We’d have a lot more people dying if we were just ambulance drivers.”

“As a profession that is only 48 years old, we’re still trying to earn our place — get some respect — in the health care profession, and I want to be the person who moves that forward on both the state level and the national level,” she said. “I want the state regulating agencies, the nursing homes, the hospital administrators, to appreciate us as much now as they do when we are having a hurricane.”

Bailey agrees with the public awareness campaign, “Stay Alive — Don’t Drive,” encouraging people to dial 911 instead of trying to get to the hospital on their own.

“If someone is having a heart attack, we can start treatment as soon as we walk in the door, and the whole time we are going to the hospital, they are receiving treatment,” Bailey said. “We are mobile intensive care units.”

EMS spokesman Mike Chustz said the agency is one of the few in the nation where only paramedics are in the ambulances, meaning it is two certification steps above basic EMTs. The service employs 170 paramedics, and a dozen ambulances are available at all times from a dozen stations responding to an annual average of 50,000 911 calls.

Bailey was nominated by Evon Smith, president of the Louisiana Association of Nationally Registered EMTs, who wrote, “Susan works tirelessly to promote the EMS profession. She loves being a paramedic and she loves the profession.”

“Susan is one of the most talented and gifted paramedics on our team,” said Arthur J. Lewis II, EMS training director and Bailey’s supervisor. “She has a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of experience that you just can’t find anywhere. We’re very proud of her.”

Bailey earned a bachelor’s degree in management from Southeastern University, graduating magna cum laude in 2013, while still working full time at EMS. She said she couldn’t have succeeded without the support of Brian Bailey, her husband of six years. She also thanks the national association, the Louisiana association and its president, Evon Smith, EMS and Lewis.