Victoria Dantin recalls the day she was in the cafeteria as a student at Southeastern Louisiana University and knew she needed a change.

It was a morning near the end of the semester in her second year. At that point she realized college “wasn’t for me.” She acted quickly, looking up how to be a paramedic that day. It was that emergency medical response class she took in high school that stayed with ever since, and it gave her a solid start to pursue the career.

It was the right move. On Thursday, she was named Acadian Ambulance’s 2022 Paramedic of the Year.

“I wanted to help people and I knew I always wanted to be in the medical field,” said Dantin, who is stationed in Donaldsonville. “I love working out here in my little small community because I get to know a lot of my patients. I’ve treated them, their families, their kids. I’ve delivered a lot of babies, so I know a lot of them personally.”

Dantin was honored along with Maddie Clesi, who was named EMT of the Year, during the company’s annual luncheon at The Cajundome. Both were chosen out of 32 paramedics and EMTs across the company’s four-state service area.

Clesi, also a medic in the Louisiana National Guard, said she first got interested in the field as a child during Hurricane Katrina. She moved to Baton Rouge about three years ago from New Orleans and joined Acadian after getting her EMT certification in the military.

“I remember Hurricane Katrina and I remember seeing EMTs, paramedics and the National Guard people,” said Clesi, who is studying to become a paramedic. “I was in first grade, but it still stuck out to me. I was terrified at the moment because the water was rising, but I really respected what they do. I grew up and was like, ‘I want to do that. I want to help people.'”

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The event also ushered in 50 years of Acadian Ambulance in the company’s first in-person banquet since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Acadian began operations on Sept. 1, 1971, with two ambulances and eight medics covering 279 square miles in Lafayette Parish.

At the time, Richard Zuschlag, Richard Sturlese and Roland Dugas recognized a need for an ambulance service because new federal regulations had forced funeral homes to stop providing ambulance transportation. Fifty years later, the company that remains headquartered in Lafayette has 5,300 employees, 3,200 medics, 12 million patients transported over those 50 years and 4.2 million miles driven each year, spokesperson Randall Mann said.

“I’ve enjoyed looking back at our first 50 years and continue to be amazed and humbled by what we’ve achieved together,” said Zuschlag, now Acadian’s CEO and chairman. “I can tell you 50 years ago my co-founders and I never had any idea that Acadian would grow into what it has today. This past year was busy and exciting over all of Acadian’s divisions.”

The growth is evident as the company hopes to add 1,000 EMTs and paramedics by the end of the year, said Zuschlag, who made a plea for those in the audience ask family members, friends and neighbors consider a career in the emergency medical services.

The company has also grown into several divisions over those years, including Air Med, Total Security, the EMS Academy, air charter and safety management systems. Yet the name has also become synonymous with the Acadiana region, said David Begnaud, the CBS News correspondent and Lafayette native who served as keynote speaker on Thursday.

“With Acadian, it feels personal to me,” he said. “To me, the company bears the name of our region. It belongs to us, is what someone said to me.

“If someone were to ask, just one logo, one thing to describe Acadiana, I would show them that flag that’s on an Acadian Ambulance unit. Because for me, it’s such a reminder of home.”

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