Experience as a 15-year-old led Baton Rouge man to career with EMS, paramedic of the year in 2016 _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Paramedic Mark Wilson has been named Baton Rouge EMS' Paramedic of the Year Wednesday morning May 25, 2016. The paramedics rescued a family from a burning home and have since developed a close and continuing bond with the family.

The first time Mark Wilson climbed into the back of an ambulance to ride along for a shift with East Baton Rouge Emergency Medical Services, he knew he’d found his calling.

Wilson, who was named Paramedic of the Year by the agency May 22, was a 15-year-old student at Glen Oaks High School when he worked that first shift. But watching the paramedics on the ambulance work with patients that night in 1986 changed his life.

“I knew immediately this is the job I wanted to do, without a doubt,” Wilson said. “Just watching those guys, seeing the things they were capable of doing to help somebody, that really got me interested. I wanted to be just like those guys.”

Wilson spent many of his weekends throughout high school riding ambulances alongside EMS paramedics.

Even before Wilson graduated high school, he’d enrolled in a course to become an emergency medical technician, missing one session to pick up his diploma.

Thousands of calls later, you can still hear that youthful enthusiasm for the job in Wilson’s voice as he speaks about his work.

The job is stressful and highly demanding, rushing to a virtual barrage of emergencies over a 12-hour shift.

Frequently, said Mike Chustz, a fellow paramedic and spokesman for EMS, paramedics barely get time to clean out the ambulance after dropping a patient off at the hospital before rushing out to save another life. Last year, East Baton Rouge EMS fielded more than 59,000 calls and took more than 35,000 people to the hospital.

But Wilson, who also helps train newly hired paramedics and works as a medic with East Baton Rouge’s SWAT teams, said the challenges of the job are what drew him back to the agency after stints with private ambulance companies and as a medic on offshore oil platforms.

But the frenetic pace of the job also means there’s rarely time to check on patients to see how they come around after dropping them off. That’s part of what made this past Christmas so special, Wilson said, when he helped organize two full carloads of presents for a family whose home was destroyed in an Oct. 4 fire on North 23rd Street.

Wilson carried a 6-year-old girl with serious injuries away from their burning apartment to his waiting ambulance. Both the girl and her mother spent several weeks in a hospital being treated.

Wilson, who, along with his wife Mona, is raising an 11-year-old daughter, Meredith, said working with young patients has become more personal since she was born.

“You immediately think of your own child in that situation,” Wilson said. “It just hits home a bit more.”

East Baton Rouge EMS also honored John Graham, an EMS communications center supervisor and 16-year veteran with the agency, as its Communications Employee of the Year.