Still helping others after 50 years, now alongside family

Dave Olssen, right, 74, helps his grandson Matthew Ivey, center, and daughter Kathee Ivey move a stretcher back into an ambulance on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, at Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad.  Olsen has been working as an EMT for over 50 years and is the only LVES founding member who still responds to calls. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Dave Olssen, right, 74, helps his grandson Matthew Ivey, center, and daughter Kathee Ivey move a stretcher back into an ambulance on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, at Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad. Olsen has been working as an EMT for over 50 years and is the only LVES founding member who still responds to calls. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Ledyard — In his nearly 30 years of riding in an ambulance, Dave Olssen has seen an awful lot. But one day in April 1998, even he was confronted with something entirely new.

Olssen and his partner Brenda Nordstrom, a relatively new medic at the time, had just completed a run and were on their way back from Rockville General Hospital in Vernon, Olssen recalled during an interview. Olssen, who sat in the passenger seat, made a few attempts to put on his glasses, struggling as he jabbed the bows into his face.

The behavior was peculiar, especially for a man who, although 58, was rarely short on the energy needed to navigate a shift as a paramedic, and was one that did not go unnoticed by Nordstrom.

She asked him if he was hungry, to which he replied, “Yes.” So, she pulled over at a nearby store with the pretense of getting cookies and something to drink.

As Nordstrom stepped out of the vehicle, though, she didn’t just get cookies. She called dispatch and asked if Olssen was a diabetic.

He wasn’t.

Nordstrom then returned to the ambulance and pulled away from the store, turning on the vehicle’s lights and sirens. Olssen asked if they had received another call.

“Yeah, a stroke,” Olssen recalled Nordstrom saying.

Over the ensuing drive, Olssen passed out, prompting Nordstrom to stop and secure him upright with a seat belt. The duo then met with another ambulance, and Olssen was transferred into the new vehicle on a stretcher as Nordstrom climbed in the back, administering treatment.

That day, April 9, 1998, Olssen suffered a stroke and was left facing a grueling road to recovery. A man who had volunteered hours upon hours attempting to help others could no longer even lift his infant granddaughter, at least for a time.

But that didn’t stop him from continuing his service to the community and volunteering to do work he loves.

Today, Olssen, 78, is the only founding member of the Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad who still responds to calls and he does it all alongside the company of family.

Sailor by day, paramedic by night

Originally from Cranston, R.I., Olssen and his wife, Joyce, moved to Ledyard 50 years ago after the birth of their daughter. The couple had met in high school, and after stints in San Diego and around the Great Lakes, they decided to buy a house in the Highlands neighborhood and make Ledyard their home.

Olssen had been a sailor for much of his life, joining the Navy after high school and beginning his career in Groton and later serving on a submarine during the Vietnam War. Olssen would go on to work in the Navy for 22 years.

Soon after moving to town, Olssen was connected with Bud Holdridge, chief of the Ledyard Fire Department at the time. Holdridge invited him to apply for a volunteer position with the fire department and it was there that he learned the local ambulance company was looking for drivers.

Olssen decided to give it a go, and then when the company offered to help him take a first aid course to move beyond being just a driver, he jumped at the chance.

“The driving’s OK, but the name of the game is to get out and help somebody,” Olssen said.

From there he continued to progress, volunteering with the company in addition to his Navy work, all while earning his certification as a CPR instructor and, in 1970, as a medical response technician.

But when the ambulance company went out of business, Olssen and a group of other like-minded volunteers decided to try something bold: starting their own ambulance service.

So in 1972, after writing their own bylaws and electing officers, a new group, Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad, or LVES, partnered with the town and assumed responsibility for local ambulance service. Olssen was elected LVES’s first director and he said that many members of the original founding group still get together today for parties. Several charter members have passed away, including June Johnson, who died last month.

As the group thrived, Olssen continued to volunteer, as did Joyce for a time. And during this same period he also saw his career change, as well. After 22 years, Olssen left the Navy and joined Electric Boat as an engineer on a tugboat. And then after 13 years working there, he worked at a casino, where he received EMT training before joining American Ambulance.

It was several years into his work at American Ambulance that Olssen suffered the stroke.

A change in attitude

Olssen’s stroke left him physically a mess. He said for a while he couldn’t even stand up and that led to some dark days.

“When I was in the hospital, I went through some very strong depression,” Olssen said. “I lost my will to live.”

But he said he had some amazing support that got him through it, mainly his wife, his daughter Kathee, and his granddaughter Meghan. They helped him persevere with recovery and the physical therapy process, and also come to what he described as a realization.

“I changed my attitude,” he said. “My attitude was I’m not going to be a burden to anyone. ... I want to get out and do what I did before."

“And I’ve done that, I can do everything I did before, just some things I have to do a little bit different,” Olssen continued.

It took him six months of physical therapy but he recovered. He then set about getting retested and recertified so he could step back into the ambulance. And after taking a driver’s test and redoing many training seminars to earn his recertification, he did just that, returning to the organization he helped start: LVES.

Olssen said his stroke also helped him in some ways become a better responder. He said that his experience has allowed him to be a more compassionate caregiver and connect more with those seeking care, even those who change their mind about wanting service once the ambulance arrives.

“If something happened to you and it upset you enough to call an ambulance, you probably need one,” Olssen said. “I’m not a doctor, but I can take you to one and that is what I think we should do.”

Olssen also said his brush with death has allowed him to connect more with calls involving suicide attempts.

“I tell them, 'Look, I’ve been where you’re going and it ain’t pretty,'” he said. “I commence with telling them what happened to me and, half the time we get to the hospital, we’re both in tears.”

A family affair

Today Olssen still volunteers with LVES, working a shift as a responder every Monday night. He had to give up the paramedic aspect because his blood pressure would get too high, but he still fills other roles within the ambulance crew.

Olssen said over the years, his motivation for volunteering with the ambulance has changed somewhat.

“I used to do it because it was fun,” he said. “It’s still fun, but I enjoy helping people and the knowledge I’ve incurred so I can be a better helper.”

Though the time he’s spent working and volunteering with ambulances has been exciting, the last several years have been particularly special because responding to calls has become a family affair.

The current Monday night crew at LVES spans three generations: Dave Olssen, his daughter Kathee and his grandson Matthew. Not only that, but his granddaughter Meghan actually was on the crew in years prior before the demands of her college coursework pulled her away.

Olssen said on one of Meghan’s earliest calls, she ended up helping someone deliver a baby.

Almost 50 years in, Olssen has no desire to slow down.

“I enjoy what I do, and as long as I enjoy what I do and can keep doing it, I’m going to do it,” Olssen said. “To be successful in life you have to be happy with what you’re doing, so that’s what I do.”

c.clark@theday.com

Dave Olssen, center, 74, helps his daughter Kathee Ivey, left, and grandson Matthew Ivey, right, change the sheets on a stretcher on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, at Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad.  Olsen has been working as an EMT for over 50 years and is the only LVES founding member who still responds to calls. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Dave Olssen, center, 74, helps his daughter Kathee Ivey, left, and grandson Matthew Ivey, right, change the sheets on a stretcher on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, at Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad. Olsen has been working as an EMT for over 50 years and is the only LVES founding member who still responds to calls. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Dave Olssen, 74, pauses while checking an ambulance on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, at Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad.  His grandson Matthew Ivey is at right.  Olsen has been working as an EMT for over 50 years and is the only LVES founding member who still responds to calls. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Dave Olssen, 74, pauses while checking an ambulance on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, at Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad. His grandson Matthew Ivey is at right. Olsen has been working as an EMT for over 50 years and is the only LVES founding member who still responds to calls. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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