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In more than 25 years of emergency medical services work, Denise “Dee” Wooley has seen it all.
“Train wrecks, plane crashes, decapitations, hangings, shootings, auto accidents,” says Dee, a Frankfort paramedic and firefighter.
“The saddest are the infant and children deaths. Suicides from gunshot wounds are very awkward and messy.
“You don’t ever get immune to it. You just deal with it. A lot of times you come back to the station and talk to the guys you work with because they’re your family. That’s our therapy. That’s how we vent. That way you don’t take it home with you.”
The toughest part of the job is “losing somebody, doing all you can do and not being able to bring them back for their loved ones,” she says.
“If I have to work a cardiac arrest and I’m in the back of the ambulance all the way to the hospital trying to save someone and can’t do it, that’s a bad day.”
In the late 1970s, Dee was an energetic, enthusiastic bench warmer on the first Taylor County High School girls’ basketball team to make the Sweet 16.
The Lady Cardinals lost their opening game in the state tournament, but Dee has fond memories of being a substitute guard.
Now as a 47-year-old sergeant for Frankfort Fire & EMS, Dee still sits patiently on the sideline at times waiting for the next emergency call.
When it comes, she’s a team leader ready to help save a life or house – any way to assist.
“Dee is probably the most dedicated and enthusiastic employee we have,” says Fire Chief Wallace Possich. “She exudes energy and a positive attitude. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her when she wasn’t in a good, upbeat mood.”
Dee says it’s easy to be positive when you love your job.
She works a 24-hour shift and then is off for two days before returning to Station 3 on the Louisville Road. She says a number of nursing homes and health care centers in the area make it one of Frankfort’s busiest stations.
“I love the everyday activities, the training we get, the camaraderie,” says Dee, a 5-foot-4 dark-complected woman with brown eyes and short salt-and-pepper hair.
“I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and I’m so excited I get to come back to work. I’ve been away from the guys for two days and they’re probably thankful.
“I enjoy getting to hear the stories of what they did on their two days off. That helps build the bond. They’re my second family because a third of my life is spent with these guys.”
Last week on a quiet, rainy Wednesday afternoon at Station 3 while waiting for the next emergency call, Dee sat in an office reading “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.”
It’s about a hiker’s journey from Georgia to Maine. The 1994 “Wyatt Earp” movie starring Kevin Costner was on TV.
Firefighter Nathan Wade, while checking an online schedule of firefighter training classes, said, “Dee in a nutshell is a barrel of fun. She helps the day go by. Even on rainy days, she’ll paddle just as hard as we do.
“She can hang with us and she snores like a pug.”
Sitting at another computer, Bill Sutton, a firefighter and paramedic, said Dee “is a motivator. When training needs to be done, she’s on top of it.”
Nathan and Bill also agree Dee can make excellent no-bake chocolate oatmeal cookies.
Hearing their compliment inspired Dee to take a reading break. She got up, went to the kitchen. Soon there was a stack of perfect-looking cookies for the evening dessert.
“If I don’t put them up, they’ll be gone before supper,” she said, smiling.
In high school Dee didn’t want to go to college but knew she wanted to work in emergency services. One morning while driving to school, she came upon a bloody wreck. She then realized she liked helping people in need.
“A guy in an old truck had gone through the windshield and had real bad head and facial lacerations,” Dee recalls. “I had an extra shirt in my car and took it and placed it around his cuts and applied pressure until the ambulance got there.
“I knew how to apply pressure to stop the bleeding from a first-aid class I had taken from our health and physical education teacher. He survived and I liked what I was able to do to make a difference for him and I knew then that was a career I wanted to get into.”
Seeing someone with severe injuries didn’t made her sick, “and it never has,” she says.
She graduated from TCHS in Campbellsville in 1980 and says it took four years to find an emergency medical services job “because it was such a male-dominant field. It was almost unheard of for women to be working in pre-hospital care services.”
Dee heard Green County needed an ambulance driver. She applied and got the job.
“All that was required at the time was to be certified in CPR with the condition that you became an EMT within a year of that appointment. I went to school and became an EMT. It took less than three months to get it then. I was the only female in their service at that time.”
While an EMT, a lot of her friends worked for fire departments and encouraged her to consider it. In 1990 she started as a volunteer firefighter in Knifley in rural Adair County.
She became a paramedic in 1991 and in 1999 started at Montgomery County Fire & EMS. Frankfort Fire & EMS hired her on Valentine’s Day 2001.
“I was the first female paramedic at the Frankfort Fire Department,” she says. “The department was established in 1895, and in 2004 I became the first female promoted to sergeant.”
She says the goal for everybody she works with “is to come in for 24 hours and for everybody to go home at the end of our shift.”
In a recent ceremony at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., 103 names were added to the casualty list.
“That’s how many in 2008 didn’t get to go home at the end of their shift,” Dee says. “Every year it’s running about a hundred. That’s what we thrive on now, the training and safety to make sure everybody goes home. That’s a big responsibility.”
Dee teaches a paramedic class and is a certified fire instructor. She’s also a fitness trainer and administers the Candidate Physical Ability Test for the state Fire Commission throughout Kentucky.
Earlier this year Dee received the Veterans of Foreign Wars Public Service Award for Paramedic of the Year in Frankfort and at the state level.
She says in her career she’s never had a dramatic rescue that “earned me a key to a city.” But she’s enjoyed being a team player on numerous emergency runs and showing a compassionate heart for those who are suffering and needing professional medical care.
Throughout her career she’s kept a scrapbook on newspaper clippings and photos documenting new jobs and promotions and training sessions and all the good and horrible that comes with the job.
“In over 20 years I’ve received three thank-you cards from all the people I’ve taken care of,” she says.
“We’re not in the business for the thank-yous, and don’t expect them. But when you get one, it’s like, wow, put it in the scrapbook.”
A resident of Winchester, Dee spends much of her time off from work hiking the Smokies with friends, training to run 5Ks and mini-marathons, bicycling, and riding her Honda motorcycle.
“Frankfort Faces” is a series that highlights people from within the Frankfort and Franklin County community. Each feature follows one of the city’s most unique personalities and includes a story, photos and video, which can be found by clicking the TV icon attached to the story online at state-journal.com.