Lisa La Russo remembers watching the TV series “Emergency!” when she was 5.
The 1970s show featured two specially-trained firefighters/paramedics in Los Angeles County who went around saving lives. It wasn’t children’s entertainment but it spoke to La Russo.
“I felt really excited about what they did,” she recalls. “I wanted to be like them.”
Now a paramedic with American Medical Response in Riverside County, California, and a member of AFSCME Local 4911, La Russo has a rightful claim to be living her childhood dream. She became a paramedic by age 20 and has been saving lives for nearly 30 years, just like her two fictional heroes.
A few years ago, La Russo decided it wasn’t enough. Saving lives was great, but what if you could prevent accidents in the first place? Specifically, drowning accidents?
“Drowning is a 100-percent preventable injury or death,” she says. “That’s why I felt I could make a difference. I was really feeling a sense of frustration at how many calls we were getting for drowning and near drowning in this county, and the numbers continued to rise.”
In 2014, La Russo founded Splash Medics, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing drowning injuries and deaths by educating the public about water safety. In the last year alone, she estimates that she and her team of first-responder volunteers have reached more than 5,000 children.
The Splash Medics program targets children who are 3 to 7 years old, although parents also benefit from receiving water safety tips and information about public resources they may not even be aware of – such as free swimming lessons. With the use of a storybook that La Russo wrote called “Toby the Dolphin and Water Safety,” she and her fellow paramedics and emergency medical technicians offer children a fun educational presentation featuring a dolphin costume. It’s all about water safety, and the children learn a song and a pledge to help them remember water safety rules.
“We go to schools and we do it as an after-school program or a summer program, and we also go to fairs,” La Russo says. “We’re expanding the program in the county through fire departments. CAL FIRE, which has over 90 fire stations, just purchased 200 books. They’re taking our program to the schools.”
La Russo says she’s also received plenty of support from her union.
“Without our union, a lot of the things we’ve been able to do we wouldn’t have been able to do,” she says. “They helped us financially to get started.”
And she praises the paramedics and emergency medical technicians who volunteer their time to make the program possible.
“We have a group of very passionate and caring people,” La Russo says. “I may have started Splash Medics, but without them it wouldn’t exist.”
For her efforts in drowning prevention – as well as her success in getting county approval of a procedure called needle cricothyroidotomy – La Russo received a scholarship from the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma. She hopes it will help with her goal of taking Splash Medics statewide, then national.
La Russo is also the winner of AFSCME’s Never Quit Service Award, which recognizes public service workers who go above and beyond the call of duty.
La Russo may not have her own TV show, but in her everyday service to her community she has in many ways exceeded the exploits of the paramedic heroes who once inspired her.
“I think it’s definitely because I care,” La Russo says when asked what motivates her to go the extra mile. “I get frustrated when I feel that somebody is needlessly going to die or get injured, and there’s something that we can do to change that.”