He would have been at his own going away party Wednesday, but an urgent call came in and Mike Giesalhart headed out to help.
An emergency medical technician in El Campo for the last 33 years, helping isn’t just what he does, it’s who he is, or at least was until Wednesday.
“This was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Giesalhart said of his retirement.
An El Campo native, Giesalhart started work with the local EMS department on Sept. 15, 1986, hired by the now late Herman Novak, a man later inducted into the Texas EMS Hall of Fame.
Giesalhart was a trained EMT then, working with others at the basic care level for years until the early 1990s when a change in administration brought about advanced care.
He soon became an intermediate EMT and then a paramedic.
“I’ve always been partial to here. This is my home. It’s the driving reason I’ve been here so long,” he said.
There’s too many people, too many calls during the morning, the day, the dead of night to have a highlight memory, he said. The job has been about service.
“There have been thousands (of people), (calls) every day,” he said, adding that he hears from many. “People call me all the time. People here know me. Respect me. I treat them all the same. I treat them with respect. That’s why it’s so difficult to make the decision to leave.”
Mandy Stancik Stary saw the city’s announcement of his retirement. Posting on the EMS social media page, she said, “You are truly the best of the best in your field! I always knew my loved ones were in good hands when you would arrive.”
Over the decades of service he worked with a group of men and women who dedicated their lives to serving the El Campo community. Just between Giesalhart and fellow El Campo paramedics Ben Altenhoff and Jimmy George Jr., for example, there’s 129 years of service to the community.
He also worked with Jack Roberts, Robert Moore, Steve Appling and Mark Appling, all men who served the community for decades. They lived the department’s motto, “We’re There Because We Care,” answering calls when necessary whether that was on duty, during the middle of a family supper or the dead of night on their day off.
“I’m not here for the paycheck. I’m here for the people whether it’s my co-workers or patients,” Giesalhart said.
Giesalhart learned his trade and then, following in the footsteps of Novak, he began teaching the skills to others.
“I’ve gotten a lot of praise from people saying I’ve helped them, EMTs and paramedics, saying that I inspired them and taught them so much,” Giesalhart said.
The men and women who staff ambulances see horrors all to often. The collision of two vehicles can leave drivers and passengers broken and torn. An accident at a job site can have horrible consequences. Time and disease can devastate a person.
“The bad ones you try to forget,” he said, adding it’s the way EMS crews deal with the trauma. “Your brain just doesn’t want to keep it in.”
Fellow firefighter and EMT Greg Hodges recalled a responding to a wreck call with Giesalhart where an injured woman had been sub-merged under water inside her overturned car.
“We got her out and Mike started CPR and mouth to mouth. We did not think she would survive, but he would not stop working on her. That was the first time I ever watched someone being brought back to life,” he said.
Hodges worked with Giesalhart for 16 years. “I could go on and on about some of the things he’s done for so many people,” Hodges said. “El Campo was blessed to have him.”
Giesalhart, along with then El Campo EMTs Teresa Treybig and Steven Weinheimer, took an El Campo ambulance to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
They worked seven days straight trying to help those who chose to stay in that city and weather the storm.
“Those were the hardest seven days I ever had. It was constant. We never took a break. I can’t think about it. I can’t talk about it,” he said Thursday.
Interviewed shortly after returning to El Campo in 2005, he was asked if, now knowing what it was like, he would ever do something like that again. His answer was a definite yes.
Instead of focusing on the calls, Giesalhart prefers to remember the efforts to share his knowledge and skills.
He’s known for being the guy who keeps his head no matter what.
“He is probably the one person I would say is the most calm and cool (while on a scene),” Altenhoff said, while presenting Giesalhart with the 2013 EMT of the Year award.
Coming from a medical background helps.
His mother Verda Lee, who now lives in the Bastrop area, was a nurse at Nightingale Hospital who specialized in child delivery. If you were born there prior to the hospital’s closure in 1980, there’s a decent chance she may have helped with the delivery.
His father Roy, who died in 1997, served as a firefighter.
“I try to stay in control as much as I can, to not let it get to me,” Giesalhart said, pointing out the patient is depending on the EMT to take care of them, not wallow in their own feelings.
His parents’ service, Giesalhart said, inspired his.
“It’s in the blood,” he said, adding his brother served in the Bastrop Fire Department, rising to chief. His sister works in a veterinarian clinic.
Since 1986, Giesalhart has worked under a number of EMS directors locally, several in a short period of time when the department fell into turmoil after the retirement of Steve Appling. He was the director briefly serving as interim when asked to help.
Giesalhart spent decades working along some of the men and women whose lives are intertwined between EMS service, volunteering for the fire department and community activities. They’re coworkers, they’re family.
“Of course, when I started, we were all in the volunteer fire department to. But then most everybody used to live here.”
That’s not the case now, many of the department’s EMTs commute in and then leave when a shift is done. Staff turnover is higher too, a lifetime dedication to one department doesn’t tend to happen when a worker doesn’t live in the community they serve.
Giesalhart’s wife Darlene is on staff at El Campo EMS. The two worked his final shift, a 36-hour one, together. He headed for the house around 8 p.m. Wednesday, done with his last shift.
“I’m not going to lie, I cried,” Darlene Giesalhart said.
Mike Giesalhart said he’s still debating what’s next. He’s 60 years old. He’s served the public, taught his fellow EMTs almost his entire life.
“This is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It’s been a long thought process,” he said Thursday after finally getting just a bit of sleep.
Who knows what happens next.