WASHINGTON — In 1985, Richard Young climbed into an ambulance to work as a driver and stayed for 35 years.
Last week Young retired from the ambulance business after working his way up from driver to eventually owning and running his own company.
Originally from Donnellson, Young got into the ambulance business by chance. While working at a factory in Keokuk, he and co-workers went on strike over a pay raise.
“I thought ‘this is crazy’, and in that timeframe the person who was running the ambulance service asked me if I could drive,” he said.
After driving for two months, he went back to school for his emergency medical technician certification. Ten-and-half-months later, the strike ended, and Young went back to work at the factory.
The strike turned up no results, prompting Young to return to school once more and earned his paramedic license, he said. “Then I went full time on the Lee County ambulance,” he said.
Schooling for Young cost $300 for both certifications. Today, becoming an EMT has an average cost of $1,200 and a paramedic costs upward of $12,000, he said.
The transition from factory worker to attending to people on the worst day of their lives was a difficult transition at first, he said, but something told him it was the right move.
“It was something I felt like I really needed to do. I wanted to help people at their worst times,” he said.
Although many see his job as heroic, Young said he has never seen himself that way.
“I never really considered myself a hero. I was just doing a job that needed to be done and helping people, but some people will tell you different,” he said.
In Lee County, Young started out as an EMT before working his way up to paramedic, assistant director and eventually the director in 1995. That same year, he and his brothers purchased the business because the owners were looking to retire. On Oct. 1, 1999, Young made the move north and became the owner and director of Washington County Ambulance.
“I had four years experience of being an owner and director before I came up here,” he said.
Two of his brothers still run the Lee County Ambulance Service, he said. Next July Lee County will make the transition to purchase the company and make the service county-run.
The transition from driver to owner was a tricky one, he said. When he was asked to become the owner in Washington, he and his wife took a few months to think about it before saying yes.
“It wasn’t something that we did right away,” he said.
Being in the business of saving lives had days that were more difficult than others, but Young said he made it through thanks to his staff, whom he sees as family.
“In an ambulance service, the director is there to oversee. The actual people who make that ambulance service run everyday are the EMTs, paramedics and the billing staff ... Without good people like that, the service will not run,” he said.
However, after 35 years in the business, Young said the hardest day was the one he had to handle all by himself.
“The hardest part was June 30, when I took my uniform out of my office, and I got on the radio and went 10-42 final,” he said, referring to the radio code for ending a tour of service. “That was hard.”
Dispatch thanked Young for his 35 years of service before the Washington Police Department and Washington County Ambulance staff escorted him home. Normally known as the man who is calm amid the storm, Young said it set in immediately how difficult saying goodbye would be.
“It was pretty emotional and a lot of people said ‘I’ve never seen that side of you before,’” he said with a laugh. “I can’t lie, I had tears in my eyes, but if you do this for so long and put your heart and soul into it, it gets emotional.”
Throughout the course of his career, Young said he has noticed many changes, most notably with the use of equipment and technology. Now, the ambulances are much larger and with new equipment; staff are able to communicate with doctors in the ER, which has increased the survivability rate, he said.
The changes, ultimately, are what lead to his decision to retire. Reimbursement rates were continuing to drop, making the financial side of the business difficult.
“We all know if you go into EMS you’re not going to get rich,” he said. “Anybody that goes into EMS has to have a passion for it.”
With his last official day June 30, Young and his wife, Dixie, had plans to drive the Oregon Trail and find national parks but due to COVID-19, those plans will have to wait. Instead, Young is taking retirement one day at a time and getting used to the new normal of a less hectic life.
“This is the first time since 1989 that my phone is not ringing with people asking me questions,” he said with a laugh.
Yet he’s not quite done helping people.
Wednesday, his first official day of retirement, he stopped into the Washington County Ambulance Office and assisted new director, Jeremy Peck.
“I stopped by to get something, and all the ambulances were gone, and he was there by himself. A call came in, and he said, ‘What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘We’re going on this call,’” he said.