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  • Writer's pictureThis Is Rutherford

This is Catherine O'Keefe

By Jennifer Ersalesi

At a young age, Catherine O'Keefe discovered that she wanted to help others. After being inspired by some pivotal experiences, Catherine made the decision to join the Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps forty years ago and believes it was one of the best decisions she ever made. This is Rutherford interviewed Catherine about the recognition she received at the Annual First-Aid Ambulance Corps Awards Dinner this month and her life as an EMT.

TIR: Recently, you were awarded a Certificate of Achievement for forty years of service with the Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps. Congratulations! How did you feel receiving this Award?

Catherine O'Keefe: It was nice to be recognized for my forty years of service. It’s hard to believe I’ve been volunteering that many years. I am also honored to have the most years on the ambulance squad among women in our organization.

TIR: Throughout your life, what inspired you on your journey to become an EMT?

CO: When I was 10 years old, my family was visiting our close family friends who we referred to as aunt and uncle. My brother and I were left with our uncle when our mom and aunt went out. There was a motorcycle accident in front of the house. My brother and I watched from the window while my uncle who was a NY State EMT got ready to get out to the accident. We saw the rider lying in the road and people standing around him, but nobody seemed to be helping him. My uncle went out and immediately knelt beside the rider and started helping him. This was my moment of inspiration. I didn’t want to be one of the people standing around not knowing what to do. I wanted to be the one who knew how to help. Five years later, at Girl Scout Camp Glen Spey, I met some guys who were part of a Boy Scout Explorer Post with a First-Aid/Rescue focus. They encouraged me to join their post and had me take a first-aid class. Coincidently, the class was being taught by Rutherford EMS’s current Captain Mike Tarantino. Some of the other people in the class were already members of Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corp. and they suggested I join. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It has been such a rewarding experience I have remained for 40 years!

I didn’t want to be one of the people standing around not knowing what to do. I wanted to be the one who knew how to help.

"Catherine is a professional and an asset to the squad. She is always willing to help and she is a friend," explained Rutherford EMS Captain Mike Tarantino.

Patrick O'Keefe and in the background Catherine O'Keefe, 2000. Photo credit: Erin Moran

TIR: So far, what has been the most rewarding part of being an EMT?

CO: For me being able to help people in their time of need is what has been the most rewarding. I have been on calls where we have welcomed new lives into the world and others where lives have ended. Of course, we always want the best outcome for our patients but that is not always in our power. But either way our patients and their families are generally so appreciative that we were there to help.

Samantha Hiller, Catherine O'Keefe, and Michelle Korosy

Catherine's longtime friend, Samantha Hiller, told TIR, "The one adjective I can think of to describe my friend Catherine is extraordinary. Her love of this community, her family and friends, is evident in her 40 years as a first responder, and in the way she lives her life. It’s just in her nature to jump into action, on the job, on call, or to a friend in need. She has set an example for us all. I am honored to call her my friend."

TIR: What are some of the positions you have held on the Board of the Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps?

CO: I have served as Training Officer, Recording Secretary, Treasurer, Vice President, and President. I am currently a Trustee which is a three-year term that I have held for many years.

TIR: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a Board Member and EMT?

CO: As Trustees, we are responsible for protecting the assets of the organization so that we can continue to pay for both the supplies needed daily and equipment and ambulances that will be used for years. This is challenging because we are funded almost exclusively through donations, and equipment can be very expensive. A new ambulance for example can cost around $300,000. Sometimes what is most challenging about being an EMT is just finding the time in your schedule to meet the monthly hours. When I first joined, I was only in high school and that might not seem like a challenging time but with other extracurricular activities and a part time job it was an adjustment. Other challenging periods over the last 40 years were semesters when I was working full time while also having a full-time college course load and those years when my children were babies.

Net Day, RHS, 1997. Photo credit: George Magdich

"For the eighteen years that I’ve known Catherine, she has always been committed to the town of Rutherford on many different levels. From RCDN to PTAs to Project Graduation to Rutherford Irish-American Association to the Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps just to name a few, she has always had a devotion to helping others and getting people to see why Rutherford is such a wonderful community to put down roots and stay a while. Catherine is that familiar face at Rutherford events. If she’s not volunteering her time she is there showing her support, especially if there are dogs (Catherine volunteers at the rabies clinics) or cute babies involved especially at the 4th of July Parade and Ragamuffin Parade," explained Catherine's friend Joanna D’Avanzo.

TIR: After forty years, what are some of the significant changes you have seen?

CO: Some of the most significant changes I have seen are our uniforms, equipment, and training. When I first joined the ambulance squad, part of the women’s uniform was a short skirt. Luckily, we transitioned away from these quickly after. Now we have the same fuller coverage uniforms for men and women. Now, we also use other personal protective equipment on every call, compared with the past when we only had medical gloves in our emergency OB kit. It’s hard to imagine now that in the past we could come into contact with other people’s blood. In the past, we were dispatched to calls over a Plectron Radio. Then we had pagers, but now in addition to walkie talkies, there is an app that lets us know where our services are needed. Finally, our training has become much longer and more advanced. I was initially trained in the New Jersey State First Aid Council 5 Point Program which was Advanced First Aid, CPR, Extrication, Defensive Driving and Emergency Childbirth. Then in 1983, I became an EMT and recently completed the required 48 CEU refresher program for the 11th time! Even the initial EMT course is different now at approximately 200 hours its about twice as many hours as when I first took it.

Michelle Korosy, another friend of Catherine, told TIR, "Catherine is the ONE that you call when you really need help with something important, she will literally drop everything and race to your house. But the thing is, she doesn’t just do that for her friends, she literally does it for strangers, in the market, at a theme park while on vacation and of course, every day as an EMT, truly dedicated to helping people."

"I’ve known Catherine, most, if not my entire, life. She’s been a dedicated EMT for our organization and someone I call a friend and mentor!" explained fellow Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps EMT, Jen Capoano.

TIR: Would you encourage others to become EMT’s?

CO: Yes, because being an EMT is rewarding. I would encourage others to become an EMT if that is something they want to do. However, we also have members at Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps, like my daughter Kerry, who are not EMTs but are able to help the organization in other ways.

Patrick, Catherine, Kerry, and Brian O'Keefe

"When I was a kid I was super interested in what my parents were doing when they were taking medical calls. I remember always asking about the calls when I would get home from school. When I started with the EMS my mom was out with an injury so I did the first six months before I took a call with her. When I finally took a call with my mom I was just trying to call her Catherine, but inevitably I called her mom. It made for an interesting moment when the patient found out we were a mother and son crew. I am very proud of my mother. I believe she is a former Corps President and is one of the only female members with forty years of service," Patrick O’Keefe told TIR.

TIR: Your husband, Brian O'Keefe, and son, Patrick O'Keefe, are both EMT’s and your daughter Kerry is involved in the organization as well. How does it feel to work together to give back to your community in such an amazing way?

CO: Both of our children have grown up witnessing volunteering as part of our lives. The importance of serving the community has been instilled in them and they each joined the organization without any additional encouragement from us. Patrick has been an asset to the organization and was honored by the Mayor and Council last year as Volunteer of the Year in recognition of his efforts during the height of the pandemic. Patrick has also been selected as Rutherford Irish American Association’s 2023 EMT of the year. I am very proud of my family for our shared efforts giving back to the community.

At the end of 2023 the O’Keefe family will have collectively served Rutherford First-Aid Ambulance Corps for a total of 99 years!
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