In the early 1970s, the TV show Emergency! was introducing Americans to a new kind of emergency medical care professional: paramedics. When the show started in January 1972, there were only 12 paramedics operating in all of North America. Citizens clamored for the kind of help shown in the show, which depicted what was really going on in Los Angeles County (and in early programs in Miami and Seattle — that’s right, the 12 paramedics were split across three cities!) Many big cities jumped on board with their own programs, but what of smaller towns and rural areas? In fact, they needed paramedics more, since they were usually farther from definitive hospital care. Zydlo, an emergency room doctor from Inverness, Ill., a suburban village about an hour’s drive northwest from Chicago, thought rural areas needed paramedics too. Before then, ambulance service in Illinois was typically run by funeral homes, who had nice-riding vehicles — hearses. In 1972, he created the first non-urban paramedicine program in the U.S. — pulling together local fire departments even before Chicago could get in gear — providing a model for rural emergency medicine for others to copy. It was authorized by the governor in August, 1972 — and was up and running by December.
“He was a pioneer,” says Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson. “People told him, ‘You can’t expect a firefighter to do that, you can’t depend on it.’ He said, ‘Nonsense!’ He proved the naysayers wrong.” And saved so many lives in the process, Larson says, “He was a saint, quite frankly.” And Dr. Zydlo put his time where his mouth was: he set up training for the medics, and taught many of the classes himself — and then acted as the medical director of Northwest Community Hospital’s EMS system in Arlington Heights, and the hospital’s emergency department, and kept doing it for nearly 25 years, personally training thousands of paramedics. “The system we were all operating under obviously wasn’t working,” said Larry Pairitz, Mt. Prospect’s fire chief during that time. “Nonetheless, you’d be shocked at how much opposition we ran into. What was needed to take the idea of paramedics and make it a reality was a dynamic, aggressive leader, someone who wasn’t afraid to make things happen.” No one else had stepped up, so Zydlo did. “Change is difficult, and he was talking about the revamping of a system that had been in place for years and years and years,” Mayor Larson said. “He was pushing the limits of his profession.” By the time the Emergency! TV show was canceled in 1977, there were paramedic programs operating in every state — and in several other countries — in part because Dr. Zydlo proved that small towns could have paramedics too. And it was a good thing: in 1978, he had a bad heart attack himself, and barely made it to the phone to call for help. “Those paramedics saved my life,” he said later. “There’s no doubt in my mind.” Next week, Zydlo’s son Matt will graduate from Northwest Community’s paramedic program, and will go to work at the Schiller Park Fire Department. Dr. Zydlo will miss the graduation ceremony: he died at his own hospital on June 3, at 81.