Mike Smith’s job was saving lives.
But after a heart attack Oct. 13 he lost his.
Smith, a longtime paramedic instructor at Tacoma Community College, died at Tacoma General Hospital. The University Place man was 60. Survivors include his wife, Sylvia, two daughters and a granddaughter.
Smith was widely involved in the emergency medical services industry in the United States and Canada, teaching classes, speaking at conferences and writing for EMS World magazine.
Of the approximately 500 people who attended his funeral Oct. 21, more than 250 were uniformed firefighters and paramedics, many of whom he had trained.
He was “one of the most charismatic people you’ll ever meet,” said Nancy Perry, editor of EMS World magazine. “He could strike up a conversation with anyone, and within a few minutes, he’d make people feel like they were really special.”
For Lynn Klein, a retired British Columbia Ambulance Services superintendent of media and public relations and a close family friend, what stood out most about Smith was the way he took an interest in who you were as a person.
“If you hadn’t seen Michael for a year, it was almost the same as if you just saw him yesterday,” Klein said.
Born Dec. 9, 1952, in Alabama, Smith grew up on Chicago’s South Side and studied at Ohio State University. In 1977, after working briefly as a volunteer firefighter in Harvey, Ill., he was hired by the local fire department and later became one of the first paramedics in the country.
“He learned how to take a hose down a hallway filled with fire and smoke and also how important it was to hold the hand of a frail patient dying of cancer on their last ambulance ride to the hospital,” John Sinclair, fire chief of Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue, wrote in a tribute to Smith in JEMS magazine. A close personal friend of Smith, Sinclair was a speaker at Smith’s funeral.
In 1981, the family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where Smith took a job with the state’s EMS division. The next year he became an instructor for the first paramedic class at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, where he worked for six years.
The family moved a final time in 1988 when TCC offered Smith a job as director for the Emergency Medical & Health Services program. At the time of his death, he was the chairman of the paramedic program at TCC.
Smith was a man of big passions, said Russ McCallion, assistant chief at East Pierce Fire & Rescue. He said Smith loved bonsai trees, Japanese teapots, and rock and roll music.
“He was an incredible fisherman, but unfortunately could get seasick just by looking at a glass of water,” McCallion said.
Still, Smith was nothing if not persistent. Born and bred in the Chicago area, he insisted on wearing his full Cubs regalia to Seattle Mariners games — a sight to behold as Smith was a man of large stature as well as personality.
“It was funny to watch all the eyes in the stadium turn to him,” McCallion said.
In the EMS industry, Smith’s philosophy of “people care” set him apart, his colleagues say.
The approach stresses that paramedics deal with people, not just patients, and emphasizes the importance of human kindness, McCallion said. Examples are always calling patients by their names, or noticing a detail about someone – an unusual piece of jewelry, a photo of grandchildren, veteran memorabilia — and asking about it, said Perry of EMS World magazine.
“When they’re in the back of that ambulance, it’s the worst day of their life for them, and paramedics can go above and beyond to show that they actually do care,” she said.
McCallion recalled one instance several years ago when Smith was driving an older patient home and she asked for a hamburger and a milkshake. Smith had his partner pull over, went out and bought the woman a full meal with his own money. The company later reprimanded him.
McCallion said this incident was a tribute to Smith’s personality.
“If he thought he was right, he would never back down,” he said.