A somber ceremony was held in Tofino last week to honour Jo-Ann Fuller and Ivan Polivka, the beloved West Coast paramedics who died in a tragic ambulance crash on Hwy. 4 ten years ago.
Fuller and Polivka had transported a patient from Tofino to Port Alberni on Oct. 19, 2010, and were on their way home when they lost control of their ambulance and crashed down a cliff into Kennedy Lake.
“I worked personally with Ivan and Jo-Ann for many years and I can honestly say I loved every minute of it,” Tofino’s acting mayor Dan Law said during the last week’s ceremony, held outside Tofino’s BC Ambulance station on Oct. 19. “Jo-Ann and Ivan were exemplary people, interesting and exemplary. They loved this community, they loved their profession and they really cared about their colleagues and that showed in everything that they did…Many people here on the West Coast owe their lives to Jo-Ann and Ivan.”
The small ceremony was hosted by Ambulance Paramedics of BC and attended by family, friends and local paramedics, as well as representatives from BC Emergency Health Services and the Provincial Health Service Authority.
“To the Fuller and Polivka families, our hearts remain with you as they were 10 years ago and they continue to be with you always,” said Ambulance Paramedics of BC President Troy Clifford. “We will never forget our fallen and the joy and smiles they brought to everyone that they touched…They were always there to care. We’re here again to honour them today.”
He explained the two paramedics had a combined 37 years of dedicated service to the West Coast.
“Jo-Ann was a paramedic, a unit chief, she was a mentor and a leader in her field. On the flip side, she was quite the fisherwoman and a gourmet cook. She had a love of travel and books and was so many things but, above all, she was a wife, a sister, a mother and a grandmother. Her family said at the time that she was the glue that bound them all together,” he said. “Ivan was a paramedic and colleague who was a mentor and a friend to so many in this community. He had a gift of the arts with his carvings, photography and poetry. He liked to hunt and fish and was an activist and an environmentalist. He was a husband, brother, father and a grandfather. His family remembers him as a strong man with a gentle touch.”
During the ceremony, a monument was unveiled to commemorate Fuller and Polivka, which will be placed at a dedicated roadside rest area near Kennedy Lake once the ongoing Hwy. 4 construction is complete.
“As we mark the tenth anniversary of their death, we remember our fallen colleagues fondly and reflect on the commitment of paramedics across the province. By their very nature, paramedics are driven to help others. They help us in our darkest hour, showing compassion when we’re sick and scared and comfort our loved ones when we can’t be there,” said BCEHS Chief Operating Officer Darlene MacKinnon. “Today, with the unveiling of the monument to Jo-Ann and Ivan, we’re reminded of the sacrifices that paramedics make every day in carrying out their duties. As an organization, we remain committed to continual improvement to ensure the work of paramedics is safe, as safe as it possibly can be.”
Clifford said that many paramedics “cannot help but become overwhelmed with emotion,” when they drive past Kennedy Lake.
“Almost every paramedic that travels that road has, at one point or another, stopped and paid their respects in some way. They’ve sat and looked out at the lake and talked to them, sharing a story, a laugh and a few tears,” he said. “Soon we will have a permanent spot to honour them and allow us to pay tribute to Ivan and JoAnn.”
He added that the accident prompted a hard look at ambulance protocols.
“I believe our profession has learned from this tragedy. It has forced us to look at how we do our business. It has changed our practices and continued to shape how we deliver patient care and safety. In my mind, it likely has saved some paramedics lives,” he said.
Acting Deputy Chief Bruce Patterson said he was “shocked” by the tragedy.
“As paramedics, we are used to seeing tragedies happen daily in the lives of our patients. Frequently, we visit them on the worst day of their life, their families are affected and we are affected. We are used to seeing it in patients, we are not used to seeing it in our brothers and sisters who are on duty,” he said.
He said he had known Fuller and Polivka as work colleagues during his time as the unit chief of Port Alberni’s Ambulance Station where they would often come to chat.
“What I remember is her warm smile, friendly disposition and especially her caring attitude. Very professional and very dedicated, but her number one priority was her family. She was a new grandmother, her grandchild was only a few months old and I’ll tell you every time she came by, the first thing I saw was a picture of the grandson because she was so proud of that young man,” he said of Fuller.
He added that Polivka was nearing retirement after an exceptional career.
“What I remember about Ivan is his keen sense of humour and never seeming to be overwhelmed by things, he just took it all in stride, very calm, very collected, no matter how challenging the situation was,” he said. “The tragedy with Ivan was that he was basically retired. He was just marking a few months before he left the ambulance service to go up north, to go into the Yukon and was going to live peacefully in nature in his retirement.”
He suggested several internal policies and procedures were changed after the accident to increase safety of paramedics.
“Tragedies like what happened to Ivan and Jo-Ann are truly meaningless if no lessons can be learned and no positive changes result. There’s a huge hole left in this community with the passing of two key members of the ambulance service,” he said. “As a result of this crash, a much needed spotlight was shone on Tofino and other small communities and highlighted the needs that are unique to towns that are isolated.”
Canadian Paramedic Memorial Foundation president Tom Zanak said 50 Canadian paramedics have died on the job since 1980.
“This monument might have Jo-Ann and Ivan’s name on it but, in a way, it has a little piece of all of us on it. But for a change in fate or fortune, this could have been any one of us. This memorial serves as a reminder of the risks we take everyday,” he said.
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