HELIX — Mark and Karen Woolbright tried to ignore their nerves.
As the Helix couple drove to Eugene several weeks ago to take the national exam required to certify them as emergency medical technicians, they worked to remember every piece of knowledge gleaned during a six-month course at Blue Mountain Community College.
If they passed, their little town again would have EMTs in residence. The East Umatilla County Ambulance Area Health District, based in Athena, would be able to better cover a sizable district that extends 450 square miles. Mark and Karen would keep a quick response vehicle at their home and respond to 911 calls in their part of Umatilla County.
That was the dream.
Mark, who pastors the Helix Community Church, led Sunday services the day before the test. Afterward, they headed out. As the miles blurred by, they quizzed each other.
There was a lot to know. They had attended three-hour classes twice a week and Saturday labs for two semesters. They studied 25-30 hours per week.
This isn’t the first time the Woolbrights have been study partners. Mark, 61, and Karen, 60, grew up four houses apart, married, raised five children and started careers. Mark farmed peaches, berries, pumpkins and other crops for a Sauvie Island agricultural operation. Karen did in-home day care and later worked as office manager for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. After an awakening of sorts, they decided to see where God led them and enrolled in Bible college together.
After graduating, the couple arrived at the Helix Community Church five years ago. Karen helps Mark with his ministry and works as the office manager at ODFW’s Pendleton office. Mark started volunteering with the Helix Rural Fire Protection District in 2015.
When the couple enrolled in the EMT course, church members supported the effort by providing meals each week. Since the Wednesday class fell on the same night as the church’s youth group, other leaders made sure the couple left on time.
“They shooed us out the door,” Karen said.
On the morning of the test in Eugene, Mark and Karen tamped down their butterflies. The test is adaptive, using questions from a live item pool that recalibrates depending on each answer given. When the Woolbrights finished, both believed they’d failed.
“The test blows your confidence completely,” Karen said.
“We went back to the hotel room and sat there thinking, ‘Oh, man,’” Mark said.
The next morning at 6 a.m., Mark located the results on his phone and grinned. He’d passed. He woke Karen, who fumbled for her phone, shaking as she logged on. She too had passed.
“I sat up in bed and squealed,” Karen said.
“We were on cloud nine,” Mark said.
Their journey wasn’t finished. They passed a state practical demonstration of emergency care skills. Next came a fingerprinting session. David Wernland, a Helix resident whose certification lapsed, completed the BMCC class with the Woolbrights and will join them after testing.
These days, a quick response vehicle sits in the Woolbright’s driveway. Already the pair has driven the Chevy Tahoe to several 911 calls, including a bad wreck on Highway 11, a grease burn and an atrial fibrillation. The vehicle isn’t equipped to transport patients. The idea is the quick response team can get to patients before the ambulance crew arrives and take early action.
“They can get there and tell us what we’re dealing with or call Life Flight,” said Mark Moore, administrator of the East Umatilla County Ambulance Area Health District, also known as Medic 400. “Initial care is what makes the difference. We have a fighting chance.”
He called Mark and Karen “a perfect fit.”
East Umatilla County Fire District Fire Chief Dave Baty, with which the Helix Rural Fire Protection District has an intergovernmental agreement, said the Woolbrights are especially suited to their new endeavor.
“They are both selfless individuals,” Baty said. “They are so kind. They look after people. The county is really fortunate to have them.”
The Woolbrights say they don’t worry about not knowing what to do. They have their training and they will do their best.
“It’s drilled into us that it’s not your crisis. You are going to do what you can to help,” Mark said. “We go and just do what we can. As fellow human beings, it’s our mandate.”