Knak has directed county’s EMS with a passion

Somebody like JoAnn Knak does not leave a job when it is time to retire at 62. She just shifts her priorities around a bit and continues to do the things that drew her to her profession in the first place.

As the director of Marion County Emergency Medical Services for the past 22 years, Knak’s last day on the job is Dec. 19.

But after retiring, she plans to take calls for the Hillsboro EMS crew, teach cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid, give talks to community and civic groups, work as an assistant coroner with the county deputy coroner and work for the state as an examiner for emergency-care candidates.

“This is just what I do,” Knak said. “I don’t know how good I am, but I enjoy it. And that’s the reason I’m not going to quit running calls, and I’m going to continue teaching. I love getting with people and teaching them how to do CPR.”

As one of eight children raised in a tenant farmer’s family in Cadams, Neb., Knak aspired to become a nurse while still in high school.

“There was no money and no scholarships, so I never got to go there,” Knak said. “I think, had I been born 30 years later, I’d be a nurse today.”

She graduated from Scandia High School in 1959. Married 27 years to husband Michael, Knak has four children ranging in age from 38 to 42.They also enjoy 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Past jobs have included employment at the former Associated Milk Producers Inc. and the former Reynold’s Aluminum plant, both in Hillsboro.

It was while working at Reynold’s that she she was told the company needed volunteers to learn first-aid.

“They came out and asked if anybody wanted to take it,” Knak said. “I said, ‘Sure.’ This kind of grew from that.”

From that moment, Knak has accumulated experience in the emergency-care field for 31 years.

The Marion County EMS organization was developed in 1972, and Knak was hired as director in 1981.

While in her mid-50s, she enrolled in Hutchinson Community College with one purpose in mind.

“I graduated with an associates degree in emergency medicine,” Knak said. “I was the oldest one in the class. So I became a paramedic in about 1995.”

Knak defines EMS as pre-hospital care of the sick and injured.

Although she lives in Hillsboro, her office is in Marion. There, she oversees about 85 EMS providers and eight emergency-unit locations throughout the county.

Those include EMS ambulance units in Marion, Hillsboro, Tampa and Peabody. She also works with first-responder units in Burns, Lincolnville, Ramona and Goessel.

Kansas law requires any person on an ambulance to be certified as a first responder, which includes 65 hours of training. But that is just the minimum-level requirement.

Technicians can also take additional hours for certification to become an Emergency Medical Technician or choose to start their training at that level.

Additional training includes certification as an Emergency Medical Technician Intermediate, an Emergency Medical Technician Defibrillation and, at the highest level, a Mobile Intensive Care Technician.

Since 1982, Knak has been teaching classes in all of those levels with the exception of the MICT classes-although she has reached that level herself.

These classes are held two evenings a week, about six or seven months out of the year.

One of her former students is Sue Wadkins of Hillsboro.

“There is no pretense about JoAnn,” Wadkins said. “She loves what she does, and she shares that optimism and that enthusiasm with her students and coworkers.”

Knak goes beyond the words on the pages of the course textbooks-she incorporates into the classroom the experiences she has gained throughout her life, Wadkins said.

“When you finish her class, you are more than prepared for the job at hand because she doesn’t just open a book. She teaches you things that aren’t in the book-it’s from the heart.”

Knak said compassion and caring for others are two emotions that are unteachable.

“They have to have that,” she said. “It has to be innate-it has to be in you to take the class.”

But one thing she has stressed during her years of teaching is a philosophy shared by all emergency-care providers.

“The credence nationwide and worldwide is to do no harm,” Knak said. “That’s the one thing we need to get across (to the students).”

A typical 40-hour week for Knak usually equates to about 50 to 60 hours on the job.

“Basically, I supervise the office staff that does all the billing, supplies and records,” Knak said. “I go to crew meetings and work with the folks out there-keeping them current with the new stuff and making sure their skills are up to date.”

In addition to teaching candidates for certification, CPR and first-aid classes, she is involved in public education and information.

“I do a lot of public speaking-going out to the Lions clubs, Kiwanis clubs and church groups-just doing programs,” Knak said.

She is also involved in several regional and statewide organizations.

Knak likens the county’s EMS program in the early years to the bedrock age portrayed in “The Flintstones” cartoon.

“When I look back at what we did in 1972, we were pretty archaic,” Knak said. “We still meant to do no harm, but the equipment and training we had was basically an advanced first-aid class. And the equipment today is so much better than what we had back then.”

The old glass intravenous bottles have been replaced by plastic bags, and technicians now have access to defibrillators on the vehicles before the patient even reaches the care facility.

Another change over the years is the introduction of the Health Information Patient Privacy Act-a law protecting patient confidentiality.

“I’ve always taught patient confidentiality,” Knak said. “You don’t run a call and then go to the coffee shop and talk about it. That’s what we have crew meetings for.”

When pressed to list her accomplishments over the years, Knak said she pushed for the introduction of defibrillators on all emergency vehicles.

“We didn’t have any of the first-responder units outlying in the county when I started,” she said.

Add to that list her involvement at the legislative level of government.

“I think I’ve had a voice in the way EMS has grown across the state,” Knak said. “I’ve gone before senate committees-testified and lobbied-for increased technology. There were a lot of things they didn’t think that pre-hospital care providers were capable of doing. We proved them otherwise-that we can, and we do, and we do it well.”

Darryl Thiesen of Goessel, an EMT/first responder for the past 11 years, will officially take over Knak’s position Dec. 20.

By mid-November, Knak said she faced the inevitability of time marching forward with mixed emotions.

“So far, I haven’t felt any twinges,” she said. “I guess I can’t give you a good answer to that until Dec. 23, when it’s Monday morning, and I don’t have to be there.”

Until then, her EMS crew surprised her with a retirement party on Nov. 15 in Hillsboro.

“I’m also going to do my own retirement party in January or February,” Knak said. “I’ll invite EMS, friends and family.”

She also plans to quilt more often, garden in her back yard, hunt fish and camp with her husband, and enjoy their shared passion of flying with Michael piloting.

Reflecting on her wish for the future of EMS, Knak said she wants to see it continue to grow in Marion County.

“I want them to grow within themselves, expand their knowledge and expand their levels of certification,” she said. “I work with the greatest people in the world. They’re 80 people who are very caring, very selfless. You can’t be on call 24/7 and not care.”

One of those people is Wadkins, who said Knak has been an inspiration to her and others.

“There’s never going to be another JoAnn,” Wadkins said. “She’s special.”

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