Ambulance crew pays it forward, inspires wave of giving

Members (left to right) of the Gaylord, Comfrey and Sanborn ambulance crews with their pay it forward ambulances. Credit: Mark Griffith.
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GAYLORD, Minn. - A decision by a rural Minnesota ambulance crew to pay it forward has sent ripples across three counties and 60 miles of cornfields.

What started with one donated ambulance in Gaylord, has resulted in upgraded ambulances for three departments.

“It’s very incredible how this how came along,” said Emerson Busse, a first responder from Sanborn.

Sanborn’s good fortune – like Gaylord’s and Comfrey’s - started when Fred Pitzner, a childless retired farmer, died and willed the Gaylord EMS crew enough money to buy a new ambulance costing nearly $200,000.

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But Pitzner’s generosity also left Gaylord with a question: What to do with its old ambulance? Selling or trading in the ambulance were both options, but Gaylord EMS president Tom Webster had another idea.

“I remember him coming to me at my job, giddy,” recalls Amy Hahn, a member of the ambulance crew.  Hahn says Webster said to her, “’We got this gift and wouldn’t it be awesome if we could pay it forward somehow?’”

Not long after Webster placed a call to the first responders in Comfrey, offering up the 17-year-old Gaylord ambulance as a replacement for Comfrey’s 27-year-old model.

Paula Barnes, a Comfrey first responder, took Webster’s call. “He wanted to pay it forward. Tears just started running down my face,” says Barnes as she wipes away another.

Raw emotions cannot just be attributed to the gift. For July of last year – not long after the phone call - Webster was struck and killed by a gravel truck while riding his bike on a city street in Gaylord.

The death sent shockwaves through both the Gaylord and Comfrey departments.

“We couldn’t believe it when we had heard it,” said Barnes.

First responders from as far as 50 miles away made the trip to Gaylord to help staff the EMS station, so Gaylord’s ambulance crew could grieve.

“Our family covered for us,” said Gaylord ambulance crew member Mark Brandt, holding back his own tears.

That same feeling of family among the rescue community would also compel Comfrey’s first responders to pay it forward themselves.

Since they were getting an upgraded ambulance from Gaylord, they decided to donate their old ambulance to Sanborn.

But what town would want a 27-year-old ambulance?

A town that’s never had one.

“We were using our personal vehicles,” explains Busse.  

It’s true. For years, Sanborn’s first responders have been driving to medical emergencies and traffic accidents in their personal cars with flashers on and a “ditch bag” of medical supplies in their trunks.

“Other people look at it as, ‘Oh, that’s kind of an old rig,’ but to us that means everything,” said Tara Roiger, a first responder from Sanborn.

Comfrey’s first responders sensed Comfrey’s appreciation – and then some.

“You’ve never seen a happier group,” said Comfrey first responder Amber Thom. “I mean they loved the buttons and everything. They had the lights going, the sirens going.”

The great ambulance exchange took place earlier this month.

“Everybody gave each other hugs when we left,” said Roiger.

“A lot of tears,” added Diane Arnsdorf.  “I think it’s just the feeling of giving.”

Pitzner’s nephew, Steve Pitzner, believes both his uncle and Wagner would be pleased.

“They’re high-fiving together right now,” he said.

All this generosity because of Fred Pitzner and Tom Webster started – and how they inspired everyone else not to stop.