‘No two days are the same,’ says Lake Villa woman who trains paramedics in McHenry and Lake counties

Elizabeth Depouw, second from left, the EMS manager at Northwestern Medicine, poses with firefighters and emergency medical technicians at the Spring Grove Fire Department, where she taught a session about dealing with sepsis on March 28, 2024.

Elizabeth DePouw’s destiny to work in health care and with paramedics likely was determined at a very early age. Her father was among the first paramedics in Illinois, where he volunteered for the rescue squad in Lake Villa.

“My fondest memories of my youth are in the rescue squad,” said DePouw, who still lives in Lake Villa. “My father took us to the rescue squad, called the barn. We would get to see the ambulances. They had pop in the fridge. I think my passion started that way.”

DePouw is one of six siblings and one of three who landed careers in health care; her two brothers became firefighter/paramedics. She has been a licensed pre-hospital registered nurse for 30 years. The license also required her to do the same training that paramedics do. She worked as a nurse at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, mostly in the emergency department, before switching roles in 2009 to work as the hospital’s emergency medical services associate coordinator.

“We used to top each other’s [work-related] stories at Thanksgiving,” she said.

As an emergency room nurse, she said, “You never knew what was coming through the door, and you had to be ready for it all.”

DePouw recalled experiences on the job as a nurse, including one quick-thinking, adrenaline-filled response to save the life of a child who had been attacked by a pit bull, then having to switch hats from saving his life to being a counselor. She held his parents’ hands and remained calm, assuring them that he was going to be OK.

DePouw recalled being alone with an elderly woman who died while holding her hand. The woman’s daughter, who could not be there in that moment, told DePouw that she was happy her mother did not die alone.

She also recalled delivering a baby in the back of a car, which was a fun and happy moment. But she was present for many deaths, too, including children, which were hard to overcome.

DePouw struggled in nursing school, often wondering, “‘Am I going to do like my brothers or my dad?’ That was always nagging in my mind. I loved being a nurse, and I loved helping people,” she said.

Health care and careers helping others is in the family’s blood, even in-laws and nieces who are nurses and nephews who work as firefighters.

“I found my place, found my home, found a place where you can instantly help people. I was able to connect with people quickly and assess and meet their needs and be that person for them,” she said of her nursing years. “You saw a lot of the good, the bad and the ugly. Just holding someone’s hand on the worst day of their life, that compassion, empathy. A lot of times those patients didn’t know your name, but they know how you made them feel.”

Those years working as a clinical nurse in the emergency department and EMS at Good Shepherd, she said, influence her current job as the McHenry County and Western Lake County EMS system coordinator for Northwestern Medicine. She took on the job in 2022.

DePouw uses all of her experiences – including her training in ambulances that help her to better understand what paramedics do before a patient gets to the emergency department – to train and educate firefighter/paramedics throughout McHenry and Lake counties.

She teaches high standards and best practices in all areas of medical emergencies, from what to do in the first moments of a stroke or cardiac arrest to mass shootings, quickly clearing airways, addressing sepsis and assessing mental health.

She makes sure paramedics “remain sharp” in their lifesaving skills, she said.

Spring Grove Battalion Chief John Rice said paramedics work “as a team” with hospitals. They are the first contact with a person who needs help. In her monthly trainings, DePouw “goes by the book, and she goes by the rules – this way, there is no misinterpretation.”

She prepares paramedics to be ready for any scenario in any conditions and able to provide that important initial patient care, Rice said.

“She is like a conductor,” Rice said. “She puts us all together and gets us on the same page. … She makes sure we are educated [and] brought up to date on current standards so when care is turned over to the hospital, it is just continuance and there is no delay in care.”

Raquel Schomer of Island Lake met DePouw while working as a firefighter/paramedic with the Wauconda Fire District.

Schomer, now retired from Wauconda, a captain at Nunda Rural Fire Protection District and an active firefighter/paramedic, said the “best thing” about DePouw is that DePouw also has been trained as a paramedic.

“[DePouw’s] is always a popular class,” she said. “When someone knows Beth is teaching, people go out of their way to go where she is teaching.”

DePouw makes her lessons “very easy to understand,” Schomer said.

“She is engaging, she asks questions – most of all, she encourages our knowledge,” Schomer said. “She is very positive in her execution as an instructor.”

DePouw said she has “the best job in the whole world.”

She conducts training sessions 22 times a month among 13 fire stations for hundreds of firefighter/paramedics.

Although she said she misses working as a nurse at times, she is committed to her role. She is at a “different level” in life now and knows in this role that she can “effect change.” She also has a passion for teaching, she said.

“I get to make a difference in the community,” DePouw said. “EMS has a direct impact on people providing care and comfort. We have a variety of challenges. No two days are the same. Being a part of an EMS system offers a unique blend and makes a tangible difference in the lives of others.”