“How long have you been on the job?” someone shouts at Terry Raappana during a ceremony honouring his final shift as a paramedic in Vancouver on Tuesday night.
“Just under 46 years,” Raappana replied outside the paramedic station on East Cordova Street.
“You’re not that bright, are you?”
The joke was an example of the kind of humour shared by first responders and the kind of respect that colleagues have for Raappana, who another colleague referred to as their “Papa Smurf.”
Since 1975, Raappana has worked as a paramedic in Vancouver’s downtown and the Downtown Eastside.
In a profession where burnout is a growing concern, colleagues say Raappana’s longevity working on the front lines, much of it in one of the poorest postal codes in B.C., is nothing short of remarkable.
During a ceremony outside the station on Tuesday night, Raappana was referred to as “our life preserver,” a person others could lean on in a job that is trying at the best of times.
“He could probably run circles around some of our youngest paramedics,” said James Towle, interim director for BC Emergency Health Services.
“He’s always got everything positive to say. It doesn’t matter how busy the paramedic service is — which it is busy on a constant basis — he’s always got that upbeat personality and that then transfers over to the crew members to make them have a better day when it could be a little bit of a bleak day for them.”
Raappana’s gift for telling storytelling has helped many of his partners get through some of those long days and nights.
One story he recounts often is from his first year on the job when a young girl was struck by a car. He said first responders did everything they could to save her, but she succumbed to her injuries. More than four decades later, the details of that day are still vivid in his mind.
“It’s the most important story to me — a lovely child, somebody’s daughter hit by a car,” he said. “We did the best we could for her and we were unsuccessful. That stimulates you to want to do more, to do better, to encourage people to do more, to do better.”
Towle said that drive for improvement stayed with Raappana, who believes no detail is too small.
“I used to call him the Memo King,” Towle said. “If there was anything that needed an explanation, Terry would ensure that there would be a memo about that and it would be peppered all over the station. If you ever had a concern, if you ever had a question, he would talk your ear off for an hour so that you understood it, and then there would be a memo about that.”
Now, after nearly 46 years on the job, Raappana is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life and feels confident that the future of his profession, which is facing challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic and B.C.’s overdose crisis, is in good hands.
“There’s always a time in everyone’s life when it’s time to go. This time it’s mine,” he said. “There’s a whole vast generation of young people — great minds, great hopes, great aspirations. They will take on this career and they will do a good job.”