Laura Penatzer has spent 33 years as an emergency medical technician treating car crash victims, heart attack victims and more recently COVID-19 patients.

Love for her job and the community keep her motivated.

“I’m very lucky that I have a job and a job that I love,” said Penatzer, assistant manager and office manager for Forest Hills Area EMS in St. Michael.

“No matter where I go, I’ve been in almost every house in our coverage area,” she said. “I do love my job. Not many peopled can say that.”

It wasn’t always the case. Penatzer said she nearly quit the job not long after she began.

“When I first started in 1988, we had a vehicle accident on 219 and the lady who was ejected looked identical to my grandmother,” she said. “My grandmother was the most important person in my life. I almost didn’t stay in the job. Eventually, I got over the trauma.”

As COVID-19 continues to spread, Penatzer said many people underestimate the threat of the disease.

“Initially we all kind of thought it was in New York and wasn’t going to come here,” Penatzer said. “It’s here, and it’s going to be here for awhile.”

Staff are working overtime during the pandemic, she said.

“If we take someone to the hospital, we might have to wait an hour or more because hospitals are also short on staff,” Penatzer said. “It’s hard. We have people working extra hours.”

When COVID-19 reached Cambria County, there was uncertainty, she said.

“Sometimes you act like you’re not scared, but you are scared because the future is unknown,” Penatzer said. “There’s a lot to know.When to quarantine and for how long? When to go to work and when not to?”

A shortage of personal protection equipment was an issue early on, she said.

The crew had trouble getting sanitizing wipes, spray and masks. A Johnstown company eased the burden by donating masks.

PPE Medical Supplies, a subsidiary of Everything Ice, donated 185,000 masks – at a value of about $800,000 – to first responders in Cambria County, company leaders have said.

“We are grateful to local businesses who have donated,” said Penatzer, who also is secretary/treasurer for Summerhill Borough.

“Usually, in EMS you need to work a second job,” she said. “At times, I had a third job.”

Penatzer said one of her most difficult days was when she cared for a dying infant who was born early.

“You’re sitting there on the way to the hospital holding this child that you know isn’t going to make it,” she said. “This is an emotional job.” 

Certain memories keep her going.

One day, a transport van broke down on the Johnstown Expressway while carrying a veteran to the VA clinic in Richland Township. 

“We were returning from a call, and we stopped to see if they needed help,” Penatzer said. As they transported the man, he began singing “Tell Laura I love her.”

“He was 90-something years old, and he sung it beautifully,” she said. “We were both crying. That day a complete stranger turned my day around when nothing seemed to be going right. It’s my job, and I love it."

Patrick Buchnowski is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5061. Follow him on Twitter @PatBuchnowskiTD.

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