HOPE, Ala. Valerie DeFrance, this year's National Paramedic of the Year, has personal connections to her job.
DeFrance directs emergency medical services in Hope, Alaska, a tiny community about 80 miles from Anchorage.
Volunteer paramedics like DeFrance, who grew up in and around Great Falls, respond to emergencies any time of day or night.
"There's proof positive that there are lives we've saved," said DeFrance, whose maiden name is Brandt. Hope paramedics also help prevent serious health complications for people in their area by responding quickly and efficiently.
However, there are drawbacks to answering emergency calls in a small town.
"It's very stressful to respond in that situation because you know these people," DeFrance said.
Her most difficult call "by far" came within the last year, she said in an interview while visiting Great Falls.
"I had to respond to my own husband," she said. Her spouse in Alaska, Raymond DeFrance, was battling cancer, and he suffered complications from cancer treatment that prompted a call to paramedics.
DeFrance answered the call, just like she was trained to do. Now her eyes get misty as she recalls that day.
Raymond DeFrance died in January. His wife said it was difficult to return to her job after his death.
It was a family tragedy that prompted DeFrance to enter the emergency medical field in the first place.
In 1983, her brother Bryan died after a car accident on the Hope Highway. It took more than an hour for help to arrive as an ambulance broke down on the way, and Hope had no paramedics in town.
DeFrance was convinced her brother would have had a chance to survive if he had been given prompt treatment at the scene.
Almost immediately after her brother's death, DeFrance enrolled in classes to become an emergency first-responder and began building an emergency-response team in Hope.
Eighty percent of Alaska is served by paramedics who work for free, she said. DeFrance, an EMT and paramedic, makes a living partly by teaching classes and selling advertising on her EMS Web site at www.defrance.org.
She will accept the national award, which she was chosen for by her peers, Oct. 13 during a national EMS Expo in Orlando, Fla.
DeFrance won the prize because of determination. She was teaching a class of 11 paramedic students at a school in Anchorage last year when the company that owned the school declared bankruptcy.
After school officials tried to close the school and end the paramedic class, DeFrance told the company's lawyers that her 11 students would sue them.
DeFrance says she wasn't bluffing, and the school allowed the class to continue. She and the other teachers had to work without pay to finish the school year, but the students graduated.
DeFrance was in Great Falls last week visiting her mother, Esther Neumeyer, and other relatives.
Being named the National Paramedic of the Year is fine, DeFrance said, but she laughed off the idea of appearing on talk shows and being interviewed by Jay Leno or David Letterman."It's not about me," DeFrance said. "It's about getting it done out there."