BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- It didn't take long for paramedic Bernadette Handel to fall in love with Bridgeport.
Handel, a 48-year-old Greenwich resident, joined American Medical Response ambulance service nearly 10 years ago after a ride-along.
"I loved it and I've been here ever since," she said recently, seated on a couch in the AMR Bridgeport operations center on Connecticut Avenue. "The people I met, they really made an impact on me."
But Handel has shown love for people a lot farther from her hometown than Bridgeport. Two years ago, prompted by friends in a Greenwich church, Handel began volunteering at medical clinics in the West African nation of Senegal. People come to the clinic from miles away because the nearest hospital is a great distance, she said. She travels there two or three times a year, where French is the primary language.
Handel's work treating the Senegalese, and the professionalism and dedication to patient care she demonstrates on the job for AMR recently earned her the Star of Life award from the American Ambulance Association, the highest award presented to medics.
She went to Washington, D.C., to receive the award with other 99 other winners.
Handel, the mother of four, doesn't balk at a challenge.
The Greenwich native started her family after a stint in the U.S. Marines from 1979 to 1981. She home-schooled her children for six years until she returned to work. Her children now range in age from 27 to 16 years old.
She also joined the American Red Cross, which led her to take classes in emergency medicine. She started with AMR as an emergencymedical technician, and after two years of classes, became a paramedic.
Handel recently reminisced on her life's journey from Marine to mother to teacher to lifesaver to award winner.
Q. How do you feel about getting the Star of Life award?
A. "The highest praise one can receive is recognition from your peers. I am honored they nominated me for Star of Life. I was delighted to represent my company."
Q. What is working in Senegal like?
A. "We set up big, gigantic tents. We have dentists, we have doctors. It's hard. You work from morning until night."
Q. How do the very sick get to the clinics?
A. "We could treat up to 500 people in one day in the tent clinics. Family members carry family members to see us."
Q. What kinds of medical problems are common in Senegal?
A. "Eye problems, malnutrition, malaria, parasites. Ultimately, we need a permanent clinic."
Q. What's your goal over there?
A. "For me, I want to build this clinic. I eventually want to work in Africa. Those kids need a clinic. It's going to be education-based.
"In seven to 10 days [after seeing patients], I want to see results. I want home visits with patients."
Q. What kinds of calls do you get in the greater Bridgeport area?
A. "Car accidents are very common, and falls. We're consistently busy."
Q. Has there been a call that you remember the most?
A. "When you see a child die, that stays with you."
Q. What are your goals on a call?
A. "Protect the airway, keep your heart going, [work within] 'The Golden Hour.' We want that to be one hour [to the emergency room] at best."
Q. Did you envision doing a different job at this point in your life?
A. "I had never thought of it. I was a mom. I was married."
Q. You said earlier that French is the primary language in Senegal. Do you speak it?
A. "I'm learning this summer."
Bernadette Handel of Greenwich, a paramedic at American Medical Response in Bridgeport, has been awarded the Star of Life for her work in setting up medical clinics in Senegal, Africa.