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‘Our stories were in parallel’: Father, daughter bond over love for emergency medicine

EMT Alex Michalak reflects on her father’s “support in the purest form” and how his EMS journey inspired her own

When Alexandra Michalak was 6 years old, her family cat caught and killed a chipmunk in the backyard. Together with her dad, Dan Michalak, she dissected the animal, igniting the spark for a future steeped in medical care.

“We took [the chipmunk] apart and looked at his nasal cavity and opened up his abdomen and looked at what was going on there,” Dan said. “She was just fascinated with that.”

So was he. Originally working as an industrial designer on projects like the Oscar Meyer Lunchables packaging and later in the financial services sector, Dan made the jump to a career in emergency medicine as an EMT-B nearly a decade ago. He now serves as a critical care paramedic with Superior Ambulance and exclusively supports ground and air operations for the Advocate Children Hospital’s flight team.

“I really didn’t have the time or the resources to pursue becoming a medical doctor, but becoming a paramedic seemed like I’d have an opportunity to actually do some intubations and learn some skills; really make a difference,” Dan said. “That’s what motivated me.”

It motivated Alex, too. She was in high school when her dad earned his certification, and witnessed his passion for the career field grow, along with her own.

“[My dad] would come home with all these really interesting stories of what he was learning and what he was doing when he was out on his ride time and what he was exposed to, and I always found it super interesting,” she said. “I discovered that love for medicine and it was something that we really were able to bond over, and so I kind of went in a similar path.”

After high school, Alex studied neuroscience at Loyola University Chicago and recently began a physician’s assistant program. To earn paid patient hours for the program’s application, Alex earned her EMT certification and joined her dad at Superior Ambulance.

“Our stories were kind of in parallel,” she said. “We were able to connect and bond over similar and shared experiences, first being in a similar field, then as an EMT, then as an EMT at the same company and eventually together on the rig.”

This also offered Alex the opportunity to see a different side of her father – a once-in-a-lifetime experience that had a profound impact on her.

“It wasn’t a typical father-daughter relationship in the sense that we were able to work in a professional environment together in a very unique experience,” she said. “It’s a unique environment in general, but to then work with someone who I am so close to outside of those situations, it was comforting.”

And inspiring: “I saw a different side of him that I don’t normally see at home or growing up. It was a beautiful side because it was a side that is just so vulnerable and compassionate to strangers. That is amazing to witness.”

On the other side, as a parent, Dan was moved by the additional milestones he was able to witness Alex meet.

“All the firsts that I experienced with my kids – first steps, first words, the first time they looked at me; what an amazing gift,” he said. “And then I got a chance to see her and be in the ambulance when she had her first lights and siren call – we call that an Emergency 1. I had the good fortune of being part of that.”

It was a memorable moment for Alex, as well.

“It felt like a significant experience for me and to be able to experience that with him was just as significant,” she said.

‘A journey that we’ve been on together’

With a catch in her voice, Alex reflected on her dad’s influence on her life and career,

“It’s hard to even remember all the ways he’s shaped the journey I’m on, just because it’s been so foundational for me,” she said. “Even now, I’m in PA school, and there’s no way I would’ve gotten here without him. I say that very confidently and it makes me emotional to think about.”

Even as Alex moves into a different area of medicine, she’s planning to bring her dad along for the ride.

“It’ll be exciting to do something in class and go to him and be like, ‘Guess what we learned?’” she said. “From all the ways that he has done that for me, to kind of educate me in certain things or share pieces of knowledge, to now where I feel like there will be things that I’m going to be learning, that I get to teach him about, is really exciting.”

Her love of learning and of medicine is a nod to the man whose footsteps she followed.

“Any role that I’ve had working in healthcare has been really fulfilling and I don’t think I would’ve found that passion if he weren’t in my life,” Alex said, “just because it almost feels like a journey that we’ve been on together.”

Though she’s currently picking up shifts in between her program requirements, she likely won’t work on a rig after becoming a PA. However, she said, emergency medicine “has a piece of my heart,” and she hopes to return.

“I’m not sure where I will end up, but another beautiful thing about being PA is that I can move around, so I am pretty confident that I will find my way back to emergency medicine someday,” she said.

Regardless of where she ends up, Dan hopes she finds a way to make a positive impact with her passion.

“Our children are the greatest gifts that have been bestowed upon my wife and I, because they are collectively our future – yours, mine, everybody’s,” he said.

Reflecting on his experience in critical pediatric transport, it’s the sparkling future of every life that draws him to the profession.

“These kids that we transport, who’s the next Mozart, the next Jonas Hall? They could be the next person who’s going to make a huge difference in our lives in general. And my kids have that potential.”

He continued: “I hope I’ve given them the fundamental basics to go out there and really make a difference.”

If Alex’s career choices are any indication, it’s clear he succeeded. One of the early lessons she learned was through watching him reinvent himself to find his passion.

“That was amazing to see; to know at any point you can change what you want to do and change the trajectory of your journey and your story.”

No matter where her path leads, even if she leaves medicine all together, the memories made and bonds built during their mutual time in EMS are irreplaceable.

“I’m so lucky to, one, have him as such a close friend, honestly,” she said, “and then to also experience all those things together and see him in that setting. I’m grateful to have that.”

Rachel Engel is an award-winning journalist and the senior editor of FireRescue1.com and 91Ƶ.com. In addition to her regular editing duties, Engel seeks to tell the heroic, human stories of first responders and the importance of their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and began her career as a freelance writer, focusing on government and military issues. Engel joined Lexipol in 2015 and has since reported on issues related to public safety. Engel lives in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached via email.