As a paramedic for the Chicago Fire Department, a call could mean she needs to be ready for anything from a heart attack to a car accident. "You hear that speaker crack and right away you know, let’s go," she says. Ruano spends the next three nights on a different type of duty, this time as mom to Josh, 15, Hannah, 13, and Ethan, 10. "I have to put the mom face on and take the paramedic face off," she says. "You learn to adapt."
But the double-role balancing act hasn’t always been simple for Ruano, who has served as a paramedic for the past 20 years. She spent the first 10 years of her career working on the west side of Chicago, where she could get 24 calls in a 24-hour shift, sometimes handling devastating traumas.
"We couldn’t make up this stuff," she says. "Years ago when we were busy, I had an hour when I got home when I told everyone to leave me alone."
Today Ruano is happy finding ways to manage 24-hour shifts with three kids, three sets of extracurricular activities, one home and sometimes zero sleep. But she used to think her life would revolve around a different type of number game—Ruano was on the path to a career in accounting when a high school friend suggested becoming a paramedic.
While she says it wasn’t a choice she or anyone close to her could have predicted, some on-the-job experience convinced the then 21-year-old this was her calling. "I got the opportunity to ride in an ambulance and I said, ‘Oh, I love this,’ " she says of the decision to enroll in the year-long paramedic school. "It was an intense year of school. Being book smart and being street smart are two different things."
After completing school, Ruano made life-saving a family affair when she married a firefighter. The two first met at a scuba-diving class filled with paramedics and firefighters and decided to start a family five years into her career. Their on-and-off schedules made splitting the child care easier, but she says it was still tough to go back on the job after her first son was born. "I wasn’t gone just eight hours, I was gone 24," she says. "I think my husband called 20 times that day."
Two children later, Ruano sometimes finds her paramedic training creeping into her job as a mom. A few years ago, for instance, her oldest son’s friend started to choke on a piece of food at a family gathering. She performed the Heimlich maneuver on the 10-year-old and managed to get the food up, but Ruano was split between being the mom—"How was I going to tell his mother?"—and the paramedic—"I was in work mode. I just did what I do." But Ethan, the baby of the family, doesn’t see two jobs, he just sees Mom. "You’re a lifesaver," he exclaims as she re-tells the choking story.
While her training has helped in her off-duty life, sometimes it’s tough to go the other way and turn off her motherly instincts while she’s on the job, particularly when she has to deal with injured children. A few years ago, for instance, she was called into an emergency where a boy about Ethan’s age died.
"I got in the car and I cried and I cried and I cried," she says. "I kept thinking of his mother."
Seeing other families’ traumas first-hand can make Ruano more cautious with her own children. She says she worries more, especially as they get older and their friends begin to drive. "Most kids don’t think of the big picture and I always think of the big picture," she says. "I’ve seen more, so I worry more. But you just hope (your kids) were listening to you and that they make the right choices."
Ruano has learned how to make the right choices herself in a two-decade career as a paramedic, finding ways to strike the work/family balance. A year and a half ago, after 10 years on the west side and another nine or so on the northwest side, Ruano transferred to a less-busy station that averages about five calls a day, meaning she can usually find some time to sleep on-duty. As her children get older, they’re able to help out more around the house and juggle their own schedules. It helps, too, that they can understand that sometimes their mom needs a nap after coming off a 24-hour shift.
Ruano credits her job with giving her the ability to think quickly on her feet and to stay level-headed in stressful situations, skills she hopes her children will learn from her. And, for at least one of her kids, a career as a paramedic may stay in the family—her oldest son, Josh, plans to follow in her footsteps. "If that’s what he wants to be, hey, that’s awesome," she says. "I love where I’m at right now."
While she’s learned to adapt to the unusual sleeping schedule and make the switch from mom to paramedic with the change from street clothes to uniform ("Did you have that uniform on under your clothes?" her daughter joked at a particularly speedy change), Ruano still isn’t sure which is more tiring—life as a full-time mom or a hometown hero. "Some days here are crazy and then there are days at work that are crazy," she says. "It’s about half and half."
Laura Schocker is a Chicago Parent intern and a graduate student at Northwestern University.