It is an irony of life that those most deserving of attention and praise are those who most often run from the limelight. They would be content to continue in relative obscurity. It’s the work, itself, that’s important—they will tell you—not them. This is, of course, noble and, in a celebrity-obsessed culture, refreshing, but ultimately unsatisfying for the rest of us. We want to hear these people’s stories, even if they are reluctant to share them. We want—we need—real heroes.
That’s why it came as a great surprise to AMR Paramedic Lisa LaRusso that she was one of four finalists for KTLA’s 2023 Remarkable Women Award. She had not sought out this notoriety from the Los Angeles, California television station. She generally shuns such personal attention. How had she even been nominated?
It turns out her daughter, Ashley, and her husband, Jeff, had decided to tell her story for her—sneaky but necessary. And the tale her loved-ones told KTLA was as remarkable as the woman, herself.
A 33-year EMS veteran in Riverside, California, Lisa LaRusso has a job that is tough enough as it is. She’s part of a team of highly skilled and dedicated first responders that serve their community about 50 miles east of L.A. Long shifts and the highs and lows of dealing with life and death on a daily basis can take their toll, mentally and physically. It's rewarding and worth the sacrifice, but down time is hard-earned and jealously guarded.
That makes it all the more surprising that LaRusso regularly takes on extra-duty assignments, deploying with other AMR professionals as part of the company’s relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). She has been on seven such missions to provide hurricane relief in Texas and along the Gulf Coast, often in the wake of truly massive and destructive storms that leave whole communities isolated from medical help and other basic resources.
“I was also part of several long deployments in the state of California during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said LaRusso. “During those, I did everything from operating a forklift in a warehouse loading ventilators on trucks bound for hospitals across the country, to setting up mobile health centers, to staffing testing operations in underserved communities on the California-Arizona border. I spent three days in the back of an ambulance in 100-dgree heat providing tests for as many as 500 patients a day. It was necessary and totally worth the braving the harsh conditions.”
This dedication comes at a cost. LaRusso has, naturally, missed time with her husband and daughter, specifically during her daughter’s senior year in high school, which was during the height of COVID. But LaRusso works hard to stay connected to her family even while deployed, and cherishes their time together, all the more. It is telling that LaRusso’s numerous and lengthy deployments were one of the factors in her nomination by Jeff and Ashley: Rather than being resentful of her time away, they honor her for her commitment and sense of duty. That is truly remarkable—it must run in the family. But wait, there’s more.
Making a Splash
Under the heading of “Where Does She Find the Time?” LaRusso is also the founder of a not-for-profit organization called Splash Medics, which is made up of healthcare professionals who educate children, families and communities about water safety.
Over the years, LaRusso noticed that Riverside County had an excessive number of drowning deaths, which she feels are 100% preventable. She got together with like-minded EMS pros and began providing water-safety education in classrooms and at community centers. Splash Medics uses catchy songs and a loveable mascot called Toby the Dolphin to impart basic techniques for ensuring home and neighborhood pool areas are safe. They also provide additional water safety tips for parents through informative handouts.
“We provide this program for "mom groups" and public and community pools and it is available to venues for free,” said LaRusso. “Our ultimate goal is to reduce the drowning statistics year over year. No one can tell me that zero drowning deaths is an unattainable goal. We can get there.”
While COVID interrupted the great progress this organization had made, they are getting back up and running. LaRusso published a children’s book about Toby and water safety, the proceeds from which fund expansion of the program and the development of more interactive materials to further engage and delight children and their parents. They have already ordered another Toby costume so their mascot can make even more appearances.
On the strength of these nominating criteria, LaRusso was chosen from thousands to be one of four finalists for KTLA’s 2023 Remarkable Women Award. KTLA 5 News recognizes the great contributions women have made to both national and local communities. The Award is part of a nationwide Nexstar Media initiative to honor the influence that women have had on public policy, social progress and the quality of life.
The surprise phone call that LaRusso received led to an interview and a piece that aired on KTLA. But, as always, she notes that it is getting out the message about water safety that is the most important aspect of the honor bestowed upon her. That and the fact that it was her husband and daughter who made it all happen. That’s the kind of attention even the humble crave.