Paramedic hailed for saving lives, helping others and living life fully

Paramedic Kathy Bonner was the first woman to complete the Seattle Fire Department’s paramedic program.  - Courtesy Photo
Paramedic Kathy Bonner was the first woman to complete the Seattle Fire Department’s paramedic program.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Kathy Bonner’s family and friends have grown accustomed to her walking out on them.

At soccer games, dance recitals, even holiday dinners, it was not uncommon for Bonner to drop what she was doing and leave at a moment’s notice.

This was because even in sleepy 1970s Vashon, emergencies could happen at any moment, and as a paramedic at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) for over three decades, Bonner was in the business of saving lives.

This Saturday the community will gather to celebrate Bonner’s retirement from VIFR and to thank her for her 35 years of service to the Island. In those 35 years, Bonner not only saved countless lives and delivered countless babies, she also actively built VIFR’s medical response program into what it is today.

Stan Horan, who worked as Bonner’s partner and fellow paramedic, said the impact Bonner made on the Island is difficult to put into words, as she struggled with the county and made huge personal sacrifices to bring the Island the medical services she believed it deserved.

Shortly after moving to Vashon from Southern California with her husband, Bonner became the first woman to complete the Seattle Fire Department’s paramedic training program at the University of Washington, something Horan said was an accomplishment in itself. “She worked to perfection in a man’s world, a male-dominated industry,” Horan said. “She had to be as tough as, if not tougher, than all the big boys.”

Horan, who completed the program a year before Bonner, went on to work with her as a paramedic in South King County. And while Bonner, who had also considered attending medical school, certainly found her niche as a paramedic, what she truly desired was to bring an advanced life support (ALS) program to Vashon, where the Island’s isolation from Seattle meant residents commonly lost their lives to preventable causes.

“People were dying for silly things,” Horan recalled. “If you had a cardiac arrest and all you could do was CPR and go to a ferry, they would die before they got to Seattle.”

Together, Bonner and Horan worked with King County and VIFR to secure the funds needed to bring ALS to Vashon on a shoestring. However, even when they overcame the funding hurdle, the two were left to singlehandedly provide the life-saving services.

For almost a decade, Bonner and Horan worked full time as paramedics in South King County to pay their bills, only to return to Vashon each day and work on call as paramedics on the Island.

“That’s when we learned why they put the wick all the way through the candle, so you can burn it at both ends,” Horan said.

Without their efforts, Horan said, Vashon likely wouldn’t have gotten an ALS program until decades later, and many Islanders would have died with only basic medical response available.

Even when the two began to work exclusively on Vashon in the 1980s, the job required long hours for little compensation. However, it was never about the pay for Bonner, who now speaks fondly about her years responding to life-threatening emergencies in her own vehicle.

“There could not have been a better job than Medic One,” she said. “I was passionate about it from the day I started to the moment I had to stop.”

Bonner, 63, was recently forced into a semi-early retirement due to hearing loss. “I probably would do it ’til I died if I could,” she said.

Bonner said the thing she loved most was the opportunity her job provided her to personally connect with so many Islanders. “It was a wonderful experience. … I felt like each time I connected with a family they became part of my family,” she said.

Bonner’s own family now has nothing but praise for the woman who rarely made it through a movie or a family dinner without being called to a car accident or medical emergency.

Chris Bonner, Kathy’s Bonner’s son, remembers how his mother’s unpredictable schedule often meant that he and his siblings rode along to the scenes of emergencies. While at the time it was simply part of mom’s job, Chris Bonner said he realized later in life that his mother’s dedication to her job went above and beyond what should have been expected of her.

“There were times when most people in her job would have used a walk-out or a strike as a tool to get what they wanted,” he said. “But Mom never would have done that because the people would have suffered, not the management. It was never about the salary; it was about helping the people.”

In her free moments, Bonner continued to give to the community. She miraculously found time to be part of a women’s soccer team, play cello in the the Vashon-Maury Chamber Orchestra, dance in Blue Heron productions and choreograph dances for Drama Dock.

“I like living to the fullest, I guess,” Bonner said. “You find time to do what you want to do and need to do. Everyone in my life is used to me wearing a pager under my costume or uniform or whatever I’m wearing.”

Bonner, who more than once had to leave a performance to go on a call, remembers being called from a Christmas show one year to respond to a car accident. She arrived on the scene wearing a long gown that was lit up all over with tiny lights.

“I got there first and the patient looked up at me and said, ‘I didn’t know I was going to heaven,’” Bonner said, laughing.

Christine Juarez, director of dance at Vashon Allied Arts, said Bonner, whose mother was a ballerina, is a talented dancer herself and was instrumental in bringing ballet to the Blue Heron.

“I don’t think the arts community was aware of the extent of her medical knowledge, and the medical community wasn’t aware of her artistic talent,” Juarez said.

Brett Kranjcevich, an assistant chief at VIFR, said Bonner spent hours upon hours training him and other volunteers to also go above and beyond their job descriptions, providing Islanders with the high-quality medical care required in an isolated community such as Vashon.

“We would take patients in to Harbor View and they couldn’t believe we were a volunteer team,” Kranjcevich said. “They used to say they would put us up against any paid department in the county.”

Jason Everett, a firefighter at VIFR, echoed Kranjcevich’s thoughts, saying Bonner has truly left a legacy at the department.

“A lot of people who are not in our industry refer to us as heroes, and my response to them is, ‘I’m not a hero, I’m trained to help.’ But I think Kathy is a heroine,” Everett said. “I think her role in this community has been heroic, and she clearly deserves that moniker.”

Bonner’s retirement party will take place from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Open Space for Arts & Community. There will be free food and a no-host bar, and Loose Change will play.

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