EMTs saved her life - then she became one to help others

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Kelly Ondersma beat cancer but the chemotherapy nearly killed her.

One day she couldn't breathe and thought she was dying. A call to 911 changed her life in more ways than she could have imagined.

"You don't think that it's ever going to happen to you - but it did," she said.

Ondersma was just 34 years old and a single mother of three, diagnosed with stage two invasive ductal carcinoma. Kelly had breast cancer.

"It is scary, surreal," she said. "Your whole world just stops." 

Five years ago she underwent a double mastectomy followed by chemotherapy. Five months - 16 rounds - Kelly was weak, exhausted, but she needed to work.

So she was cleaning the home of a family friend - when suddenly - she couldn't breathe.

"I thought it was a pulmonary embolism," she said. "There was a moment when I was like, this is serious. They call it a sense of impending doom. I was like, please don't let me die."

So 911 was called and paramedics from Oakland Township fire responded and diagnosed Supraventricular tachycardia - Kelly's heart was beating out of control. 

Paramedics gave her medicine that literally stopped her heart - to start it again and get her stabilized. On the way to the hospital - she started talking.

"I looked at Scott Rosati and I said 'You know I've always wanted to do this,'" she said. "I always thought it would be a great job."

Fifteen years earlier, Kelly had been studying to be a physician's assistant but overwhelmed by student debt, she never finished.

Now a near death experience was offering a fresh start - an offer from Scott Rosati and Sue Diehr - the paramedics treating her in the back of the ambulance.

"On the way to the hospital she expressed that she always wanted to be an EMT," said Rosati, Oakland Twp. fire. "So I told her, 'Kelly when you get yourself better, you come back and see us, and we'll see if we can make that happen.'"

"'When you get better come fill out an application,'" Diehr added. "'We supply all the training and we could use some people.'"

"So immediately I start crying, I was like this is the best day ever, I almost just died but it was great," Kelly said.

Great because that moment gave her hope, inspiration and a career. She didn't know if they were even serious - but once she was better, she filled out that application - entering the EMS Academy in 2016.

"By being in the back of the ambulance - by being on the stretcher - by going through what I went through, it gave me a huge ability to empathize with patients," she said. "It's literally helping somebody when they're having their worst day. It's an honor, honestly. It's fun."

Part of Kelly's reason for sharing her story is not only to thank this department - but to encourage others to pursue this profession. There is currently a shortage of EMTs and paramedics in Michigan.

"There are opportunities out there that you can go to school and places, other fire departments, ambulances - they'll put you through school," Kelly said.

Kelly continued her schooling and is currently pursuing her medic training while working two jobs and raising her children. She's healthy and thankful for those paramedics - now colleagues - who changed her life.

"Somebody made a difference in my life," she said. "Whether he intended to or not - he had a good heart. And these people showed up, dropped everything they were doing at that moment, (and) showed up to help me. And I am eternally grateful for that."