Paramedic demonstrates the art of saving others

Lon Fricano shares the rush he gets from responding to emergency calls for nearly 50 years.

Lon Fricano, 64, has been shot at twice. He’s been in burning buildings and almost gotten stabbed. He’s been chased by street gangs and attacked with baseball bats. Recently, he fought alongside six firemen, three police officers and two ambulance crews to subdue a person violently high on the drug known as “bath salts."

A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” the veteran paramedic said he loves the rush.

I remember thinking to myself then ... we can do better than this.
Lon Fricano

“It’s like being high, really,” he said.

Fricano, who is director of operations for TLC Emergency Medical Services in Auburn, is yet another foot soldier in Central New York’s crusade against bath salts. Though the number of bath salts-related calls to Upstate New York Poison Center has fallen dramatically since the summer, experts and law enforcement say the drugs are still prevalent. Fricano has responded to several synthetic drug-related emergency calls, and serves on a bath salts task force aimed at educating community members on the potentially fatal “designer drugs.”

Almost 50 years ago, Fricano went on his first ambulance call. His father, who owned an at-home printing business, had become a dispatcher for a community ambulance service down the street. They provided simple first aid out of a 1948 Packard with five-speed transmission on the floor, Fricano said.

“Like most kids at that age, I didn’t want to just sit back making the phone calls,” he said. “So I started badgering the adults to take me on a call.” He was 15 when the call came: A 17-year-old boy with a heart attack. “My father said, ‘17-year-old kids don’t have heart attacks; he’s probably got a stomachache. This is the call for you,’” Fricano said.

The boy, who had been a classmate of Fricano’s, was “dead as a doornail” from a ruptured spleen. As CPR was not yet a common practice, all the responders could do was lift the boy onto a gurney and carry him downstairs.

“I remember thinking to myself then … we can do better than this,” he said.

By the time he graduated from high school in Bay Shore, N.Y., Fricano had started a youth ambulance squad and been on about 400 calls. He was addicted.

Following high school, Fricano worked as a radio news director and a group home parent for 12 children. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from St. Joseph’s College of Brooklyn in 1975, he said, and owned and operated the first natural food store and restaurant on Long Island.

Throughout the 1980s, he worked as a paramedic at Jamaica Hospital in Queens, N.Y. “We’re like the doctor of the streets,” he said. “We don’t practice medicine, but we deliver it.”

The adrenaline rush Fricano gets from emergency medicine, he said, is just one example of the innate human desire to achieve an “altered state.” Fricano believes that people are always looking to manipulate their state of mind, to expand their consciousness, to scare themselves — whether it’s through lust, beauty or music.

“What possesses a normal person to put a parachute on, go up 5,000 feet in the air and jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” he asked. “The rush.”

One of the most time-honored methods of altering consciousness is, of course, drug use. “Whether it was Timothy Leary on LSD, or the rush of an upper, or the peace of a downer,” said Fricano, “we’re always looking to manipulate our state of mind.”

Fricano called the United States’ War on Drugs “a dismal failure” with a “complete lack of a proper treatment modality” for those dealing with substance abuse. He is vehemently opposed to the stigmatization of drug addicts. “They’re compelled to do these things,” he said. “They need help, not punishment.”

His compassion doesn’t end there. When he’s not saving lives, Fricano volunteers with the Union Springs Fire Department and serves on the board of directors at an adult home. This year, he has teamed up with retired Auburn YMCA-WEIU CEO Jim Courtney to run a fundraising campaign for the United Way of Cayuga County.

“He sometimes has done so much that when he does get home, he’s tired so he kind of shuts down,” said his wife, Midge Fricano. 

But Lon Fricano firmly believes that “life is for living, not for just sitting around.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people in this business who have burnt out. But Lon … he’s passionate at what he does, he’s good at what he does, and he’s the most caring guy I know,” said Mike McClure, Fricano’s best friend from his days at Bay Shore Brightwaters Rescue Ambulance. “I don’t know what drives that.”

Thirty-year-old Simon Fricano, one of Fricano’s two sons, praised his father’s ability to take control in an emergency situation. “I think people can be artists in everything they do,” he said. “And I think that’s an art form.”

On a Monday afternoon, the radio goes off. It’s nothing life-or-death — an 87-year-old man with knee pain — but Fricano cuts short his off-color story about almost getting arrested on a 1967 trip to Montreal. He reaches down and flips on the lights and siren; his van wails and rumbles past stationary traffic. The grin slides off his face, replaced by a determined calm.

It’s the rush.

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