Ambulances, academia: Former EMT, now UWGB dean, can relate

The following is an expanded version of a story that appeared in the December 2012 print edition of Inside 360°, the magazine of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

She could do this. She could do anything.

That was the mantra playing on repeat in Sue Mattison’s brain and — she would later come to realize — aloud as she dealt with one of the most difficult tasks she’d ever perform.

It was the mid-1980s and Mattison, now the dean of UW-Green Bay’s College of Professional Studies, was working as a paramedic in small-town Northern Iowa. A man had died after being hit by a train, lying on the tracks — and the coroner had asked Mattison to get a blood alcohol level.

The amount of trauma was extreme, even for a trained paramedic like Mattison. She didn’t even want to get close to the body, but she approached, flanked by a colleague holding a flashlight for assistance. Discussing it later, the colleague asked Mattison if she remembered what she said while performing the task. She didn’t.

“He said I said, ‘I can do this. I can do anything. I can do this. I can do anything,’ and he said I just kept saying that over (and over),” Mattison recalled. “I remembered thinking that, but I didn’t remember saying it out loud. So after that point it was like, I guess I can. If I can do that, I can certainly deal with issues that come up. … It gives you perspective.”

Perspective was just one thing gained during Mattison’s six years as a full-time paramedic, a job that would lead her to careers in the health sciences and university teaching and administration. Then the sole female paramedic in that part of Iowa, Mattison would encounter skepticism from some colleagues and patients who didn’t think she was up to the task. She’d swap “20 hours of sheer boredom” for “four hours of sheer terror” during 24-hour shifts. She’d even learn to eat quickly — something Mattison does to this day — and use the restroom the second you might think you need to, lest the chance be lost. The experience also made her a better teacher.

“Those years as a paramedic really came in handy as I was teaching, because I had taught classes like human diseases,” Mattison said, “and I would always, you know, pull out a story from being a paramedic to kind of wake the students up and keep them interested and engaged.”

And with the stories she had, it worked.

There was the time an exotic dancer needed treatment and insisted that her snake be allowed to ride in the ambulance, too. There were sad stories of cardiac arrest patients who couldn’t be revived, and frustrating tales of being underestimated because of her gender.

Then there was the story of Michael, a 10-year-old boy with spiky blonde hair who’d run a stop sign on his bicycle. He crashed through the windshield of an oncoming car, tearing up his face, and was assisted by a kindly bystander as help arrived. The boy was worried his father would be furious, and Mattison assured him his dad would just be glad he was OK (she was right). As Mattison taught and became an associate dean at the University of Northern Iowa, she used the story as a lesson on how the body can heal itself, as well as a tale of parental love and forgiveness.

Then one day, 18 years later, a blonde, spiky-haired young graduate assistant standing in her office said Mattison looked familiar. It was Michael. And the kindly bystander from back then? She was Susan Koch — and she was now Mattison’s dean. The story of their fortuitous reunion was featured in Iowa’s Cedar Falls Times in 2006.


It was all a long way from where Mattison had started, as a first-generation college student and the second-generation granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants. She changed her major seven times as an undergraduate at UNI, finally settling on economics because it would provide good career opportunities — and because it required the fewest additional credits to complete.

Mattison’s parents were unflinchingly supportive, but they lacked the experience with college necessary to advise her academic path. It’s a circumstance that helps her relate to students today.

“My parents both worked — my dad worked in a factory for 50 years,” Mattison said. “And they have been my biggest fans, but they didn’t really understand college or know about it or why it was important. … So I can understand the students coming in now — our population of students is 60 to 70 percent first generation — and how challenging that is.”

Upon graduation, Mattison began working in a bank — but quickly realized it wasn’t for her. She took an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course, was hired by a paramedic ambulance service and underwent paramedic training. She moved from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she was raised, to Cedar Falls — a city of less than 40,000 as of the 2010 census.

“I was just blown away by the kinds of things that we would see,” she said, recalling the exotic dancer snake story. “It was just a great experience and I worked with a lot of really interesting people and we became — it was just a very close-knit group.”

Mattison continued paramedic work part-time as she pursued her master’s degree in Cardiac Rehabilitation at UNI, and her PhD in Epidemiology at the University of Iowa. She’d tell her students not to drink and drive — that she didn’t want to be picking them up in her ambulance on weekends or during school breaks.

It wasn’t easy for Mattison to leave her job as a paramedic, but she was excited about furthering her education and taking the next steps in what would become an award-winning career. She focused her research on breast and bladder cancer epidemiology, publishing numerous peer-reviewed articles on everything from risk factors and survival to racial differences in and the economics of breast cancer treatment. Mattison’s research is commonly cited as seminal work in understanding racial differences in cancer, and in 2000, her work on the subject was featured in The New York Times.

Mattison still loves teaching, and, early on, never expected she’d become an administrator. She became UW-Green Bay’s Dean of Professional Studies in summer 2011, bringing the full complement of her educational and professional experiences to bear in a role that oversees the University’s programs in Business, Education, Nursing, Physical Education and Social Work, as well as the Institute for Learning Partnership and Northeast Wisconsin Partnership for Children and Families.

Mattison is excited she’ll be teaching a course during spring semester 2013, and says it’s an important way to connect with and better understand students and faculty. To hear her tell it, it’s a far cry from her first day in front of the classroom.

“I stood up in front of 125 students in a class (in which) I was really, literally a day ahead of the students,” Mattison said. “And I read the overheads — I was absolutely the worst teacher you ever had. And I guess I would say that it turned out well, because I realized I was a rotten teacher — and I worked really hard to be good at it.”

Because she could do that. She could do anything.