Aesop wrote, “It is easy to be brave from a safe distance.” A local woman recently underscored that, showing that true courage may involve plunging directly into a dangerous situation.
Frontenac Paramedic Kimberly Fitzsimmons is one of a small group of Ontario paramedics who received the very first Ontario Medal for Paramedic Bravery on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
Receiving this first-ever honour “is so special, and I just feel very grateful that I get to be a part of that moment in paramedic history,” says a still-overwhelmed Fitzsimmons over the phone, calling the whole experience “pretty amazing.”
But there is a sense of hesitancy in her voice, too. She says, “It’s complicated. A friend of mine worded it very well today: ‘It must feel strange getting so much recognition for something that you would have done regardless of whether or not someone was watching’… That kind of sums it up.”
The bravery she showed that day, August 2, 2022, is unquestionable despite her modest admission. The heat was intense, and the off-duty Fitzsimmons decided to go for a swim in Lake Ontario, just off Gord Downie Pier in downtown Kingston.
As she approached, she recognized someone at the pier, an unhoused man whom she had seen frequently while working. Fitzsimmons recalls that she said good morning to him before plunging into the cool lake herself. “It was really hot — very, very hot. And unfortunately this individual does not have permanent housing, so he’s exposed to this temperature way too much.”
After swimming, Fitzsimmons says, “I was just towelling off and resting,” when she observed the man standing on a diving block on the pier. “I overheard him speaking with another gentleman [who was already cooling off in the lake], and he said, ‘I’m not a big swimmer.’ Then the other gentleman in the water tried to encourage him to not jump in at that point.”
“But I guess he was too hot and jumped in anyway,” she remembers. She watched for a second and observed that the fully clothed man was struggling to get back to a ladder; then he was gone beneath the surface.
A family was nearby, and they “sprang into action,” as well. Fitzsimmons asked the mother to call 911 while the daughter grabbed for a lifeguard ring and ran over the footbridge. Fitzsimmons dove in the water.
They could see the man now lying motionless on the bottom of the lake, five metres below, bubbles thinly popping on the surface.
The paramedic asked the younger woman to lower the ring down to her: “I’ll see if I can do this,” she remembers saying. The overarching thought in Fitzsimmons’s mind, she says, was “If I can’t, our lives are all changed permanently, and not for the better.”
She dove down again, approaching the unmoving man feet first, as she had learned in lifeguarding in her younger days.
A government news release tells the rest: “After surfacing with the unconscious man, Paramedic Fitzsimmons swam them both to a nearby beach. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and without any [personal protective equipment], she immediately began performing life-saving measures. She continued [cardio-pulmonary resuscitation] until first responders arrived and took the man to hospital. Even while off-duty, Paramedic Fitzsimmons put herself in harm’s way to save a stranger’s life.”
Asked if there was more she would like to say, Fitzsimmons answers, in an unconscious display of caring, “I wish I was able to check in [again] with those bystanders after the patient had been taken by paramedics… They were quite emotional, and I just commended them for stepping up and for helping. [I] said, ‘I hope you guys take care of yourselves today and be kind to yourselves. Emotions are going to bubble up and that’s natural.’ But at the end of the day, they should be proud, as well. I just hope that they are proud.”
“It’s a great honour and privilege that [a member] of Frontenac Paramedics is among those who earned the new Ontario Medal for Paramedic Bravery,” says Frontenac Paramedics Chief Gale Chevalier. “Ms. Fitzsimmons didn’t hesitate, despite great personal risk, to aid a stranger in need. Congratulations, Kimberly, and thank you for your dedication.”
The award was presented by Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell and Ontario Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Sylvia Jones in an evening ceremony on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, at Queen’s Park in Toronto.
Since its inauguration in 2015, 74 paramedics have received the Ontario Award for Paramedic Bravery. This year marks the first year the award has been elevated to a provincial honour medal, as the newly named Ontario Medal for Paramedic Bravery.
“As Lieutenant-Governor, I have witnessed first-hand the remarkable selflessness and bravery of first responders,” said the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell at the ceremony. “While it is often said we live in an uncertain time, few Ontarians actually experience uncertainty in their everyday working lives in quite the way that paramedics do. Before their shifts begin, they don’t know where they will be dispatched, under what circumstances, or how they will be asked to help. On behalf of a very grateful province, I thank this year’s exceptional award recipients for their commitment, their incredible courage, and their dedicated service.”
In addition to diving to the bottom of Lake Ontario to rescue a dying man, the recipients’ other individual acts of outstanding bravery included moving a crashed plane to save passengers inside, grabbing hold of a distressed man on a highway ledge, swimming an unconscious cliff diver to safety, saving other first responders during a gas line explosion, and rescuing workers from a collapsed building.
“As we celebrate Paramedic Services Week, I am honoured to recognize the first Ontario Medal for Paramedic Bravery recipients for their courage in protecting the people of this province in the face of grave risk and danger,” Jones said. “Day in and day out, first responders put their duty to Ontarians and service first. These paramedics represent the very best of Ontario, and our government is proud to recognize their significant contributions to keeping communities safe.”
There are over 10,500 paramedics currently employed in Ontario, the largest group of paramedics in Canada, according to the provincial government, which noted that each paramedic has a profound impact on the health and safety of people across Ontario.