On the Run

Beeper in hand, Huntley woman is always ready for the next emergency response

When the beeper goes off, Joy Eshlemen is on it. Day or night, she interrupts whatever she’s doing to beeline to the Huntley Fire Station, hop in the ambulance and rush to a neighbor in need.

“Everyone’s got my cell number,” she says. “Right now, if the beeper went off, it’d be me.”

Joy’s quick response comes with her line of work as an EMT (emergency medical technician). What sets her apart is the fact she just celebrated her 80th birthday. 

Anyone who knows Joy, however, knows that 80 is just a number. And that that number makes little difference to the woman who has no “quit” in her.

“I don’t handle boring well,” she says. “There’s nothing boring about this job.”

But that’s not her only job. She’s also a physician assistant (PA-C) who fills in at Riverstone’s Healthcare for the Homeless, at two school clinics and at the clinic at Huntley Project. The list goes on: she teaches advanced emergency training, talks to seniors about advanced directives and attends countless meetings related to her many roles. Even when she’s “off the clock,” she’s likely to be tending to her own family’s health needs or the few lonely souls she’s taken under her wing.

“Helping people, that’s what I know how to do,” she says

Joy’s pace is a marvel to longtime friend Dr. Mary Gaddy.

“I don’t know many women who work as hard as she does, even in their 30s,” Mary says.

Joy’s trim gray hair, EMT T-shirt and sensible shoes fit her no-nonsense persona. Yet, her direct approach is softened by her genuine concern – which translates into taking time to care, to really care.

“She loves to visit,” Mary says. “And she’s got friends all over.” 

Joy’s drive may come natural to her, but she credits her father, a fireman, and her childhood neighbor, the fire chief, for her early exposure to emergency response.

“I thought everyone spent Thanksgiving at the fire hall,” she says, smiling.

Joy was only 12 or 13 when she witnessed her first death. She was visiting her grandmother when a next-door neighbor ran to her door, distraught, with an infant in her arms. The tiny baby had been scalded and, despite Joy’s quick call to the fire department for help, did not survive. 

“I still see that,” Joy says. “I wish I could extract that from my brain, but it won’t go away.”

Throughout her life, Joy has worked her way up in the medical field. As a high school student in her hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada, she joined Future Nurses. In college, she studied physical therapy, transitioned to lab work and at the age of 36 earned her degree as a registered nurse (RN). With diploma in hand, she took a job running a small emergency room at night. By herself.

“We saw it all,” she says. “I learned a lot quick.”

Her Montana connection happened by chance, in 1980, when her daughter’s soccer team traveled to the Magic City to compete. The previous year had been a tough one for Joy and her family – marked by a bad car wreck and the dissolution of her marriage. When she arrived in Billings, she was struck with its small-town charm.

“I was just taken away by this place,” she says. “It was calm and quiet.”

By late summer, Joy had packed up her three children and moved to Billings. She needed a fresh start.

She hired on at St. Vincent Healthcare as an RN in the intensive care unit and emergency room. A few years later, she jumped at a chance to serve as a flight nurse on Billings Clinic’s (then Deaconess’) fixed-wing ambulance service and ground advance life support unit. The lucrative, high-adrenaline position appealed to her sense of adventure.

Three times she survived near crashes, including a botched landing in the middle of a snowstorm. It was the dead of night. She and her team were approaching Billings when their inexperienced pilot lost his bearings.

 “We hit the ground two miles short of the runway,” Joy says.

As luck would have it, a seasoned pilot was also on board. He wrenched the controls away and forced the plane into a near-vertical climb – a move that typically causes the craft to stall. But the plane nosed upward, averting the catastrophe.

“You could hear those engines screaming,” she recalls. “We missed the trees by three inches. He (seasoned pilot) was a magician. He got that plane back into the air.”

Over the years, Joy has seen it all. While a member of search and rescue, she tended to victims who’d fallen from the Rims. As a PA-C – she was in her 50s when she returned to school to earn that degree – she worked geriatrics and kept a frantic pace in same-day care. She has even delivered a baby in a vehicle on the highway. And all the while she raised eight children (her own and those from her second marriage), reffed soccer for decades and poured her soul into helping establish Amend Park.

Though her years on the flight crew are long behind her, today’s emergencies can be just as hair-raising – and often touch close to her heart.

“Ambulance is hard, especially in a small town,” she says. “You see people’s kids die in car wrecks. Recently a neighbor’s dad had a traumatic head injury. On Easter, I coded a friend of mine.”

Mary sees Joy’s faith as the fuel that keeps her going.

“She believes that one’s work is not done until God says so,” Mary says. “She has many talents and puts them to good use. She sees so much work to do, so many people who need help. There’s no way for her to stop.”

Joy has tried to retire several times, but it just doesn’t suit her. Once, years ago, she left the medical profession to take an assistant manager’s job at K-Mart. She wanted to see how “normal people” lived. But that only lasted a few years.

“My biggest job seemed to be watching out for shoplifters,” she says.

Now back in the medical field, she’s studying for her boards. On the rare occasion that she hands off her beeper, she frequently spends that time attending to family. Or “walking” a loved one through to their end.

Joy admits she’s not as fast as she once was. Nor can she play soccer with the intensity she once had. But she just wrapped up another the Women’s Run with Mary and she’s gearing up to do a remodel of the sheep-shed-turned-cottage behind her home. Yes, she’s even had experience sheet-rocking, wiring and roofing and she expects she’ll be hands-on with the remodel, too. 

In the meantime, she has no plans to retire.

“They better nail my coffin shut so I don’t climb out to help somebody,” she says.


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