At first glance, Kyle Isaac and Nathaniel Burnham appear quite different.
Isaac looks like a product of the Durham farm where he grew up, self-assured, talkative, and at times, he said, “a bit cocky.”
Burnham, by contrast, is more reserved and conservative, and it’s easy to picture him practicing family medicine in a mission medical clinic halfway around the world, which is his goal.
In fact, that’s where Burnham came from, and it’s a shared love of medicine and helping others that brought the college students together as fellow emergency medical technicians working at the county emergency medical service station in Marion.
Burnham grew up the son of missionaries in Papua, New Guinea. During a weekend high school retreat, the direction of his life changed.
“I wanted to be involved in aviation — my dad’s a pilot and a mechanic,” Burnham said. “I felt like my plans didn’t line up with what God had planned for me. I started looking for what He wanted me to do and landed on medicine, which was not something I’d previously even considered, so I knew this must be God saying I want you to be involved in medicine.”
Burnham got involved with New Tribes Mission Medical Clinic, putting in more than 200 hours of service.
“I was allowed to do even more than I’m certified to do here in the United States, because they have less strict regulations,” he said. “I was able to take blood and run blood tests in the lab, give immunizations. We can’t do anything invasive here.”
While investigating colleges in the United States, he was struck by Tabor College’s website. Tabor invited him to campus to interview for a presidential leadership scholarship.
“God had just provided us with enough money to pay for my roundtrip ticket,” Burnham said.
The visit included sitting in on one of chemistry professor Bruce Heyen’s classes, where his problem-based teaching style resonated with Burnham.
“I really liked what I saw,” he said.
Burnham enrolled at Tabor in fall 2013, and by the next summer was pursuing emergency medical technician certification through Butler Community College.
“I had already started thinking about programs to get into emergency medical technology,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what drew me to emergency medicine, but I knew I wanted to practice medicine sooner than when I get my doctorate.”
Stuart and Lea Isaac, owners of Supreme Floor Company of Hillsboro, used to live and work at a rural Durham farm. Kyle said he grew up with definite ideas about what career he wanted to do.
“I was always like, ‘I want to be a firefighter, I want to go in burning buildings,’” Isaac said. “My dad was on the fire department, that was a big influence.”
Isaac attended private Cottonwood Grove school, completing the course of study by age 14 and going into construction, he said.
A chance encounter with then Tampa EMS crew chief Jesse Brunner at Durham’s Main Street Café led to a suggestion that Isaac become an EMT.
“He just bounced the idea off of me,” Isaac said. “It definitely planted a seed.”
The seed took root, with Isaac eventually enrolling in an EMT class taught by then county EMS director Steve Smith.
“I wasn’t more than a couple of weeks into the class before I realized I’d found my career,” Isaac said. “It really, really hooked me.”
Isaac worked with the Hillsboro EMS crew for a couple of years, but life outside EMS wasn’t smooth. Noting that he’d had some trouble “fitting in” at Cottonwood Grove, Isaac said his problems escalated as he got older.
“I got into some pretty bad stuff when I was younger,” he said.
Resolved to change, he sought a fresh start in Hardin, Montana.
“I did construction and worked as a chef,” he said.
He said he intended the Montana move to be permanent, but about a year later, in 2015, having created “new habits and a new outlook on life,” he moved back.
As part of the transition, he took a two-week trip to work in Haiti, which solidified his interest in emergency medicine. Back home, he got on with a custom harvest crew driving a truck, then began working with Marion EMS and more recently, Hillsboro as well.
When he didn’t find a steady job, he began to wonder about his future.
“Maybe God’s saying this is time to start college,” Isaac recalled thinking.
Isaac is a freshman at Hesston Coillege, majoring in nursing. His goal is to be an emergency medical flight nurse.
Serving with EMS has strengthened the resolve each man has for their career choices.
“Even the craziest calls with blood and broken bones and stuff like that, those calls are the ones that strengthen my commitment,” Isaac said. “I get off those calls and I realize this is where I’m meant to be.”
Both were along for the ride as EMS went through a tumultuous year in 2015, and agreed that hiring director Ed Debesis was a positive turning point.
“He doesn’t put us down because we’re not as experienced or skilled as he is,” Isaac said. “He brings everybody up with him. I hope when I’m a paramedic I can do that.”
For Burnham, working within the limitations of EMT practice can be challenging.
“I get frustrated all the time,” he said. “I’ve chosen to go into family medicine, so for a long time I’m going to have things I’m not going to be able to do.”
Both find low pay challenging for themselves as well as recruitment, and Isaac said an offer of a full-time position would probably pull him away from the county.
However, for now, they’re both glad to be of service.
“The reason I work EMS is because I want to help,” Isaac said.