During his 40 years as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in Flossmoor, Ratko repeatedly found himself in situations where he literally saved someone’s life. And he kept tabs on people who’d been on the receiving end of his lifesaving efforts. Flossmoor Village Board members paid tribute to Ratko at their Nov. 7 meeting for his four decades of service to the village.
John Ratko and his paramedic partner had just arrived at the doctor’s office on Vollmer Road in Flossmoor.
The two paramedics applied defibrillator paddles to the patient, who had gone into cardiac arrest on the doctor’s examining table. Then they activated the device.
“He immediately sat up and said, ‘That hurt. Don’t ever do that to me again,’” Ratko said. “A minute earlier he had been clinically dead. And there he was, talking back to us.”
During his 40 years as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in Flossmoor, Ratko repeatedly found himself in situations where he literally saved someone’s life. And he kept tabs on people who’d been on the receiving end of his lifesaving efforts. The man on the doctor’s table, he said, lived for a number of years after his resuscitation.
“It’s very rewarding,” Ratko said. “It’s the payback. Sometimes you are out in the community and you see someone who you helped save. And you go ‘Wow.’”
Ratko officially retired from the Flossmoor Fire Department at the end of October and says he “no longer has an excuse for getting up at 3 in the morning.”
He is now living in northeastern Arizona on the Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square-mile semi-autonomous Native American territory where his wife Gail is a nurse at a public health clinic. For the last four years, Ratko has shuttled back and forth between the Homewood-Flossmoor area and Arizona.
This year, the Ratkos sold their house in Homewood. Ratko is extremely pleased that the house was purchased by a firefighter and a nurse.
Flossmoor Village Board members paid tribute to Ratko at their Nov. 7 meeting. Mayor Paul Braun read a resolution commending him for his lifetime of service and about 20 fellow firefighters in the audience applauded their colleague, who participated remotely via a digital device.
The resolution notes Ratko’s numerous fire department duties over the years – as a firefighter, paramedic, public educator, driver-operator, fire lieutenant and fire captain. He has been certified as an advanced firefighter and in fields dealing with hazardous materials operations, technical rescue awareness and machinery operations. He served three terms as president of the Flossmoor Volunteer Fire Corporation.
Throughout it all, Ratko has been proud to call himself a volunteer firefighter.
“One of the best things about Flossmoor is that the majority of firefighters are still volunteers,” Ratko said.
For several years, Flossmoor has staffed its fire station on a daily basis with full-time emergency response personnel from a private agency – the village now contracts with Kurtz Ambulance in New Lenox. Still, most Flossmoor firefighters are paid-on-call volunteers.
“Flossmoor has never let go of its volunteer force,” he says. “The village has always built its department around its volunteers.”
Ratko was 18 when he joined the fire department in July 1976. His family lived on Burns Avenue, very close to the fire station’s former location in downtown Flossmoor.
“I met with the chief,” Ratko said. “He told me the fire service ‘is going to get in your blood and you are never going to get it out again.’ Boy, was he right.”
He and a classmate were the department’s first two members to go through the state’s certification course for firefighters.
Ratko became an Emergency Medical Technician in 1978. Back then, he said, there were no books for persons wishing to be paramedics.
“Everything was in a binder,” he said. ”There would be articles from nursing journals along with all the other information we needed to know.”
When he joined the department, a loud whistle at the firehouse called the volunteer force to emergencies. Because he lived so close, Ratko said, “I always got there first.” Later, the volunteers got pagers.
Over the years, Ratko has seen constant improvements in the technology that assists first responders in emergency situations. Communications are now tied to our digital world. And life-saving apparatus like air packs have continued to get better.
Ratko was on the list at several area fire departments to become a full-time employee but eventually decided to continue as a volunteer firefighter and become a full-time nurse. After completing nursing school, he worked at Hinsdale Hospital and trained paramedics on fire departments all around the Chicago area. He later went to work at Ingalls Memorial Hospital, where he helped manage the emergency department.
But he always continued going out on calls as a firefighter and paramedic in Flossmoor.
The village’s resolution said Ratko “provided the highest quality assistance to our residents during the worst of situations … Through his knowledge, experience and dedication, John has also served as a mentor to all around him.”
Today, in Arizona, Ratko has a “day job” processing medical records on his computer.
However, he said he’d like to contact the Navajo Nation’s fire department and offer his services as someone who has trained firefighters and paramedics for decades.
“It’s still in my blood,” he said.