Many people made real, tangible differences in their communities this year — some in offices, some in schools and some in their homes. The Herald-Citizen’s Person of the Year, Stephen Lincke, made a difference from an ambulance, on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
That may sound heroic, but saving people’s lives is almost routine for Lincke, 59, who has been an emergency medical technician for 40 years and a member of the Wantagh Fire Department for 41. He was named the 2020 National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians’ Volunteer EMS Paramedic of the Year.
“In February and March we put together a team of people within the department to oversee the operations and how everything would run moving forward,” said Lincke, the department’s EMS captain, referring to its response to the spreading pandemic. “We would meet weekly to put out the right information over our website on what you needed to do. If you were sick, we showed you where you needed to go.”
As of press time, Wantagh had reported 1,504 cases of Covid-19 in a population of roughly 18,000. “At first we perceived this to be just like the flu, but it wasn’t,” Lincke said. “It wasn’t until people started realizing how bad this was and people were dying. . . . I think we’re going to look back at this time period in 20 years and say that we were ill-prepared for this.”
He recalled the early days of the pandemic, where the Fire Department received more calls than now. He also reflected on the challenges that come with his position.
“It is truly heartbreaking when you have to take a person to a hospital, when you know that they may [have lived] with their husband or wife of, say, 40 years, and you know they aren’t coming home to them,” he said. “That is something I never, ever wanted to see.”
But it is something that Lincke has been forced to grow accustomed to, which he has had to do since his first days in the Wantagh F.D.
He was born in Forest Hills, Queens, where his family lived, before they moved to Cambria Heights and, when he was 10, to Wicks Avenue in Seaford. He played sports in the street with his friends, and took part in Little League baseball and youth hockey. He graduated from General Douglas MacArthur High School in Wantagh in 1979.
After high school, Lincke attended NYC Technical College in Brooklyn, where he majored in graphic arts. After five semesters, however, he said, he felt the need to help people, and he wasn’t fulfilling that need. He wanted to be an EMS worker.
Lincke’s parents didn’t work in the medical field, nor did anyone in his family. His inspiration? “I got interested in a TV show called ‘Emergency!’ about Los Angeles firefighter paramedics,” he said. “I think that’s what piqued my interest.”
His younger sister Mary, 58, also went into the medical field, becoming a nurse.
In 1980, at age 19, Lincke looked to join a local fire department. He was zoned for Wantagh’s. “Quickly, my interest became more and more piqued when I joined,” he said. For a year he learned the ins and outs of the firehouse, and about serving as a volunteer in the department. He also learned about a personality trait that was something of a necessity among firefighters, and especially among EMTs.
“I quickly had to learn to disassociate myself,” he said. “People die. The biggest thing I had to overcome was seeing a dead body, having never seen one before, and realizing this happens in the world every day, and I have to be emotionally capable of overcoming these things.” But that psychological armor had an upside, too. “I think that it also makes you more passionate in the process,” Lincke said, “because you quickly start to understand that your job outcomes make a difference in people’s lives.”
In 1981, Lincke completed his EMT training. It was difficult at first, he said, because people expected him to be certain of everything despite the fact that he was new on the job. “We didn’t have phones to look up diseases and medications online right away, either,” he said. “It was all from the book.”
After taking advanced EMT classes, Lincke was offered a job working for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation in 1983. He was stationed in Brooklyn for the next 10 years, and as a volunteer, he served as captain of Wantagh’s Engine 7 from 1988 to 1992.
Not long after he became a captain, Lincke faced one of the most surreal moments of his life. Responding to a shooting in Manhattan, he and his fellow EMTs arrived on the scene, only to discover that police were in a standoff with the shooter. Hiding behind a squad car, Lincke noticed that the victim of the shooting was lying in the middle of the street, uncovered. He crawled out from behind the squad car and dragged the victim behind an ambulance, which transported him to a hospital.
Lincke was honored by the city for his heroics. “The hardest part was explaining to my parents what it was for,” he recalled.
A few years later, Lincke was stationed in Queens. He had just worked a long overnight shift starting on Sept. 10, 2001, and finishing in the wee hours of Sept. 11. He was called in to Lower Manhattan to help out at the scene of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“It was surreal,” he recounted. “Whatever was shown on television didn’t do it justice.”
When he went along South Street in Manhattan later that night, he saw a few familiar vehicles. “There was the Wantagh Fire Department, right there on South Street,” Lincke recalled. “I knocked on the door and they said, ‘Oh my God.’ I think they thought I was dead.”
Though he has had no shortage of unique experiences, Lincke said that nothing could have prepared him for the pandemic this year. His closest comparison was with the Ebola outbreak in late 2013, which mostly affected West Africa, and only one case was reported in New York City.
“This is something that is global — it is happening everywhere,” Lincke said. He added that he and his unit at the Wantagh F.D. have stressed to residents how easily the virus spreads.
“There have been so many Covid-19 patients that I’ve lost count,” he said. “But I had no second thoughts ever about doing the job.”
Personal protective equipment, he said, has been key in slowing the spread of the virus, despite many early shortages, but what will ultimately prove most important is how residents respond to social distancing guidelines.
“The biggest issue is people understanding [whom] they’re coming into contact with,” he said before adding with a chuckle, “Listen, my chair at Paddy’s Loft is calling my name, but I can’t do that right now.”
Lincke offered both a warning and a wish as the year ended. He said that while 2021 may offer more of the same tribulations that 2020 did, he hoped that in leading the next generation of EMT workers, he can teach them how to be successful and, in turn, to pass their knowledge on to the generation that follows them.