Tiffany Gruetzmacher is determined to work as an emergency medical technician again in the future.
“That’s my ultimate goal,” she said.
Severely hurt while working her chosen profession on multiple occasions, Gruetzmacher’s passion for EMT work is deeper than any wound could cut.
‘The Worst Day Of My Entire Life’
Gruetzmacher was seriously hurt responding to a crash on Interstate 80 last December when a semitrailer smashed into her ambulance while she and her partner, EMT Tyeler Harris, were already working a previous crash.
Harris, 29, was killed and Gruetzmacher seriously hurt. She continues her recovery.
That day, Dec. 21, 2022, will likely stay in Gruetzmacher’s memory for the rest of her life. It also was the seventh anniversary of her first day as an EMT in 2015. She describes this anniversary as “the worst day of my entire life.”
Gruetzmacher recently had a second surgery to repair damage she suffered in the crash and still is in a neck brace. She suffered a brain bleed, broke her back in three places, had her wrist crushed, suffered a skull fracture and broke her neck in the accident.
Gruetzmacher describes her recovery as a rough physical and emotional process.
Slow Road To Recovery
Nearly three months since the crash, Tiffany still has a long way to go with the physical healing process.
She has good days and bad days, times of joy and anguish, but her father Mike Gruetzmacher said his daughter has been on an overall positive trajectory. Tiffany believes the struggle will make her a stronger person in the long run and that she can make a full recovery.
“I’m definitely trying my best,” she said.
Next week, she’ll be able to start her first round of physical rehabilitation on her hand. The hope is that she can slowly wean into physical therapy in the coming months.
During a Sunday night interview with Cowboy State Daily, Tiffany and Mike choked up and cried frequently, the memory of the traumatic event still fresh and raw in their memories.
Tiffany’s methodical recovery provides a daily reminder of the severity of the incident. The psychological wounds may last forever.
A Father’s Memory
Greutzmacher was originally taken to Memorial Hospital of Carbon County in Rawlins, then was transported to Cheyenne for treatment.
She has no memories of the crash and didn’t regain consciousness until waking up in the intensive care unit in Cheyenne two days later.
Mike Gruetzmacher has vivid memories as well.
His day started with a 5:30 a.m. phone call from Ken Harman, chief executive officer for Memorial Hospital of Carbon County, alerting him that he had to report to the hospital immediately.
“He didn’t go into great detail over the phone, he told me I need to go up to the hospital ASAP,” Mike recounted.
Thoughts of worry filled Mike’s head, wondering if this time Tiffany hadn’t been so lucky. Tiffany had been involved in an EMT accident before and Mike was fully aware of the risks involved with her job and a dangerous I-80 cutting through their community like a menacing sword.
Mike was quickly informed by staff about what had happened to his daughter once reaching the hospital and said an incredible, all-hands-on-deck effort followed, with almost every doctor and nurse attending to her needs.
A Community Rallies
Typically, Tiffany would have been life-flighted to Cheyenne, but because of the inclement weather, she had to be taken by ambulance. An honor guard of Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers and members of the public paved the way for her safe transport.
Mike said he’s incredibly grateful for the sincere love and support shown to him and his family in their time of need.
In the first 48 hours after the crash, it wasn’t clear how severe Tiffany’s injuries would be as far as her long-term future, which is why Mike said the support was so critical at a trying time.
Three days later, Tiffany, a Rawlins resident, spoke with Gov. Mark Gordon. There also were countless messages received from people around the state and country.
After she was released from the hospital, first responders from the Rawlins community gave Greutzmacher a hero’s welcome on her return home as dozens of emergency vehicles and a helicopter flying overhead followed her in with their sirens on. Mike and his wife Audra were in the second car behind the ambulances.
“It was amazing, the outpouring was just amazing,” Mike said.
The motorcade followed her all the way to her house and, one-by-one, each member of the EMS procession gave Tiffany a hug.
“She has an extended family that’s probably more so important than her Mom or I or her sister,” Mike said. “That first responder, that family, oh my gosh, it was amazing.”
They met the Greutzmacher family on I-80, then drove on past the hospital and on to her house.
“I’m really at a loss of words at what the community has done for me,” Tiffany said. “It seems like the whole state has come together.”
A GoFundMe effort was set up on Tiffany’s behalf, raising $32,850. Donations came in not only from the Rawlins community, but from all around the country and world.
“It was healing for a bad situation, it was healing for us as a family to know that she was thought of and she was in someone’s conversation,” Mike said. “It made the process that much easier.”
“It was hard, but you’re also very thankful that she has that support and the understanding that her job is dangerous and it’s something that the kid signed on to do and they gave 150%, and unfortunately Tyeler gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Mike said.
Not Her First Rodeo
One inherent risk of being an EMT is doing something potentially dangerous every day.
Regularly servicing accidents on I-80, the EMTs of Carbon County frequently make one of the most dangerous highways in America their workplace. The corridor surrounding Rawlins is one of the most heinous stretches of winter road due to its high elevation and extreme wind exposure. Snowplows and law enforcement vehicles also are frequently hit by other vehicles in this area.
Tiffany said she wants the public to pay attention when driving and to always move over and slow down when they see EMS lights on the interstate.
According to a 2014 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are an estimated 6,500 crashes involving ambulances each year. In 2020, there were 16,900 injuries to EMS staff suffered while working on the job, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
Tiffany was hurt a few years back when responding to another wintertime crash on I-80.
That event was strikingly similar to the one that happened in December and also involved a semi-truck striking the ambulance she was working from. This resulted in Tiffany needing two lower back surgeries, but never altered her commitment to working as an EMT.
One Tough Customer
Tiffany rode dirt bikes and snowmobiles growing up and also was a champion demolition derby competitor.
“I’ve seen her take a lot of hard hits, but this one was by far the worst,” Mike said.
Tiffany said her first inspiration to work as an EMT came from taking care of her uncle growing up, who had severe cerebral palsy. This experience made her fully acquainted with the harsh realities of severe health problems and constant risks to life itself.
One of Mike’s proudest moments as a father came when he and Tiffany were on a motorcycle ride a few years back. They came across a crashed motorcyclist whose life Tiffany ended up saving.
“As a father, looking back at what Tiffany does for a living, she does it without regard, she acts and it’s amazing to watch someone know exactly what to do at the right amount of time,” he said. “As a Dad, I’ll never be able to express our gratitude. We’ll always love our kids, but it’s amazing to see her go into action.”
A Community Mourns
The EMTs at Memorial Hospital also work in the emergency room until they are dispatched into the field, which results in the staff interacting with many members of the community at large.
In Rawlins, a town of about 8,300 residents, Gruetzmacher was already very well-known, having also grown up there.
Mike said he had many people reaching out to him when the news first broke, hoping for confirmation that it wasn’t his daughter.
The calls and texts flooded in and never stopped during the nearly 24-hour period they were with Tiffany in the hospital, wanting to see how she was doing and how they could help. Mike said they almost needed a U-Haul to carry out all the flowers Tiffany got at the hospital.
“It’s very tightknit,” Mike Gruetzmacher said. “A small rural community, they take care of their own. Whether you are a first responder or not, the love and the respect that Tiff gives all of her patients throughout the community and the traveling public on I-80 is second to none.”
Gruetzmacher said they were close friends, often working the same shifts together.
“He’s a very caring, outgoing, funny person,” Tiffany said. “If you’re having a bad day, he’d be a person to make your day a lot better.”
Mike said Harris’ death hit the Rawlins community hard, and it responded in kind. A GoFundMe account was set up for Harris’ widow and his sons, which has now raised $90,500. The local hospital has also set up a Tyeler Harris Memorial Scholarship.
Difficult as it was, attending Harris’ funeral held in his hometown of Riverton on Jan. 15 was a very important event for Tiffany. She got to ride in the ambulance that transported Harris’ body to the memorial services in Riverton.
“It was very hard, but I was very thankful, very glad to be a part of it,” Tiffany said.
The funeral was attended by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and many people from around the state.
Tiffany still talks to Tyeler’s widow, Ashley Harris, checking to see how she and the kids are doing. She said Ashley also does the same for her. It’s safe to say the two will be connected by Tyeler’s memory for the rest of their lives.
“I’ll always have contact with her, her family will always be a part of our EMS family,” Tiffany said.