June 2009 was a big month for Willy Fischler, the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor in Physics. He turned 60. A symposium was held in his honor at the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics. He was certified as a paramedic.
The symposium was a recognition of his pioneering contributions to the field of theoretical physics. The birthday was a milestone. The certification was proof that in life, once in a while, there are indeed second chances.
"In Belgium, we had to decide what we wanted to do before we went off to college," says Fischler, who was born in Antwerp in 1949. "As much as I wanted to go into medicine, I had heard that medical school required a lot of memorization, and that frightened me. So I fell into physics, which came much more naturally to me. But I've always had in the back of my head the idea that maybe I would enjoy medicine."
Taking a stab at medicine was just a daydream until a few years ago, when Fischler began volunteering in the post-anesthesia care unit at the Austin Children's Hospital. He offered support and companionship to patients recovering from surgery and to their families. It was transformative for Fischler.
"Physics has been good to me, and I've had a blast," says Fischler. "But it's intellectual, it's completely cerebral. Being at the hospital fed my soul. I fell in love with it. If physics is about the head, this was the heart. I was holding the babies, soothing the kiddoes, comforting the parents. I got very close to certain people there."
After that experience, Fischler decided to enroll in a summer course at Austin Community College (ACC) that would qualify him to get certified as a basic EMT. The class hooked him. After finishing, he joined the Westlake Fire Department as a volunteer basic medic, and began going out on calls.
"The things you see, when you're out on calls, are things that very few people see," says Fischler. "It can be very intense. I liked that, and I also liked being part of a team. The fact that I was a professor teaching physics at UT was totally irrelevant."
Over the following few years, Fischler completed the intermediate and advanced coursework in the emergency medical services program at ACC, and he spent hundreds of hours responding to calls both as a student doing ride-alongs with Austin Emergency Services and as a medic with the Westlake FD.
In May of 2009, Fischler graduated with an EMT paramedic certificate, and this fall he began work as a part-time paramedic for Emergency Medical Services in Marble Falls, Texas. He plans to continue working as a paramedic for as long as his body can sustain the physical demands of the work. At some point, he says, he may even go back to school to get his nursing degree.
"I plan to continue doing physics for as long as I possibly can," he says. "There's stuff I get from physics that I don't get from being a paramedic, but the reverse is true as well. Working as a paramedic feeds my soul."