Emergency Rescue : L.A. Paramedic Restored the Heartbeat of a Fading Canyons Softball Program

Times Staff Writer

It is safe to say that Mary Jo Zahyna has faced tougher challenges than the ones she encountered playing right field for the College of the Canyons softball team.

A shot down the line is nothing compared to what she must cope with on an everyday basis as a paramedic for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

"You see things that would curl other people's toenails," Zahyna said.

So fear was of no concern to Ray Whitten, the Canyons softball coach, when Zahyna inquired about playing for the Lady Cougars. Inexperience was.

"She came into my office and said she wanted to play," Whitten said. "But then she said, 'You're gonna have to teach me everything, because I've never played fast-pitch in my life.'

"I thought to myself, 'Oh, my god, what's this girl trying to do?' "

But while Whitten might have questioned Zahyna's desire to play softball, he was not going to argue about it.

In an effort to attract enough players to field a team for the 1988 season, Whitten had posted flyers all over campus.

"She said she had played some slo-pitch ball," he said. "And at that point, beggars couldn't be choosers, and I was darned if I was gonna have to fold the season because of not having enough people when she was standing there wanting to play."

So the 28-year-old Zahyna played, and went to classes--and was happy for the opportunity to do it all while working in a job that she, at least, would trade for no other.

Zahyna works out of Fire Station 10 in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles. The on-the-job situations she faces run the gamut.

"I've gotten to see the best and the worst in people. It's challenging, and it's not your typical 9-to-5 job," she said.

Louie Grinfeld, a close friend and former paramedic partner of Zahyna, says the job, for all its excitement, can bog down with somewhat insignificant calls.

"A lot of times, just dealing with the routine calls is the hardest part," he said. "It's frustrating because a lot times it's not that they really need help."

For Zahyna, those "emergencies" are the worst part of her job. But she is sympathetic to the people who make such calls, saying, "They have nothing, these people, and they just don't know."

The job has its moments, good and bad. And, difficult as it often is, Zahyna tries to begin each day with a fresh start.

"People do die," she said, "but you can't take every one personally, so occasionally, just to save yourself emotionally, you build a barrier, where something doesn't bother you as much as it otherwise would.

"But then again, I don't want to make it sound like we're unemotional and don't care, either, because we do. That's why we're in the profession."

Zahyna was particularly upset by one on-the-job incident in which a PCP user killed a 4-month-old baby.

"That one was kind of hard to take," she said. "You can have them jumping out of buildings and thinking they can fly. They don't know what they're doing."

Zahyna, a freshman, says she took up softball purely for self-fulfillment--as if her job and a full load of classes weren't fulfilling enough.

"As far as juggling the schedule goes with school and work, sometimes I wonder how I do it," she said.

Even though she has made progress with her hitting, Zahyna still finds arduous work experiences and a hectic schedule far easier to handle than an at-bat in a fast-pitch softball game.

Hitting in the No. 7 spot in the lineup, she batted a respectable .257, primarily because of strong preseason showings--including one at Porterville in which she was 6 for 17 (.353). In conference games, however, her average was .214.

"It's pretty hard for me," she said. "I need a lot of improvement. Some days I do OK, and then the next, I can't get a hit. I just want to be consistent. I do have to plead some ignorance, though. I didn't really know it was fast-pitch at first."

Zahyna also did not realize just how much time softball would take, and how busy she would be trying to combine it with school and her job.

"She missed a couple of practices," Whitten said. "But all the other times, she got people to work for her. She did a darn good job of that for us."

And considering that Zahyna had never before played fast-pitch ball, Whitten says he was pleased with her performance. The Lady Cougars (19-13, 5-7 in the Western State Conference) recovered nicely from the near-cancellation of their season, just missing a shot at the playoffs because of a loss against Moorpark in their regular-season finale.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm doing everything backwards, like I should have done this when I was in high school," Zahyna said. "But I feel very fortunate that I've gotten the chance to do this now."

Zahyna started in right field all season and made progress with her hitting--in Canyons' last three games, she had four hits in eight at-bats.

"Because of not having the fastball down, some days she has better luck than others," Whitten said. "I've tried to tell her, 'Look, you're playing against people--some of whom have been playing fast-pitch for seven or eight years--who know how hard it is to get a hit.' "

The encouragement, however, is small consolation to Zahyna.

"I just want to be able to hold my own weight within the team and help them out," she said.

In other words, Zahyna looks to do the same thing on the softball field that she does at work.

"There's a lot of satisfaction in helping someone when they're really in need."

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