Upon first look, Elizabeth Oei might seem to have her hands full.
A longtime New Canaan resident, she serves as member of the New Canaan Volunteer Ambulance Corps (NCVAC) and the Pop-Up Park Committee in addition to a full-time nurse consultant job.
She also may be most recognized around town for her two beloved dogs, Cosmo and Bean, gentle animals that she describes as her children. After speaking with Oei (full interview transcribed below), however, it became clear that her involvement is a pleasure and it is all these things that flesh out her full personality. We sat down with this very involved woman to discuss her time in New Canaan, her various roles and responsibilities, and of course her dogs.
New Canaanite: What year did you graduate New Canaan High School?
Elizabeth Oei: 1983, and I actually went to Center School briefly before that. When there was a Center School.
What do you think of the way downtown New Canaan has been changing over the years?
Overall I like it. I like the way they have kept all the smaller shops and not a lot of big commercial businesses. I am a little disappointed in the amount of vehicle traffic. On and off I have lived here since I was in seventh grade, and I understand that progress happens, but I kind of wish that the immediate downtown area was a little more pedestrian-friendly because I walk with the dogs three or four times a day in that area and I cannot tell you how many times we’ve almost been hit.
Do you see any issues with that in regards to NCVAC as well?
As an EMT, unless we absolutely have to, we do not go on Elm Street and we try to avoid as much of the immediate downtown area as possible because of the congestion. Obviously if we called for an emergency on one of those streets we go, but if we are just going to lunch or driving somewhere else we go around because with all the cars in that area you can get stuck.
When did you sign up with NCVAC?
I started actually right after high school. I was interested in it in high school because I worked a lot in theater, doing the lighting and set stuff, and one of our mentors was Ed Dixon who was an EMT at the time. So, that was always fascinating to me—he would walk around with a pager on his hip and you would hear about all these emergencies, so that is kind of what caught my interest. After high school I took the EMT course in Greenwich, Connecticut.
I think always it was more the excitement and the unpredictability of it that interested me, so after I got my license I then progressed into taking the paramedic course. After I graduated the course I took a job down in Florida, and from then I got a scholarship to go to nursing school. I then came back and volunteered for NCVAC again in the early 2000s. The only reason I left was because I had a family emergency in Florida—I had to take care of both my grandmother and father so I went back to take care of them. I have just recently come back to town and ran into some of my old NCVAC buddies this past winter. They said, ‘Don’t you miss riding in the snow with the ambulance and being up all night?’ Since I had been gone longer than five years I had to retake the EMT course at Norwalk Community College, and here I am back being active and driving. I do it because I like doing it, I like to help people, and I like giving back to the community.
What are some things about the NCVAC that people might not know?
I think it is important for people to know that we are 100 percent volunteer—we are the only 100 percent volunteer service left in Connecticut and our services are free to the town of New Canaan because the town has been very good and generous with donations, as well as the people of New Canaan, and they keep us going. We have some of the best equipment in all of Fairfield County, beautiful shiny new ambulances, and top educated people. It is a big time commitment once you sign up, but again once you contribute to the town this way and offer them a free service I think it is really worth it.
Can you shed light on what the Pop-Up Park Committee involves and how you got involved?
One of the people who is a core member of the committee is Jeff Holland, and he and I used to ride ambulances together—so this is where all the friendships and ties come in. When I first moved back to New Canaan a year ago last April, I saw him in town moving these fences at the corner of Elm and South because I was walking the dogs. He explained to me that they block off the area and put up tables and chairs and umbrellas, and that it is just a place to meet and sit and relax. That particular day he was setting up mini golf. I thought it was so cool and cut back on vehicular traffic, so I could sit there with my dogs and relax. He told me it goes up and down every weekend, so clearly they needed help. I’m up early in the morning and was happy to come and put in a little muscle. Gradually, I have become more involved as we try to get it to become a full time summer standing event. I think in a perfect world, our fantasy would be to have that area permanently closed and have that area become a plaza but that’s way off in the future. I know many people who have come from out of town asking about the pop up park, and I think it can be this quaint New Canaan thing. It’s like a magnet that draws people in and it brings that feeling of the ’70s and ’80s when everybody knew everybody in New Canaan.
With all you do, how do you find you balance your time?
It gets crazy sometimes. Honestly, I do the NCVAC stuff to relax because it is so different from what I do in my full time job, and I think one other thing that keeps me grounded are my dogs. They keep me exercised and they are very relaxed; they keep me sane.
The dogs seem very important to you.
They are. They are my children. They are my unconditional love—they listen to me if I have to gripe and they love me no matter what. If I am late, they love me and if I go away for a couple days they still love me. There is pretty much no downside, and they are very striking so I have become a known entity in town because people will remember the dogs. They don’t always remember me and I am alright with that, but they always remember the dogs.
You wear a lot of different hats, so what do you think you are most recognized around town for?
The dogs, there is no question and I think I am all right with that.
Oei made note that NCVAC will hold an EMT class beginning August 31 for all interested in getting involved. More information can be found via email at the address info@NCVAC.org or on the website.