Hawthorn Woods woman, one of Chicago's first female paramedics, dies

 
 
Updated 12/1/2016 4:59 PM
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  • Trudy "Casey" Stryganek on the job as a Chicago Fire Department paramedic in the 1970s.

    Trudy "Casey" Stryganek on the job as a Chicago Fire Department paramedic in the 1970s. Courtesy of Brandon Stryganek

  • Trudy "Casey" Stryganek of Hawthorn Woods was a professional ice skater in her youth and later worked in the medical field. Here, she is with her son, Brandon at his college graduation this past May.

    Trudy "Casey" Stryganek of Hawthorn Woods was a professional ice skater in her youth and later worked in the medical field. Here, she is with her son, Brandon at his college graduation this past May. Courtesy of Brandon Stryganek

  • Trudy "Casey" Stryganek and her sister, Judy, pose in this 1969 publicity photo. They skated as the Casey Twins.

    Trudy "Casey" Stryganek and her sister, Judy, pose in this 1969 publicity photo. They skated as the Casey Twins. Courtesy of Burnett-Dane FUNERAL HOME

  • Later in her life, Trudy "Casey" Stryganek ran a company called Emergency Medical Training. In 2003, she talked to Fremont Middle School students about the equipment on an ambulance.

      Later in her life, Trudy "Casey" Stryganek ran a company called Emergency Medical Training. In 2003, she talked to Fremont Middle School students about the equipment on an ambulance. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2003

Trudy "Casey" Stryganek was born into show business, first performing as a young child with her family acrobatic troupe and then as a teen with her twin sister in the Ice Follies figure skating show.

The Chicago native entertained countless people across the nation, including at the 1962 opening of the old Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect.

But her most important contributions to the world came later.

After retiring from professional skating, Stryganek became one of the Chicago Fire Department's first female paramedics in 1976. She later launched a successful emergency medical training program.

"She was a groundbreaking pioneer," Chicago Fire Deputy District Chief Jeff Lyle said.

Stryganek, 67, a Hawthorn Woods resident for the past 20 years, died Sunday after collapsing at her home.

Stryganek joined the family acrobatic act when she was 5. They performed in professional variety shows under the name "Casey" -- her father's first name -- because Stryganek was difficult to pronounce, recalled twin sister Judy Zack, also of Hawthorn Woods.

When Stryganek and her sister were 11, they received ice skates as Christmas presents from their parents. The skates were a "run of the mill" model, Zack recalled, but the girls were hooked.

"We took to the ice like it was a natural gift from God," Zack said.

The girls turned their skating ability into a new act -- the Casey Twins. They skated for audiences at malls, theaters, hotels and other venues.

They even skated in Chicago's 1960 Torchlight Parade for then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, just days before he won the election.

"We skated on a moving float," Zack remembered. "It was really beautiful. It was a real highlight of our life."

About two years later, the girls were invited to join the Ice Follies, a touring production that also featured figure skating champions.

"It was the premier ice show," Zack said. "Twelve months a year we traveled."

The sisters left the show in their early 20s after Trudy Stryganek tore a hamstring during a performance in New York's Madison Square Garden. The surgeries that followed inspired her to pursue a new career: medicine.

"She picked herself up and wanted to help people," said Zack, who became a teacher.

In February 1976, Stryganek joined the Chicago Fire Department as a paramedic. The department had hired its first female paramedic less than two years earlier.

Back then, fire stations didn't have separate bathrooms or sleeping quarters for female employees, Lyle said. Female applicants had to take the same written and physical tests as their male counterparts, too.

"Essentially it was a man's world, (an) all-boy's club," Lyle said. "No special accommodations were provided."

Stryganek left the fire department in 1979. She worked as a physician assistant and then created a company based at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago called Emergency Medical Training that prepares people for jobs as paramedics.

"She really did impact a lot of lives," said her son, Brandon.

Brandon Stryganek was a track star at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He said his mother's "drive and determination" inspired him.

"That's one thing my mom always told me as a kid -- to give 100-percent effort at anything I did, and I'd be all right," he said.

In addition to her son and sister, Stryganek's survivors include a brother, Casey Jr.

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