Urgences-santé CEO Nicola D’Ulisse

Nicola D'Ulisse, photo by Urgences-santé

by Sara Germanotta

Nicola D’Ulisse was a hyperactive kid. Like many second-generation Italian-Canadians, he had to sit through three hours of Italian school on Saturday mornings. He hated it. “I couldn’t wait to get out of the classroom and play soccer in the school yard,” laughs the 54-year-old. “I always wanted to move onto something else. I think that’s what led me to the job I have now.”

Today, D’Ulisse saves lives for a living. As president and CEO of Urgences-santé, he is responsible for coordinating emergency medical services for the cities of Montreal and Laval. Appointed in 2009, he oversees a staff of more than 1,400, including 940 paramedics who field more than 375,000 calls every year. It’s a demanding job that requires leadership, agility and level-headedness – skills, D’Ulisse says, he began cultivating as a teenager on the slopes of Mont Avila in the Laurentians. “One of the best experiences of my childhood was going skiing with my dad every Sunday. There were always 12 to 20 of his Italian friends and family there, and they created a club called the Gran Sasso ski club,” recalls D’Ulisse, whose father comes from Abruzzo. “One of my dad’s Italian buddies was on the ski patrol, and that was one of the first things in life I said I wanted to do. So, when I was 19, I joined the ski patrol.”

D’Ulisse would monitor the hills in the morning and then join his father and friends for lunch, which – like most gatherings that involve Italians – was a feast. “There was fresh bread, mortadella, cheese, walnuts, homemade red wine,” remembers D’Ulisse. “The season always ended with a roast porchetta party in the spring.”

D’Ulisse says he fell in love with the emergency medical responsibilities of being a ski patroller. “I realized that I wanted to take care of people. The patrolling taught me that you can help people and do community work while having fun at the same time.”

Since there were no formal training programs in Quebec in the 1980s, D’Ulisse headed to Vermont to learn how to be a first responder. In 1989, he started patrolling the streets of Montreal as a paramedic. “I was living on adrenaline, and it just seemed so much simpler back then: basic truck, basic training and we had this whole metropolis, this city that just kept moving,” he explains. “We were young, we were fearful of nothing and we jumped right in.”

But times have changed, and D’Ulisse says the profession has greatly evolved over the last 30 years. “Back in the ’80s you got your basic training and you figured out the rest when you were on the road. I look at the new graduates now, after three years of college, and they seem so much more educated and informed. They’re still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but I find they have a heavier responsibility than I did.”

Although he spends more time in boardrooms than ambulances nowadays, D’Ulisse still insists on riding along on calls as often as he can. “It’s important for me to get out there and touch and see as much as I can. I think it makes you a better chief when you can go out on the road because as good as we think we are, we’re never as good as the young guys who are out there every day.”

Emergency responders in Montreal are currently dealing with the city’s opioid crisis, seeing an upsurge in drug and alcohol-related calls. For his part, D’Ulisse says his goal is to continue the expansion and development of Urgences-santé to help prepare paramedics for the changing needs in public health. “I want to see more people come into the profession and continue to grow on the job. I want to see paramedics evolve in leadership and education. We’ve got a good system, but there’s always room for improvement.”