MOORHEAD – In his 23 years on the job, there's no telling how many lives paramedic Don Martin has touched as they pass through his hands on their way to the next.
In the tradition of the Ojibway people, Martin, who's half Ojibway, handling the dead and dying is considered a sacred honor.
Yet in all the years he's had to ponder life and death issues, Martin has never officially planned out his own end-of-life affairs.
"It's a different generation," he shrugs, taking his place, paperwork in hand, in a line of other paramedics, police and firefighters waiting at the law enforcement center here. "We didn't think of ourselves ... You don't think about it."
Martin is one of a steady stream of first responders - some in their first years on the force, others who've already retired after a full career - who are here to get some much-needed legal help through the Wills for Heroes program.
The free legal clinic was started by a Columbia, S.C., lawyer after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when so many of us were forcibly reminded that for first responders, more than for many other professions, the next day on the job could be their last day.
Wills for Heroes connects first responders and their families with attorneys who work for free to draft health care directives, sort out inheritance wishes and handle other aspects of estate planning for people who are more used to saving others' lives than worrying about the end of their own.
The Minnesota branch, which got going in 2007, has served more than 10,000 first responders so far. The program has spread to 21 states, not including North Dakota and South Dakota.
Susan and David Link are a husband-and-wife pair of Minnetonka attorneys taking Martin and other local first responders through the process.
"They've got a pretty full house in there," observed Link, looking around the room crowded with families and attorneys huddled over their computer monitors, and recognizing three families he's seen at a previous clinic.
One of them belongs to retired Clay County Sgt. Brian Norberg, who hasn't been back since he and his wife were first married.
Since then, they've had nine children, and their wills were more than overdue for an update.
"You don't plan for it," he admitted. "You put it off, you procrastinate - and then it's too late, and someone is making those decisions for you that might be against what you really wanted."
Even without kids, having a will and a health care directive in place is important, Link said.
Without one in Minnesota, even your spouse can't make health decisions for you in the event you're unable to speak for yourself, he said.
The Links are one of several families who pitch in to make the clinics work.
Jenny Olson has been volunteering with Wills for Heroes since she and her husband, a Roseville police officer, filled out their own wills at a clinic.
He still doesn't like to talk about the possibility of that unexpected last day at work, she said.
"I think it's fear. It's not going to happen to them, [so] they don't need to plan," Olson said.
She said said he probably never would have filled out his will if not for the two of them realizing they needed someplace safe for their children to go if both of them die.
Martin gathers his papers and heads in to sit down with a lawyer.
When he started with F-M Ambulance, he said dying on the job and leaving a will was the last thing he thought of.
"It was all about doing the work, doing a good job," he said.