Former judge Don Bush, 70, now works part-time as an EMT for Texas Star Ambulance. Photo: Mark Graham

As he rides in the back of an ambulance ­scrambling to 911 calls and administering to patients as a newly-minted paramedic, 70-year-old Don Bush is getting used to a typical query.

“A lot of the time, I’m transporting people younger than I am.” Bush said. “One of them said recently ‘Do people ever ask you: Sir, shouldn’t you be the one on the stretcher?’”

It’s a completely reasonable question for anyone unfamiliar with Bush’s career.

One year ago, Bush was responding to a different kind of emergency—a judicial one—as a U.S. Magistrate judge. For 13 years, Bush served as a judge in the Eastern District of Texas’s Sherman Division, one of the busiest districts in the nation.

Bush said he enjoyed the challenging caseload but had reached a point where it was time to do something different.

And although he’d reached the stage of life where most retired judges are considering a mediation practice or their next round of golf, Bush had no intention of slowing down.

“I always wanted to do something in the medical field and regretted that I didn’t,” Bush said.

In fact, his original career choice of law was an unusual within his family. His identical twin brother, Ron Bush, is a practicing Florida cardiovascular surgeon and his son Matt Bush is also a Dallas doctor.

“I pushed everybody in my family into the medical profession, not law,” Bush said. “I ended up going to law school. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought, but I had decided to do something other than medicine. My twin brother was going the other route. One twin usually goes one route, the other goes another.”

So, a half-century after attending law school, Bush finally decided to join the family profession with one goal in mind: to assist his son on medical mission trips to Haiti.

In 2016, he started pursuing his an EMT license, a demanding certification that required him to lift 250 pounds. And as it turned out, the physical requirements of the certification were easy for him, even at an advanced age.

“I don’t feel like I’m 70. I exercise and I ride my bike every day. And I was a marathoner all my life before my knee replacement about eight or 10 years ago,” said Bush, who still has a runner’s resting heart rate of 45.

“I went through the EMT program at night while I was sitting on the bench. It took about a year, and I did all of the required coursework,” Bush said. “I did my clinical training the day after I retired by working in hospitals and on ambulances.”

Before he left the bench in August 2016, Bush discussed his radical career change with his fellow Eastern District judges before making the move. That decision revealed more about his character than his quirks, his former colleagues said.

“He is an amazing individual and was a great judge,” said Amos Mazzant, a U.S. District Judge in Sherman who served as a law clerk for Bush and eventually alongside him as a U.S. magistrate judge. “When he left, it was sad day for us. But for him, it was a different way to do public service.”

Before becoming a magistrate, Bush was a former partner in Jenkens & Gilchrest who left big firm life to start his own successful civil defense firm in Dallas called Bush, Craddock, Hufsmith and Gilhooly in the late 1980s.

He later expanded his practice to the Eastern District’s Marshall Division where he impressed the judges as successful defense lawyer who defended railroad companies from civil suits in over 100 civil suits. And when a magistrate job opened there, he jumped on it.

“It was a big pay cut, but it was something I always wanted to do,” Bush said about becoming a magistrate judge. “It’s the highest calling for trial lawyer. And I told my wife, we can tighten our belts now, or later on.”

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Schell, who was part of panel of Eastern District judges who hired Bush in 2003 and worked alongside him in the Plano U.S. District Courthouse, was impressed at the time that a then 56-year-old successful trial lawyer with 30 years of experience wanted to be a magistrate judge.

So it just made sense to Schell that Bush was game for yet another career change—one that came with an even bigger pay cut—and do it well. Schell noted that Bush graduated as the valedictorian of his EMT class last year.

“I’m not surprised that he was able to do it,” Schell said. “I was just surprised he wanted to take on a career that was 180 degrees in the other direction.”

“But he’s such a giving person, this was natural for him,” Schell added. “And he didn’t do this for any monetary remuneration. That was never his goal. It was simply to help others.”

Bush had been a valued Eastern District judge where he helped his colleagues stay afloat in sea of civil and criminal filings that often tops over 1,000 weighted cases per judge—twice the national average.

Schell often referred Bush difficult civil cases by consent of the parties. For example, one of those cases was Morgan v. Swanson, also known as the “Candy Cane case” in which a third-grader sued the Plano Independent School District because he was prevented from distributing a candy cane pen in class with a religious message. That religious freedom case was litigated thoroughly for 10 years before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled the school was immune from suit in 2011 en banc decision.

“The docket was heavy, especially in the later years. Judge Bush had a very heavy criminal load and he also handled a lot of civil cases,” Schell said. “There was just almost no way you could overload him because he’s just so capable.”

Schell even sent Bush to Korea to handle a prisoner transfer—one of the jobs U.S. Magistrates occasionally handle—because Bush can speak fluent Korean. He picked up that skill in the U.S. Army where he had served as a captain assigned to a psychological unit in Southeast Asia.

After making trips to Haiti with his son, Bush found plenty of need for his new skills at home in Texas. He now works two days a week at the QuestCare Watermark Community Partnership, a nonprofit urgent care clinic started by the Watermark Church and Questcare, a group of doctors including his son. At the clinic, he draws blood, gives immunizations and helps perform triage care for incoming patients.

“It’s a free clinic. They do not take insurance,” Bush said of his clinic work “It’s open to all, irrespective of race creed or color.”

And to keep his medical skills sharp, Bush also works one day a week for Texas Star Ambulance, a private company where he transports patients from nursing homes to hospitals helps handle 911 back up calls for North Texas cities.

“Occasionally, I’ll get a Korean patient and it’s a general surprise to the patient and the doctor and the nurse that I speak Korean,” Bush said of his language skill. “But it’s not that proficient anymore, believe me.”

As a devout Baptist, Bush said serving people in his retirement as a paramedic is his way of serving God.

“I did it as a ministry,” Bush said. “That’s what I really wanted to do for people. And the programs that I’m involved with are really great ministry.”

Mike Craddock, Bush’s former law partner who watched as his friend gave up a good paying practice to become a judge, and then give up a good judicial career to ride in an ambulance, said the unusual moves are fitting for the man he’s watched give back to his neighbors and his community since hiring him “right off the street” in 1989 and making him a name partner in the firm.

“To him it was something he could do to make a difference. He had done everything that he could with his law practice,” Craddock said. “And I think that’s why he’s continuing on this path. It doesn’t surprise me in the least bit. If he was younger he’d probably get a medical degree.”

However, Bush corrects Craddock on his potential for eventually becoming a doctor.

“It was a challenge,” Bush said of his late career change as a paramedic. “But my wife has told me ‘This is it, no more school.’ So this is it.”

Still, Bush highly recommends the move of becoming an EMT to his fellow member of the bar, no matter their age.

“The more lawyers we can make paramedics,” Bush said. “The better the world will be.”