By Richard Gambino
This is a story about heroes. Not Hollywood or TV actors being paid millions to play heroes, but real men and women who are on call twenty-four/seven to save the lives of … well, our lives. And they’re among the most highly trained and professional people I’ve ever met. More, they’re volunteers – neighbors of ours. One might live on your street or road, or certainly not far from it. Fact is, their average time from the moment a 911 call is placed to the moment they are en route with a fully manned ambulance is under nine minutes!
I’m talking, of course, about the thirty-four members of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps — which in 2007 Suffolk County named the best EMS (Emergency Medical Service) in the county. I recently met with five members of the corps’ board of directors, and was amazed at what more I learned. To qualify as an Emergency Medical Technician-Basic, each new member of the corps takes a training course of 175 hours of classroom, field, and clinical training in a hospital; and an EMT-Critical Care certification requires an additional 350 hours of such training — a total of 525 hours. That’s equivalent to over thirteen forty-hour work weeks. What’s more, every three years each qualified member must update his or her knowledge and skills with an additional 75 to 150 hours of training. And the corps in 2008 answered 620 emergency calls. All the while each of its members holding down a job or career, and being a husband or wife, mother or father. Just to save us when we’ve been in an accident in a car or boat, or suffering from a heart attack or stroke, or diabetic shock, or can’t breathe, or fall at home, on ice, or hurt oneself with a power tool, or are just too sick to get to a hospital on our own, or, to use Shakespeare’s words, suffer any other of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
Each of the corps’ two ambulances is loaded with life-saving equipment. For example, each has, for heart problems, an EKG (electrocardiogram) machine and an AED (automatic external defribulator); oxygen and airway equipment; trauma equipment like spinal collars, backboards and splints; and emergency medications like dextrose (for diabetics), albuterol (for breathing problems); and a lot of other gear. I was shown the inside of one of the vehicles, and it looks like a mini-emergency room in a hospital.
In talking with five members of the board of directors of the corps, I found them to be cordial and good humored. The kind of people you’d like to have come to your house on a summer evening to share a cook-out. But when we talked of the corps, being used to action together, they talked as a team — calmly and with authority. When I asked what they would like us, the general public, to do to help them when they are answering an emergency, they made only two requests. One, if we are driving and we see a flashing green light on an EMS person’s personal car (they are not permitted to use sirens, or to honk horns, on their private cars), PLEASE PULL OVER AND LET HIM OR HER PASS. The person they are rushing to help may be someone you love. And, two, when they arrive at an emergency location, PLEASE ANSWER ALL THEIR QUESTIONS FULLY AND TRUTHFULLY. Questions, e.g., about drugs taken. One, I assure you, they’ve seen it all before, and two, they are not police — their only interest is in keeping you alive.
The corps covers a substantial geographical area: Sag Harbor, North Haven, Bay Point, Noyac to Deerfield Road, and Route 114 to Swamp Road, day and night. They are ready while most of us are working, relaxing sleeping, and otherwise going about our daily lives. But I, for one, sleep much easier knowing that the corps has thirty-four people prepared to go as soon as they get a 911 call.
I’ll never forget the help I got from an EMS team when I suffered hypothermia (a potentially fatal syndrome when your body temperature drops and you feel as if your internal organs are encased in ice) about nineteen years ago. I had been scuba diving on a cold day late in November. After I was stabilized at a hospital, a Chinese-immigrant doctor looked at me, and said, “You diving!” I nodded. “You diving — November!” I nodded again, and he burst out laughing — and found my story hilarious enough to go on with a long belly-laugh. Being now wrapped like a mummy in thermal blankets, and feeling much better, I joined him in yuckin’-it-up at my stupidity. Then suddenly he stopped laughing and became completely serious. He looked very sternly into my eyes, and said, “EMS people — they save you life!”
And I recall five years ago when my daughter was driving on a sunny, clear morning on Route 27 in Water Mill. A man driving a van passed out, crossed the highway’s center line and hit her car head on — each car doing 45 miles per hour, it was a 90 mile per hour crash. (Later, the man was diagnosed as having brain cancer.) My daughter was very seriously injured. Her life was saved by an EMS team, led by a woman my daughter knew from being together in a local book club.
As with all else in life, the corps’ functioning costs money. The two ambulances alone cost $350,000 to purchase, paid for solely by donations received during the annual fund drive. They are also expensive to maintain and run, as are the buildings that house them. But how’s this for a nightmare: You or a member of your family is hurt or ill. You dial 911, and no medically trained people come to help. So if for no other reason but smart self-interest, please, please send a tax-deductible contribution to:
The Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps
PO Box 2725
Sag Harbor, NY 11963.
RICHARD GAMBINO is very grateful to those members of the Board who met with him: Ed Downes (President), Stacy McGowin (Vice-President), Astrid Edwards (Secretary), Charlie Bateman (Director) and Karin Schroeder (Director).