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In big and small moments, Virginia Beach’s volunteer emergency medical rescuers give to their neighbors

Eric Llanes and Gary Wilks, members of Princess Anne Courthouse Volunteer Rescue Squad, speak with a patient on Saturday, Feb. 25, before tranporting her to Sentara Princess Anne Hospital. Both are former sailors who stayed in Virginia Beach after being stationed here. Each said volunteering with their squad is a way to give back to the community. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

COURTHOUSE — Gary Wilks, a native New Yorker who recently turned 61, and Eric Llanes, 42, originally from Maryland, rode together in an ambulance, Unit 523 from Station 5 in the Courthouse area from the evening of Saturday, Feb 25, until the morning Sunday, Feb. 26.

Consider it a gift.

Both are members of Princess Anne Courthouse Volunteer Rescue Squad, established in 1947, a few years before the modern city came to be. Wilks is the squad’s former captain, the one responsible, among other things, for blue ambulances in the squad’s stable.  

They grabbed a bite to eat while they had a chance before heading to Station 21, a satellite location for the squad at Nimmo Parkway. They filled oxygen tanks. Soon after, they had a call.

“Courthouse Estates,” Wilks said.

“Five-twenty-three en route,” Llanes said. 

 “What do we have?”

Llanes said the woman’s age, said she had abdominal pain.

With Wilks at the wheel, they left the station at Nimmo, heading toward General Booth Boulevard, and slowed, blaring the sirens to make the right turn toward Princess Anne Road.

“I hope they open up these roads,” Wilks said. “These two-lane roads, somedays … ”

There was traffic ahead, but they had little shoulder to use to move over. Pulling over for emergency vehicles is not always a given.

“Sometimes they’re good about it,” Wilks said. “We’re coming up on a few now.”

They found room to pull over.

“That was pretty nice,” Wilks said.

For the most part.

“This one here, he’s trying to outrun us,” Wilks noted.

The sedan in question eventually slowed down and got over.

The unit passed Holland Road, and soon Princess Anne Road became North Landing Road near the city municipal center.

Both people in the ambulance were formers sailors who served their country in uniform and now serve their city in a different uniform. As members of Virginia Beach’s volunteer rescue system, they do so for free, among the hundreds of citizens who give at least 48 hours a month to help their neighbors when they are at their most vulnerable, often amid challenging circumstances. 

Volunteers are an essential part of the emergency rescue response here, and the volunteer-based rescue system is the largest of its kind in the U.S. More than 1,000 volunteers serve in 10 squads from Chesapeake Beach to Kempsville to Blackwater.

These efforts provide about $22 million in savings to the city each year, according to the Virginia Beach Rescue Squad Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the rescue squads, each of which are 501(c)(3) nonprofits.

Often, those the squads help do not understand that those who care for them before they reach a hospital are giving their time to the community. That is not pressing information in the moment, of course.

Wilks and Llanes arrived at the house in Courthouse Estates. A neighbor stood at the door. The patient’s son arrived, and the volunteers followed him inside through a garage door. Along the way, they looked for the best way to get a stretcher in and out.

“Hello, my name is Eric,” Llanes said, introducing himself to the woman sitting in her living room. “I’m here to help you.”

Eric Llanes goes through his gear after cleaning the ambulance following delivery of a patient to the hospital. The red letters seen through the window in the background mark the ambulance entrance at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

Wilks is a Brooklyn native who became involved with emergency services in New York before enlisting in the Navy. He served 20 years as a culinary specialist. Before he retired, he joined the Princess Anne Courthouse squad after meeting one of its leaders at Naval Air Station Oceana. 

He lives in Salam Villages, and he works managing a food services facility and as an emergency technician at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital. Still, he volunteers, now as a member for a squad he led for eight years as captain. “It’s my church,” he said during an interview. “Some people go to church on Sunday.”

Llanes has been volunteering for five years. He hails from Bowie, Md., and served eight years as an aviation machinist’s mate before being medically retired. Like Wilks, he has a family, though his children are still in the nest. Llanes works in information technology with the Navy Exchange Command.

“I’ve always wanted to volunteer,” he said. “I don’t know what to do with my weekends without my volunteer.”

And he cares about the overall team.

“The camaraderie,” he said. “There’s good times and bad times, but the good outweighs the bad, especially when you do something for the community. I’m not rich. I can’t donate $10 million to the city, so I’ll donate my 48 hours a month.”

“A lot of jobs, you don’t see the thanks in it,” Wilks said. “You meet somebody. They’re uptight, stressed out. … You give them what they need.”

Llanes recalled the son of someone he once helped. The son said he would make them steaks, and the son followed through, made steaks for Llanes and his partner. 

Not that sort of thing is needed. The squads provide this service for free – meaning the prehospital care only, of course.

“I tell people that once we get past the double doors, the ‘ching ching’ starts,” Wilks said with a smile.

Wilks undertakes an important part of the job — documentation — in a small room with snacks for rescue personnel, as well as inspirational signage. He is completing paperwork after he and Llanes transported a person to Sentara Princess Anne Hospital on Saturday, Feb. 25. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

The woman Llanes and Wilks helped – and her son and neighbor – are not being identified because The Independent News agreed to protect patient confidentiality as a condition of the ride-along and because the woman was not in a position to give consent.

The newspaper did not photograph the woman’s face or inside her home. Additionally, some aspects of the conversation have been omitted because they would be identifying.

In the house, Wilks and Llanes ran the women through a series of question.

“On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt.”

“Ten.”

“If I touch here, does it hurt?”

“Yes.”

“If I touch here, does it hurt.”

“No.”

They asked when she had eaten? What had she eaten? They pricked her finger, tested her sugar. “What’s your normal sugar?”

Nothing near where it was.

They placed her on the stretcher, brought her outside, talking with her all the way. In the back of the ambulance, they spoke a bit more and checked in with the hospital.

Virginia Beach is a Navy town, geographically vast, the city with the greatest population in the commonwealth. It is also a very big small town. 

People cross paths. They influence each other. Maybe they even meet again.

“I joined because of him,” Llanes said during an interview. His daughter had been hurt playing hockey when she was younger, and Llanes said he met Wilks at the the hospital when Wilks was working his job there.

“I didn’t remember it until he said it,” Wilks said later. “Sometimes it’s just that one moment.”

In the back of the ambulance, Wilks and the patient discovered they have people in common. 

This story cannot be too specific, but the woman remembered him. 

How he was a great cook, for example.

“My neighbors came and checked on me,” the woman said.

“That’s why I thought you were a movie star,” Wilks said, noting that people were outside when they got there.

“I remember your name,” she said.

“It’s good to be remembered,” Wilks said.

They spoke about people in common.

“My son runs rescue, too,” Wilks said.

“His name is Gary?” the woman asked.

“His name is Gary, too.”

Llanes drove them toward Sentara Princess Anne. The son followed them in his car. In the back of the ambulance, Wilks kept the woman talking. There wasn’t more to check. He kept an eye on her, but this ride was about getting her there.

Throughout the drive to the hospital, he held the woman’s hand.

Wilks holds the hand of an elderly patient to keep her calm while transporting her from Courthouse Estates to Sentara Princess Anne Hospital. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]


For information about volunteering with a volunteer rescue squad in Virginia Beach, visit livesneedsaving.org.


© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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