People who spend a lot of time in a life and death business seem to get hardwired with the skills that are critical to the job.
Cops, emergency response technicians (EMTs), ER people, focus on the person in front of them, pay attention to detail, listen, and that’s how Forrest (Elmer) Vanderhoop showed up early last Thursday morning.
He was sitting in his living room in Oak Bluffs, dressed in an EMT uniform with the tools of his trade attached to the pockets and flaps of his white and blue uniform, just off a 12-hour volunteer shift with the Edgartown EMT squad.
Mr. Vanderhoop has spent 27 years as an Island EMT, the only one who’s ever served in all four town “barns,” as EMTs call ambulance service staging areas in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, and Tisbury.
Before retiring in June, Mr. Vanderhoop spent 13 years as a volunteer and 14 years as a salaried EMT on the Island. He still pulls a couple of volunteer shifts a week. Volunteers are actually paid a stipend of $100 for a 12-hour shift in which they are on call and must be in radio contact and remain in the town in which they are serving.
That’s about half what a restaurant line chef makes for tossing your dinner salad, but EMTs don’t seem to mind. ” No, it’s not about the money, it’s about being able to help people who need help,” Mr. Vanderhoop said, pausing to listen to the muted crackle of the radio on his belt.
“Once it gets in your blood it’s hard to get out,” the Aquinnah native said. Mr. Vanderhoop, 65, became an EMT in 1984 after watching two Tisbury friends, Michael and Annie Lima perform volunteer EMT service. “They got me interested in it and Tisbury sponsored and paid the $300 tuition. It’s about $1,200 now,” he said.
“Everybody was a volunteer then, no salaried EMTs or Intermediate level EMTs or paramedics. It’s changed a lot. I think the growth of paramedics is the single biggest change. They can do EKGs (electrocardiograms), start IVs (intravenous) and give a variety of medications. So we have a lot more ‘saves’ than we used to,” he said. “Really, paramedics are the future of EMTs”, he said.
Mr. Vanderhoop is certified as an Intermediate EMT, the level between EMT and paramedic. “You have to educate yourself constantly. We are re-certified every two years and complete 28 continuing education credits in the two years between re-certification testing.”
Back in 1984, before the advent of portable medical technology, EMTs relied on their training in CPR and first aid and their savvy to treat people en route to the hospital.
A good outcome years ago was a suicide attempt. “A woman had cut her wrists, a cry for help, I think. We controlled the bleeding and then I talked to her on the way to the hospital, told her there was always help available, that I was willing to talk with her whenever she wanted to. She told me later that she remembered the talk, that it helped her,” he said. “Two great EMT instructors, Charlie Curran and Bob Fitch told me that listening and compassion were great medicine,” he said.
Mr. Vanderhoop has made a couple thousand emergency runs over nearly three decades, a lot of them with 34-year EMT veteran Chuck Cummens of Edgartown with whom Mr. Vanderhoop has partnered for more than 20 years.
“Dedicated, a dedicated guy. Friendly. This is a business that either you like or you don’t and the protocols you need to follow can make it seem a cookie-cutter business, but he’s added compassion and dedication to the job,” Mr. Cummens said, noting that Mr. Vanderhoop attracts people to him. “Wherever we went, even just walking down the street, people want to talk with him,” he said.
On Thursday, Mr. Vanderhoop reviewed his body of work. “No two calls are ever the same. Lots of bad outcomes but good ones too. One day at home, off-duty, I saw a cruiser pull in down the street. I hustled down and we found a guy upstairs. He was blue. The officer did chest compressions and I did mouth-to-mouth. We lost him again on the way downstairs and twice more on the way to the hospital but he made it.
“I ran into him at a street fair and he insisted we have a picture taken together. He tells everybody ‘This is the guy who saved my life.’ There is a lot of satisfaction in that, that sense of community. Hey, chances are, you know the people you’re helping, or their family,” he said.
Probably true in his case. He is descended from generations of Island Wampanoag Native-Americans and has had a wide-ranging career including stints as a ditch-digger, licensed plumber and a business owner. He was Aquinnah’s youngest selectmen, elected at age 21.
Mr. Vanderhoop met his current wife, Kate, when both were EMTs. Together they do home rescue work, sheltering a two-dozen flock of rescued cockateels and small parrots, as well as two rescue dogs.
Two years ago, Mr. Vanderhoop was diagnosed with colon cancer for which he has been treated and from which he is fully recovered. “Cancer is a scary word, no question, but now I can tell scared people that I know what they’re going through,” he said.
Word’s around that a retirement party’s in the wind but chances are that volunteer EMT Elmer Vanderhoop will continue to suit up and show up.
“Last year, I drove my niece to start college and got to thinking about my life. I decided I wouldn’t change a thing, not even the cancer. It’s life. You just never know,” he said.