Courtland, VA – To hear Michael Griffin and Peter Gonzalez describe it, they were just doing their jobs. Sentara Healthcare believes they went so far above and beyond the call of duty during Hurricane Isabel that they’ve been presented with the Sentara ‘Promise Award’ for their courageous work with an injured patient at the height of the storm.
Peter, Michael and Michelle sit in the back of the ambulance where they spent five hours during hurricane Isabel in September, 2003.
Griffin, an Emergency Medical Technician and Gonzalez, a Paramedic, are among four paid ambulance crews assigned to volunteer fire and rescue stations during weekdays in rural Southampton County, Virginia under a county contract with Sentara Medical Transport. On September 16, 2003, they were hunkered down in the firehouse in the community of Capron, as Hurricane Isabel lashed the Hampton Roads area.
“The sheriff ordered emergency vehicles off the roads because of the wind,” Peter remembers. "Trees were falling all over the neighborhood. The cracking sounds were louder than gunshots.”
Michael adds, “It sounded like a war zone. You could feel the thuds when the trees hit the ground.”
Two doors down from the firehouse, Michelle Nichols, who was six months pregnant, was on her enclosed back porch when a 100 year old pecan tree crashed through the roof and the ceiling on top of her. She suffered a bloody puncture wound to her head, a fractured wrist and numerous lacerations on her back and legs, but managed to crawl free and seek help from a neighbor who ran to the nearby firehouse.
In spite of howling winds which exceeded safe operating parameters, Griffin and Gonzalez drove their ambulance to the scene, and placed the injured patient in the back of their unit.
It was a calculated risk,” Peter says. “Some volunteer firefighters in turnout gear went with us in case we needed to cut the tree. They really stepped up to the plate. At one point we all fell on top of her because we thought the house was going down.”
Michelle Nichols and daughter Sara sit on the stump of the 60-foot pecan tree that fell on her house during hurricane Isabel.
They retreated to the firehouse and parked a fire truck beside the ambulance to block the wind. For five hours, as debris pelted the ambulance and storm winds rocked it, Peter tended Michelle’s injuries, kept her calm, and monitored the fetus as best he could without the benefit of fetal monitoring equipment. When the wind subsided a bit, Michael made the decision to try for Southampton Memorial Hospital. “We were running out of resources,” he says.
“She was mumbling and drifting, Peter recalls. “She had a head injury. I was worried about premature labor. It was Michael’s call to go.”
Michelle remembers very little. “My head hurt,” she knows. "I knew they were putting in a lot of effort for me.” She knew her husband Bobby and four children were unhurt.
“It was dark by then,” Michael recalls. The rain was coming down in sheets. The wind was blowing us off the road. Tree limbs were hitting us. Some of the roads were flooded. It was quite a trip.”
“In putting themselves at such risk, these guys went beyond what we’d ask of Sentara employees,” says Ray Darcey, Vice President of Sentara Enterprises, which operates Medical Transport. “They responded like good neighbors, and they personified the Sentara Promise of Service and Patient Safety.”
On the day after the storm, Griffin and Gonzalez cooked at the firehouse for community neighbors without power, even spending some of their own money to buy food. For a week, they assisted with wellness checks on known chronically ill patients in the area, and delivered food and water to the homebound, some of it on their own time.
Michelle Nichols had a healthy daughter, Sara, on December 20, three months after the hurricane. “I did not want to name her Isabel,” she laughs.
About the ambulance service
The daytime ambulance arrangement with Southampton County is a creative blending of paid and volunteer professionals at the county rescue squads, who sometimes find it difficult to staff their ambulances during workdays. Medical Transport staffers drive the rescue squad ambulances and even wear the squads’ logos on their shirts and caps. With the five-year contract now in its third year, the two types of service have integrated smoothly, especially since some of the personnel hired by Sentara were already county residents.
Sentara Medical Transport staffers Michael Griffin and Peter Gonzalez are among four contract crews who staff volunteer rescue stations in Southampton County, Virginia during workdays. Volunteers assume the duty overnight.
“This works for everyone,” says Steve Fuston, Director of Medical Transport. “Southampton County gets reliable ambulance service when the volunteers have difficulty staffing, and it’s been a source of employment for some county residents. We could not have been better-received by officials and residents there.”
About the Sentara Promise Award winners
Michael Griffin is a Southampton County native who pedaled after fire trucks as a kid, and volunteered for rescue squad duty as soon as he was old enough. After clocking off his 12-hour shift with Medical Transport at the Capron firehouse, he then volunteers with the squad in Courtland. “It’s my life,” Griffin told the Tidewater News. “I’m very lucky to be employed doing something I love so much.” Griffin plans to take additional training to become a paramedic.
Gonzalez is what locals in Virginia call a ‘come here.’ He already worked for MTI, but transferred to Southampton County and fell in love with it. He has since moved there and is quickly becoming part of the community. “We were just doing the job we love,” Gonzalez says. “That the management would see fit to give us the Sentara Promise Award has left me speechless.”
Griffin and Gonzalez each received a certificate and $500 for their efforts. They’ll also appear at Sentara’s semi-annual leadership meeting with other Sentara Promise winners, where they could be selected for a grand prize of $2,500.