NC veteran EMS provider reflects on 43-year career

Terry Barber said one of the toughest calls he's responded to was a drunk driver that crashed into a group of Girl Scouts and killed several

By Brie Handgraaf
The Wilson Daily Times

WILSON COUNTY, N.C. — During his 43 years in emergency medical services, only a quarter of Terry Barber’s career was spent tending to patients in the back of an ambulance.

And yet, the people he helped and the emergencies he mitigated during that time remain seared in his memory.

“I remember when I was working in Williamston with the rescue squad where I started my career and we responded to a bad crash on U.S. 64. When cars ran together at 60 mph back then, it was real bad because there were no safety systems in place,” Barber recalled. “We’d carried a few folks to the hospital and I was cleaning up the truck when the highway patrolman came and said he wanted to hug me.

“I was a little confused, but he said he was glad we were there instead of him having to throw the patients in his car and take them to the hospital.”

Despite the cohesive integration of emergency services today, it wasn’t too long ago when paramedics didn’t exist and mortuary staff were the ones who responded to tragedies. When Barber started his career on Aug. 1, 1973, organized training was nonexistent, as was support for the often gruesome scenes to which they responded.

It was during his time in Williamston that he was called to a rural area where a drunken driver had hit a group of young Girl Scouts, killing several and wounding many. Recalling the scene filled his eyes with tears and haunted his dreams for years.

“It was a bad situation,” Barber said. “I can say that call hardened my resolve to do even better. It made me want to improve, improve, improve.”

Barber initially wanted to go into law enforcement, but a societal shift laid a new career path at his feet. Several funeral homes had volunteer agencies to handle medical calls, but officials determined call volume warranted a paid staff and Barber was among the first hired.

“They told you how to take out the stretcher and put in the stretcher, then turn the lights and sirens on and off,” Barber said. “That was about it. I don’t think we even had a blood pressure cuff on board, but they might have told us how to control bleeding some, but not much more.”

As the capabilities of emergency medical technicians were realized, Barber’s zeal for more expertise led him to the mountains. Surry County was hiring EMTs and sending them to paramedic school, and he jumped at the opportunity to learn how to administer mobile intensive care.

“I had an interaction with a nurse one night early in my career, after I’d gotten my intensive care certification, where she was just ‘You ambulance drivers can leave,’” he said. “...A lot of folks still think of us a medical taxi. They’ll call an ambulance thinking it will get them through the ER quicker, but a patient’s acuity level dictates the order they are seen in, not how they arrived.”

After about five years near Mount Airy, he returned to eastern North Carolina to start a rescue squad in western Edgecombe County, then headed to Rowan County to take the position of EMS director.

In September 1989, the Martin County native moved to Wilson County to be closer to his parents.

“Terry has been a part of advancing our Emergency Medical Services to the modern system we have today. Right alongside those changes and advances, he has consistently kept the care and service to our citizens as a priority,” said Assistant County Manager Ron Hunt. “His footprint will always be a part of our EMS system.”

Soon after joining Wilson County, he joined the North Carolina EMS Advisory Council and helped shape the EMS system both locally and across the state.

“I’ve been able to see EMS grow from its infancy and archaic way of doing things to a progressive way that really does save lives,” Barber said. “I like to think I’ve had some significant input in that, but I don’t believe in patting myself on the back. I’ve enjoyed being a part of it and helping it grow.

“The part I will brag about is Wilson County and our staff, because we are among the best in the state.”

As the director, the 63-year-old man likens his job to the glue of the department.

“My staff do the work everyone sees and I’m here to make sure everything keeps moving. I make sure the money is there, diplomatic issues are handled with other agencies and so forth,” Barber said. “This position and the person in it has a lot of responsibility to see that the department of 65 people is running and the calls are answered in a timely basis. Even though the duties are often delegated to others, ultimately it is my responsibility.”

As the director, Barber also coordinates the department’s response to everything from possible pandemics to natural disasters, and a large part of mitigating catastrophes comes down to planning and preparing.

“I don’t believe EMS is something people can just do. I believe it is more of a calling and you’ve got to have the mental capability to take the good and the bad calls,” he said. “Every day is not a big day, but one day you’ll get a call that will change the way you look at everything. We may not have hurricanes and tornadoes every day, but staff deal with personal, individual disasters every day.

“When people call us, that is likely one of their worst days ever.”

Wilson County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Bobbie Jones said she has been honored to work with Barber.

“I have watched Terry grow professionally over the years,” she said. “He always had the citizens’ best interest in mind and was focused on efficiencies and quality service. It has been a real pleasure to work with him.”

Barber’s final day in the top spot will be Dec. 30 and Michael Cobb, the assistant director, will take the helm in 2017.

“Terry has been a very strong, reliable and steady leader for Wilson County. His peers within Wilson County government look up to him and have felt his support and guidance over the years,” said County Manager Denise Stinagle. “He will be missed, however, it is not a surprise that he has made sure that Wilson County EMS has a well-trained and well-prepared staff that will run smoothly through this leadership transition.”

Barber said he looks forward to spending time with his five children and 10 grandkids, volunteering as well as traveling with his wife, Pam.

“I’ve truly enjoyed my career,” he said. “I hear folks complaining about having to go to work and while there have been bad days and good ones, there has never been a day I didn’t want to come. There are days I’ve wanted to stay in bed, but that is human nature.

“I loved running calls and even in management, that connection to helping people is great, as is the ability to know I’ve helped facilitate that.”

Copyright 2016 The Wilson Daily Times

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