Pa. paramedic chief retires after 38 years
Colleagues say Sean Chandler served as a role model to the younger paramedics, and because of him “several residents of this city are no doubt alive and well today"
By Elizabeth Skrapits
The Citizens' Voice
WILKES-BARRE CITY, Pa. — Chief Paramedic Sean Chandler has seen a lot since he started with Wilkes-Barre City’s fledgling emergency medical services unit in 1976.
Some things are positive, like advances in lifesaving technology. Others, like a steady increase in heroin overdoses, aren’t.
But after 38½ years of responding to thousands of calls, Chandler is giving up the good and bad — from saving the life of a choking child to being stabbed in the back by a steak knife-wielding patient.
Chandler is going to be missed by his colleagues at the Wilkes-Barre City Bureau of Fire, which the emergency medical services division is part of. They threw him a party on Monday, when he had his last call over the scanner. This Monday, Chandler starts his retirement.
Wilkes-Barre City Fire Chief Jay Delaney said Chandler served as a role model to the younger paramedics, and that “several residents of this city are no doubt alive and well today as a result of Sean Chandler’s paramedic care.”
“He’s just been a good guy, helped a lot of people,” Delaney said.
He said that despite working 38 years with sometimes up to 12 to 15 calls a shift, Chandler always stayed fresh and dignified and never lost his ability for compassion.
“He treated everyone with genuine compassion, I can say, for all 38 years. That is hard to do when you’re in a career of public service,” Delaney said. “I think that’s his number-one quality.”
Chandler became chief paramedic in February 2007, when his partner Jude Spellman, who held the position since February 1996, stepped down but continued to work as a city paramedic. Chandler would also be appointed to sit on the board of the Wilkes-Barre Employees Federal Credit Union.
Up to the end, Chandler was an on-duty paramedic, responding to calls, Delaney said.
“He wasn’t just an administrative guy,” he said.
But the time came to call it quits. After three straight years of injuries, including a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, Chandler opted to retire.
Besides, he wants to spend more time with his “Two beautiful granddaughters, 3 and 7, who love their Pop-Pop.”
Chandler’s son and daughter are both married, and each has a little girl. His son followed in his footsteps and is a paramedic in the Cherry Hill area of New Jersey. His daughter is a special education teacher in the Allentown area.
Although he plans to move closer to his children within the next few years, Chandler is a Wilkes-Barre native, born and raised. So is his wife, Susan, who spent 40 years as a registered nurse at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital and now works in its Human Resources division.
“She helped convince me to take the plunge,” Chandler admits.
Chandler believes it was a fortunate decision to move Wilkes-Barre’s then-small ambulance division from the police department to combine it with the fire department in 1975.
“Firefighters Local 104 embraced the unit, and we have one of the best in the state,” he said.
Then-Wilkes-Barre fire Chief Joseph Kunec persuaded city council and Mayor Walter Lisman to approve a one-time investment of $6,000 — which would be matched by Emergency Medical Systems of Northeastern Pennsylvania — to start a new paramedic unit, according to a Sept. 7, 1979 article in The Citizens’ Voice.
City officials held interviews to fill four newly created spots on the unit. Chandler, whose father was an emergency medical technician with Spellman Ambulance, wanted to follow in his own father’s footsteps.
“The city held interviews, and everybody applied,” Chandler recalled. “I applied too, but didn’t make it the first time.”
He didn’t get one of the four slots, but snagged a fifth: City officials hired Chandler in February 1976 to fill in during vacations. He was 21 at the time.
Chandler remembers the beginning, when the department had two van ambulances that had seen better days, and very little stock. He used to joke that it was like “Emergency!” the 1970s TV show about the early years of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s paramedic program.
Wilkes-Barre’s emergency medical technicians attended the first paramedic class in Luzerne County, held by Emergency Medical Systems of Northeastern Pennsylvania in trailers set up outside the Wilkes-Barre General Hospital emergency room, Chandler said.
He remembers volunteers from the hospital’s emergency room physician and nursing staff, such as Dr. Peter Corey, Lois Knob and Sandra Knouse.
“They were General Hospital nursing instructors, and it was pioneers like them that taught us,” he said.
After their graduation, Wilkes-Barre became one of the first three areas in Luzerne County to have a paramedic unit, along with Plains Township and the Back Mountain.
Although the city’s system was ready, the emergency room doctors weren’t — at least at first, Chandler said.
Dr. Donald Pepper at Mercy Hospital gave Chandler and his partner Jude Spellman their first orders over the new system. Chandler remembers tending to a cardiac arrest victim “on the back porch in the freezing cold. We almost emptied our drug box.”
“The system took off after that. Everybody started giving us orders,” he said.
There were 272 ambulance runs in July 1979, when the program started, and 518 in August 1979, according to The Citizens’ Voice archives.
As of 2014, Wilkes-Barre’s paramedic unit receives more than 7,500 calls a year, Delaney estimates.
He believes the firefighters — every one of whom is at least an emergency medical technician, if not a paramedic — have really been good, and are simultaneously dispatched with the ambulance for cases such as unconscious patients, cardiac arrest and car accidents.
“I’ve been very lucky over the years with help from the firefighters,” Chandler said. “Their help is just minutes away, and they’re always willing to come out.”
Physical, mental demands
A paramedic’s job can be not only physically demanding, but it can take a mental toll as well.
“There’s danger in what we do, and that’s one of them,” Delaney said.
Some calls, particularly those involving brutal murders or young children, are particularly haunting. They stay with you, Chandler said.
“I’m pretty lucky. Some of our guys had horrific calls,” he said.
Due to his scheduling, Chandler missed by a few hours Northeastern Pennsylvania’s most notorious spree murder: George Banks’ Sept. 25, 1982 rampage that ended with 13 people — including Banks’ own children — shot to death.
Chandler said it bothered the responding paramedic for quite a while. Back then they didn’t have counseling, Chandler said, “So you just ate it, kept it inside.”
Another case that deeply affected the responding paramedic was having to go to the Stark Street home where law enforcement found Elena Herring raped and strangled, and her 6-year-old daughter, Viktoria Ivanova, hanged in the basement on Dec. 7, 2001. Henry Christopher Stubbs III is serving two consecutive life sentences for the appalling murders.
A paramedic’s job can also be dangerous, which Chandler learned firsthand on several occasions.
“You just never know who’s going to do something,” he said.
One day Chandler and his partner were called to assist a 78-year-old woman, a mental health patient the ambulance personnel had attended to in the past. Chandler remembers helping her down the steps and getting as far as the ambulance when she reached into the pocket of her housecoat and pulled out a steak knife.
Chandler saw it coming and pushed the woman away, so he ended up with “more of a slice than a stab.” Instead of plunging the knife into his back, she only cut his shoulder.
Delaney recalled that a few days later, Chandler was back on the job.
At the time of a crisis situation, paramedics are professional and collected. But afterwards: “you play it over and over in your head,” Chandler said.
Fortunately, a good support network exists.
“The fire department has a real brotherhood. We basically do our own counseling. We take care of each other,” Chandler said. “You confide more in your co-workers who understand, because they’re there with it, than you do at home.”
Growing and improving
Delaney, who has known Chandler since 1981, said that when the fire department assumed control of the ambulance service, “It was a shock to the fire department. It was something new, something different.”
When Chandler started, the medic unit was a separate part of the department.
“He kind of helped blend things, bring the team approach,” Delaney said. “Sean worked very hard to make us all one, and to make emergency medical services a big part of the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department.”
He said Chandler looked out for his fellow paramedics, successfully fighting to end discrepancies between the firefighters’ and paramedics’ pay, benefits and working conditions.
There were many other improvements over the decades. “Back in the early 80s, we really struggled keeping one ambulance on the road,” Delaney said.
Now the department has four ambulances. Two are for advanced life support; one of these is kept at South Station on High Street, the other at Hollenback Station on North Washington Street, where Chandler worked.
Delaney credits Chandler with helping to build the ambulance fleet and doing the difficult task of keeping the inventory in them up to date.
He said Chandler also takes care of the rigorous licensing process for the ambulances and the required annual review of the paramedics.
Something else Chandler assisted in was developing regional mutual aid: On Oct 14, 2011, Wilkes-Barre signed agreements with medic units in Kingston, Hanover Township and Plains Township as well as the private TransMed/Spellman Ambulance.
“So if we have five calls at the same time, don’t miss a beat with patient care,” Delaney said.
Delaney said Chandler has helped build Wilkes-Barre’s fire department and paramedic service into one he would put up against any other not just in northeastern Pennsylvania, but anywhere in the country.
For his part, Chandler praised Delaney, who was a full-time city paramedic before he took the firefighters’ test.
“We’re very fortunate that he came from our ranks,” Chandler said of Delaney as chief. “He knows exactly what we need.”
Chandler added, “I don’t know where he finds the money ... The cost of the equipment is phenomenal.”
For example, the sophisticated automatic external defibrillator the department uses, the LifePak 15, cost $45,000, Chandler said.
Another major improvement since the 1970s is that all the patient care reports are computerized. Instead of having to go through paper files, information is at the medics’ fingertips, which can save critical time.
“The kind that keeps you going”
Time is crucial in emergency calls, particularly those that are a matter of life and death.
One of the biggest changes Chandler has seen in his 38 years is that the number of these sorts of calls, particularly for trauma and overdoses, is constantly going up.
At one time, the paramedic unit got a lot of calls for miners with lung problems such as black lung and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but those calls have died out, he said.
“Trauma seems to be the big thing now,” which Chandler called “upsetting.”
In recent years, a plentiful and cheap supply of heroin — it’s even cheaper than marijuana these days, Chandler said — means a sharp increase in overdoses.
“It just has multiplied so much in the past four years,” Chandler said. “The drug overdoses in the city are phenomenal.”
And the users are not just down-and-outs, but all types, including working, middle class people.
He recalls a few people who died when they tried heroin for the very first time because the drug was too pure. Many times former addicts start back up at the dose they were accustomed to when they stopped using and overdose. There were also fatal or near-fatal cases where the heroin was cut with other drugs like Fentanyl. Chandler said the departments spread the word when there’s a bad batch of heroin in the city so the other medics know what to look out for.
In the early days, overdoses were treated like cardiac arrests, Chandler said. Today, emergency responders use Narcan, which he said completely neutralizes the effects of heroin.
Medics put Narcan in a kind of atomizer and shoot it up the overdose patient’s nose, then put a bag over his or her head — Chandler said medics don’t even have to touch the patient’s blood.
The overdose patients, turning blue so that their faces look “like Smurfs,” are “up and talking to us in a minute and a half” after the Narcan is administered, Chandler said.
If it wasn’t for the Narcan, “In another few minutes they’d be dead,” he said.
One of Chandler’s most rewarding cases was when a call came in during the middle of the day that a 3-year-old child was choking at a downtown restaurant.
The engine crew came with the medics to find the child with a hot dog stuck in his throat. It had completely blocked his airway.
“His entire neck was blue,” Chandler said.
Using what is called a McGill pediatric forceps, Chandler was able to grab the hot dog and pull it out, and the child immediately started breathing.
Chandler was honored with an awards ceremony at City Hall for saving the boy’s life, but the honor wasn’t what was important.
“They’re the kind (of cases) that keep you going. You train for years and years and years for something like that,” he said. “To know that a child is walking around now because of you is a great feeling.”
©2014 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)