Student rescue squad make friends and face challenges during pandemic

By Claire Perry

20-year-old Kim Woodward ran from the ambulance up three flights of rickety stairs, her hands empty and grey polo stained navy with sweat, and opened the door to a baby’s crowning head.

“Oh,” she gasped. “We’re going to deliver this baby.”

Woodward, a then college sophomore, had joked with her colleagues at South Orange Rescue Squad just hours before over an afternoon Elmo’s coffee that something crazy—something like delivering a baby— would happen today during their shift.

She was the one who threw the OBGYN kit onto the stretcher her squadmates pulled haphazardly into the Old Well Apartments, which had patchworked sidewalks and landlord’s special paint jobs even in 1996, long before its name was changed to Abbey Court to cover up a murder-suicide.

But Woodward remembers the Old Well apartments not for the deaths, but for the gift of life.

Because the moment the mother pushed the baby into her arms in those apartments, 20-year-old Woodward knew she wanted to work in Emergency Management Services forever.

“​​I wasn’t even able to drink and yet I was delivering a baby.”

And that’s how, 25 years later, a college student who only took EMT classes so her roommate wouldn’t have to do them alone has become the Director of Orange County EMS Operations.

They stand beside a yellow and blue striped ambulance outside of the Smith Center, their ranks blending right in with Orange County EMS’s own if not for their age. These students see their college experience through the lens of a barred window and flashing lights, a high-pitched siren the soundtrack of their core college memories.

Bonding between the blasts of sirens

Leyla Ozelkan, a 2021 UNC graduate, is a lieutenant in SORS, the same position Woodward held over 20 years ago. Like many UNC students hopeful of starting a medical career, she learned about EMS in a classroom, but she learned how to be in EMS at Carrboro’s Southern Orange Rescue Services (SORS).

While other students were studying in dorm common rooms, Leyla was sitting on top of folding tables surrounded by SORS’ cinder block walls, trading sweatpants and Birkenstocks for black slacks and work shoes. When all there is to do is work, and wait to work, bonds grow between the cinder block’s cracks.

“There’s something about spending 12 hours with someone, and it’s three in the morning, and you are getting back from this weird call. And you’re like, ‘What just happened?’,” Ozelkan remembers. “You develop a trust for each other.”

Every year since 1971, when SORS was founded, UNC students have begun their medical career by learning to face everything from basketball games to battery charges out of SORS’ station on a corner in Downtown Carrboro.

Matthew Mauzy, a former Boy Scout who joined SORS for the shining lights and rescue boats who eventually rose to the rank of chief, was one of those students.

“All of us enjoy lights and sirens, and that’s a big part of it, but also in you know, helping people is as well,” Mauzy said.

It is at SORS that Mauzy met his wife, and most of his wedding party. He’s made lifelong friends, faced many sleepless nights and has even raised a family while serving as SORS’ chief. But now, he faces the biggest challenge of his career.

A pandemic induced strain on EMS services

In 2020, EMS agencies across the country saw a dip in requests for service, which Woodward and Saunders both attribute to patients’ fear of needless contact with the virus. But as the delta variant has become more heinous in recent months, Orange County has faced new challenges: a simultaneous staffing shortage and the highest call volume it has ever faced.

Compared to pre-pandemic numbers, EMS calls have increased by 27%, an increase that Orange County Emergency Services Director and Woodward’s boss Kirby Saunders said had mostly occurred just in the past four months.

“Our highest recorded call volume ever was on June 21, 2021. It was 67 calls in one day,” Saunders said. “To put that in perspective, the county EMS system is built to sustain around 33 to 35 calls per day.”

Normally, SORS runs a single truck from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. through Orange County each night, filling a niche in local coverage but only operating beyond during surges, unusually high volume periods where Orange County calls for aid due to a lack in coverage, or special events, like football games and flood responses.

Pre-pandemic, SORS would be called upon to go on Surge relief calls maybe once a day. These days, it is more like thrice. On June 21, they were called on six times. Mauzy remembers the chaos, the polo-clad cadets running in and out of the station, the pager’s oscillating tones mutating from a purr to a hiss as the day went on.

“That’s a lot. That’s a big demand,” Mauzy said. “Our folks have lives, jobs, commitments, school, just like everybody else does outside of the time that they’re committing to South Orange. That’s six times in which they dropped whatever they were doing, put on a uniform and responded to the station to put an ambulance in service.”

SORS doesn’t just take calls in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. These days, blue and yellow stripes are seen far into Orange County, even into Wake and Durham as they answer the call for more people, a resource that volunteer-based SORS can afford to provide.  In 2021 alone, SORS’ standby summons have increased 220%, averaging out at about 1520 annual calls.

SORS is happy to help – after all, Woodward and the many other SORS graduates who have gone on to work for Orange County are family– but they, too, are tired. The increased calls are not the only challenge they face.

Between balancing COVID changes and helping COVID patients

Ozelkan spent almost three semesters of college and lieutenancy in a pandemic, training classes of upcoming cadets with Zoom seminars and socially distant catheters.

She’s proud, she said, of how the SORS team has found creative ways to train its newest members as it has faced more challenges now than ever, and sometimes she wondered if the cadets would even stick with it. Some have, some haven’t – but she finds herself wondering what they even owe SORS as COVID has ravaged their own lives.

“That’s something that has been challenging at times, but we were still able to do and still able to kind of maintain our daily operations,” Ozelkan said. “I think at the bare minimum, that’s all you can ask for, right?”

To Saunders, who is seeing his own workforce burned out at higher rates than ever, the commitment of SORS’ members is unfathomable.

“I can’t imagine being a college student and volunteering at a rescue squad that essentially asked you to volunteer what is the equivalent of full time,” Saunders said. “We appreciate that demand and stress, we have to be aware of that too. We can’t burn out the folks at SORS.”

Sustaining the family experience, one Zoom meeting at a time

SORS’ meetings, once held in the station elbow to elbow, are now Zoom-Square-to-Zoom-Square. One of the group’s challenges, Muazy said, has been retaining its unpaid staff’s engagement: when one of the greatest benefits you offer members, a family experience, has to be temporarily altered, it’s hard for some to justify staying involved.

Woodward and Saundars both have seen their own numbers dwindle, once as the pandemic’s initial wave set in and once again in the past few months. But in a time unprecedented in every sense of the word, Woodward knows she is not alone. SORS, the same group that gave her a life’s mission will help her see it through, will help her birth the pandemic-sustainable agency she is growing with every Surge call and SORS hire, of which there are many.

The Zoom meetings may be emptier than they once were. The station, now with disposable masks instead of Elmo’s takeout containers, is at once the same and different than it was before. But for Mauzy, and for Ozelkan, for all those who stayed, the changes and challenges—the Zoom meetings, the increased calls, travelling from county to county in a yellow and blue metal box ricketing down country roads and interstates— are worth it. Family doesn’t fade.

“Being a part of South Orange, it’s almost your next family, and in some cases, you see those people more often than you see your own family,” Mauzy said. “You see people at their worst, and you have the opportunity to see those people at their best. For me, it’s another extension of family.”

Edited by Montia Daniels