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

Lavish to longing, a man who finds stability through tough times

By Jackson Moseley

Buddy Wayne Rayle is woken up at 6:30 a.m. by his pit bull, Amber, whose energy reminds Rayle of the vigor that he once had in his youth. He makes his way to the kitchen, puts on a pot of decaf coffee and gets ready for the day. After dressing himself, Rayle scrambles a couple of eggs with margarine, sprinkling in a handful of cheese.

The house is small — and over 100 years old — but comfortable. It sits tucked away on a plot of land in Haw River, North Carolina, next to a few other vacant houses. Rayle has done what he can to make it feel like a home.

After breakfast, Rayle takes Amber to a private dog park a couple of miles away, watching her run without a leash on the five-acre plot of land. He used to take her here every morning, but his recent spells of vertigo have forced him to scale back on the number of times he goes out of the house.

After taking Amber to the dog park, Rayle drives back home and puts on the TV in the living room once he gets back. Later that day, the landlord’s children stop by to chat with him. They enjoy listening to his stories and playing with Amber as much as he enjoys their company.

This is a typical day for Rayle. It’s lonely at times, but that has never stopped him from seeing the best out of his situation. In fact, seeing the best out of his situation is something that Rayle has been forced to do over the years.

The monotony of his daily routine belies the wild roller coaster of life experiences that Rayle has undergone. From growing up dirt-poor on a farm to making $1 million a year, Rayle has done it all.

A modest beginning

Known as Buddy to family and Wayne to just about everybody else, Rayle was born on February 6, 1939, on a farm in Guilford County, North Carolina, not terribly far from where he lives now. Since his family lived nowhere close to a hospital, he was delivered by his grandmother.

Rayle lived on a farm until he was 14 years old. For most of his childhood, there was no electricity and no plumbing. Only vast stretches of grass and, on that, the ragtag building that the Rayles called home. Without any friends nearby, Rayle had to make his own fun. He enjoyed adventuring in the woods with his pocket knife and the slingshot that he had designed using a tire innertube.

The smells of fresh air, grass, trees, and biscuits cooking in the morning. The sweltering heat in the middle of the summer. The buzzing of flies in the house as a result of the windows being down. These are all sensations that defined Rayle’s childhood.

Around Christmas time in 1954, the Rayle family moved to the edge of the city, where Rayle’s father had gotten a job at a service station.

That year, Rayle felt like something of a misfit. While all the other kids showed up to school wearing penny loafers and khaki pants, he had only his washed-out farming blue jeans. His parents couldn’t afford to buy anything else, so Rayle got a job delivering newspapers in the city.

From farming blue jeans to caps and gowns

Rayle’s father had dropped out of school after the seventh grade. His mother, the third grade. Despite his parents’ lack of education, Rayle graduated second in his class, never having missed a single day of school, and he was just as successful in his social life as he was in academics.

Mable Lane, one of Rayle’s friends from elementary and high school with whom he has kept in contact over the years, said that while Rayle was shy and reserved in elementary school, he was very outgoing and friendly in high school.

In addition to being class president, Rayle was on the basketball team and was a member of numerous clubs. But of all his extracurriculars, it was the drama club that left the greatest impact on Rayle. He hadn’t even thought of joining it until his English teacher, Miss Dixie Guill, who doubled as the drama teacher, approached him one day in the tenth grade and convinced him to join the club.

About a year after he joined the club, Miss Guill approached him one day after class and asked him about his plans for college.

“I’ve never thought about college,” he said.

“Well, Wayne, you’ve got to go to college,” she said. “We’re going to start applying.”

And there was no use in convincing her otherwise. She started applying to colleges for Rayle, and he was accepted into five different schools.

Rayle decided to go to Guilford College, which offered him a scholarship that would cover his tuition. He married his high school sweetheart in June after she graduated high school, the summer after his freshman year of college. They had two children together.

Rayle graduated college with a degree in economics and minors in history and religion. Over the next few decades, he worked for several insurance companies and, despite a few setbacks, enjoyed a great degree of success in his career, receiving promotion after promotion.

Fortitude in the face of uncertainty 

However, Rayle did not experience that same level of success in his marriage. His first marriage ended in divorce after six years. He married again and had two more kids, but that marriage lasted only eight years. He married a third time and had two more kids, and this marriage seemed like it might last.

Rayle started his own insurance agency in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1980. The company, and Rayle himself, enjoyed great success. Soon enough, he was making $1 million a year. He and his family lived in a nice house in a country club neighborhood with a pool in the backyard. On top of that, he owned two beach houses and even started construction on a mountain house by the lake.

Unfortunately, that period of success ended when Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989. Businesses that his agency insured were destroyed up and down the East Coast. The company that he worked with couldn’t pay their losses, so Rayle eventually had to close the insurance agency and declare bankruptcy. This, along with other factors, led to his third and final divorce.

After this, Rayle hopped around from job to job, but he never kept one particular job for very long, and he never again made nearly as much money as he once did. Eventually, he retired in 2017 at the age of 78.

Rayle has lived in his current house since October. The pandemic has only amplified his loneliness, but he still keeps in contact with old friends. Every few months, Cheryl Raiford, the woman he has been seeing since 2004 whom he describes as the love of his life, comes to visit him from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Jerry Blake, one of Rayle’s friends from high school who recently reconnected with him, said that Rayle’s internal fortitude was one of his defining characteristics. That fortitude, Blake said, allowed Rayle to push through difficult, dark times and to return to a stable and happy situation in life.

And perhaps there is no better word than fortitude to describe Rayle.

Edited by Montia Daniels