EMS Voices: A Hearse of a Different Color

When Robert Thurman started riding ambulances, there were no defibrillators, no medications, no EMTs, no paramedics…and no EMS!


As a card-carrying technophobe, I find nostalgia a welcome distraction. Memories of simpler timeswhen squawks were squelched and pulses weren’t oxed—compensate for my distrust of all things digital.

Imagine how Robert Thurman must feel; when he started riding ambulances, there were no defibrillators, no medications, no EMTs, no paramedics…and no EMS!

“I did my first call right out of high school, in 1958,” the Cookeville, TN, native recalls. “In those days most funeral homes had combination-type ambulances that could also be used as hearses with a few quick modifications. Almost all combinations had red lights and sirens in the grill under the hood plus removable red beacons on top.”

Thurman had easy access to those early ambulances. “My dad’s family operated two mortuaries not far from where we lived. I’d help on the ambulance or sometimes at funerals—not as a job, just to help my uncle out. He might give me $10. The pay didn’t get much better for a long time.

“Those Cadillacs had O2, bedpans, urinals, toilet paper, extra linen and not much else. What we did have is a personal touch you rarely see today. We got to know the patients and the hospital staff real well. We did the emergency runs, we did the transports, we’d take people to the doctor—we’d even drive people home from the hospital.”

Robert was offered his first full-time job as an “ambulance attendant” after aiding a bicyclist struck by a car.

“It was the summer of ’59, right after my first year at Tennessee Tech. I was sitting on the front porch when I noticed traffic slowing down on the road that ran past our house. I walked out there and saw a neighborhood kid lying in a huge pool of blood. When the ambulance showed up—driven by the owner of the responding funeral home—I was asked to help out.

“We stopped at the local hospital, picked up two RNs, then headed for Nashville. That ’57 Cadillac didn’t have any IV hooks, so the nurses and I took turns holding-up those glass bottles. I remember looking over my shoulder at the speedometer and seeing 100, 110. This was on a two-lane highway with sharp curves. We did the 90 miles to Vanderbilt in 73 minutes.”

In 1972, after earning degrees in business management and mortuary science, and establishing himself in the banking industry, Robert became Tennessee EMT #272 (I’m 32239). “It was an 81-hour course,” Thurman states. “That doesn’t sound like much, but we got to try things that paramedics still can’t do, like assisting in surgery.”

When Nashville’s fire department became the primary provider of emergency ambulance services in 1974, Thurman considered applying, but he felt it was too risky. “I’d been in banking for eight years, with a wife and two children. Nashville offered no benefits—no hospitalization, nothing—so I took a part-time job at one of the funeral homes instead. By then we weren’t allowed to take 911 calls unless the fire department gave them to us.”

After that mortuary ceased ambulance service in 1977, Robert joined the Davidson County Rescue Squad, a volunteer organization he’s still with 35 years later. “We have about 70 members, including EMTs, medics and a couple of nurses,” he reports. “We work very closely with the Nashville Fire Department as their backup, but most of what we do is preplanned.” Thurman adds that he has a special place in his heart for volunteers. “I’m glad I know how it feels to do something because you love it, not because you’re making any money at it.”

Robert’s vice-president position at the bank became a casualty of late-‘90s mergers and reorganizations. “I went to work for the [Nashville] fire department as a dispatcher. Back then you had to be an EMT or a paramedic to do that job. Now it’s a civilian position separate from fire and EMS.”

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