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The National EMS Memorial Bike Ride: Postcards From the Road

I participated in the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride’s (NEMSBR’s) southern route from May 13–17. Our route started in Raleigh, N.C., and ended at National Harbor in Alexandria, Va.

Day one started with light showers and a hot breakfast at Duke University’s EMS department. As we began riding the charm of the old southern neighborhoods led us quickly to the bike trails that would take us out of the city.

Several miles into the ride, our cells phones started to ping: weather alerts, heavy rain and hail, wind, tornado alert. Passing through a park we found rest rooms, the building made of cinder blocks and a covered pavilion beside it. As soon as we got under cover it became dark, the wind picked up, and it began to pour, with pea-size hail mixed in. We sheltered for about 30 minutes until the storm passed over. Another part of the group, separated, was caught in the rain before finding shelter in a convenience store.

This put us behind schedule, so we were shuttled to the next rest stop. The ride took us through the area where the tornado had touched down, with lots of trees down and some homes damaged. Our choice to stop and shelter was wise.

Remembering Those Lost

This year was a hard year for the “Muddy Angels” participating in the ride, as we lost two of our own: one rider, Isaac “Skippy” Greenlaw, and one wingman, Tom Costa. The ultimate wingman, Tom passed away due to complications from cancer. He’d served in the military and after retirement became a state trooper. I remember Tom as always having a smile on his face and helping everyone who needed assistance. Skippy took his own life last September. He is mourned and missed by all who knew him.

The riders made numerous stops at different rescue squads where they got to meet their counterparts. At several stops we’d read aloud the names we were riding for and ring a bell after each name. One such stop was at Henry Volunteer Fire Department in Mechanicsville, Va. That department lost Lt. Bradford Clark last October. Clark is credited for saving the lives of his crew on an accident scene: He gave them a last-second warning to move quickly as a vehicle was bearing down on them. The vehicle struck Clark, killing him. Since the incident his wife has been working to get a “move over” law passed. Rider Kate Passow, who was wearing Clark’s dog tag, presented it to his wife. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Fatigue and Flats

Riders can become fatigued and maybe dehydrated, and that happened to one of our riders this year. She’d covered more than 100 miles the day before. On the day after the “century” ride, we noticed she wasn’t her usual strong self—she was riding slower, falling behind. This was a day of country roads through rolling hills, the sun bright and warm. At lunch she was several miles behind. One rider went back to check on her, even though she had a vehicle following.

This is a woman who has no quit. With encouragement she gritted it out to the next stop, which was the lunch stop. She gathered herself during lunch and went back out for the next leg. Once again she started to fall back. At the next rest stop, two riders went back to join her. They came to a hill, less than a mile to the rest stop, and the three labored slowly up. Half mile from the rest stop, her front tire went flat. Determined, she pedaled on, struggling mightily through fatigue and the flat. Once there she became nauseous with chills. She was dehydrated. Finally she “sagged out”: During the next ride section, she was taken to a local emergency room, where she got rehydrated. She rode the next day and finished the week.

Remembering Isaac

I took the fourth day off and helped the wingmen. They’re the unsung heroes of any bike ride. Without the wingmen, the ride doesn’t move one inch. I rode with Camille—she was driving a truck, moving luggage, bicycles, bike racks, signs, and anything else riders put in it. Camille was great company; she works alongside Passow as a volunteer at the Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad in Loudoun County, Va. Together we worked as a team, Camille directing and me doing, setting up for rest stops, lunch, and a ceremony. It enhanced my appreciation for all the wingmen do.

Friday, day five, the last day of the ride, we rode to National Harbor in Alexandria for our final ceremony. We met up with riders from the East Coast ride that had started in Boston the previous Saturday. This day the riders started from the Maryland Fire-Rescue Services Memorial in Annapolis. Following bike paths in and around Maryland and Washington, D.C., we made it to National Harbor late in the afternoon.

We held a final ceremony there; families of some of those we were riding for attended. After the ceremony the riders with the dog tags for the fallen of the families in attendance presented their tags to them.

During the ceremony I stood with Judy Costa, Tom’s wife. She also helped as a wingman on this ride. We stood side by side, arms around each other, holding each other up. As the names were read, we both began crying as her husband’s was called. When Isaac’s name followed, I broke down completely. It was the first time I’d cried for him. I had been mad at him—for taking his life, for not calling me or anyone else from this organization. We’d have dropped anything to go help him through whatever he was dealing with. Judy cried just as hard, not only for Tom but also for Isaac, a close friend.

It was almost cathartic. I’d thought a lot about Isaac on this ride. The pain of his loss was all coming out. We all lost a great friend. He will be remembered.

More Stories of the Ride

There was another person I rode for during the week: Susan Stedman, a 20-year veteran EMT from Kennebunkport (Me.) EMS. Susan served as assistant chief and a member of the board of directors. Her husband told me about her death. She was in chemotherapy for cancer and had an MI after a treatment. He also spoke of how proud her father was of her after the funeral procession passed the EMS station. The ambulance was on the ramp, and Susan’s helmet and boots were in front of it. Her father is a retired firefighter. I will be meeting with Susan’s family in the coming weeks to present them with her dog tag I wore during the ride.

Two of the oldest riders who participated this year were John Hill, Sr. and Dr. Frank Larue, both 78. These two are an inspiration. Frank rode in the two-day ride for Skippy the first week of May, then joined the NEMSBR East Coast ride in Boston for three days before joining the southern ride for another three. One of those was a century (100-plus miles) day. When he rides he doesn’t even seem to be exerting himself, just turning the pedals with an effortless focus.

John Hill, Sr. came thinking he would help the wingmen but also brought his bicycle just in case. John also rode the century day, along with two other days. After each he didn’t seem to be any worse for the wear. They truly demonstrate the virtue of never growing old or giving up.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Kasey Harrison. Kasey lost her husband in aeromedical accident in 2017. In 2018 he was inducted to the EMS Memorial, and that’s where Kasey was introduced to the EMS Memorial Ride. Kasey became a wingman this year, helping with rest stops and keeping the riders on route. She told me she felt humbled to be with the riders and see the support the different squads provided. She’s thinking about doing the ride next year and spoke about coming back every year as long as she can.

I’m home now and ready for the next ride. Colorado, I hear you calling.

RIP, Tom and Isaac.

Mike Kennard, EMT-P, has been in EMS for more than 33 years. He currently works as a paramedic at Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.H., and is a program coordinator for the New Hampshire Bureau of EMS. Mike is a retired assistant chief from the Nottingham (N.H.) Fire and Rescue Department. Contact him at grumpy1medic@gmail.com.

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