Paramedic Chris Hancock has always liked proving other people wrong. He's been doing it since he was an infant.
Hancock was born with a short right leg, and his right hand had only two fingers ƒ including one extra-wide finger. Doctors initially didn't expect Hancock to live past his first birthday because of his condition.
For the first two years of his life, Hancock was hospitalized while he underwent a series of painful surgeries to correct his condition. At 3-years-old, surgeons separated Hancock's extra-wide finger, creating two fingers in addition to his thumb. Hancock also had several surgeries to amputate his undersized foot, fuse his deformed knee joint and prepare his hip for a prosthetic leg. He spent six months in a body cast,
Through it all, Hancock never let his condition stop him from doing the things he wanted to do. Despite being outfitted with a prosthetic leg, he lettered in basketball, baseball and football, and spent little time on the bench.
On his 16th birthday, Hancock joined the local rescue squad as a volunteer. This was where he got his first taste of EMS, assisting on several calls a day. It was a natural fit, and by the time he graduated high school, Hancock was working in EMS full-time. For eight years, he worked 24 hours on, 24 hours off shifts, sometimes going on 30 calls a day.
"It was hard work, but I just got so much experience," Hancock said.
Looking back at all of those years surrounded by people in the medical field, a career in EMS seemed pretty much like fate, Hancock says.
"I guess I lived at the hospital from the time I was 3 until about 7," said the Bishopville, S.C, resident. "Born in a hospital, raised in a hospital."
Hancock credits his parents for much of his early success. He grew up on a farm, and his parents expected him to pitch in and work hard.
"They had some insight," said Hancock, "because if they would have pampered me at that age, I would have never done for myself."
Hancock's foray into EMS wasn't without its challenges. Because of his physical issues, he wasn't immediately welcomed by some of his rough-and-tumble coworkers. Many of them were ex-truck drivers, and they put him "through the mill," he said. Many of his coworkers weren't convinced Hancock could be a good paramedic on just one good leg. It took about six months, Hancock remembers, before the attitude toward him changed.
A partner of Hancock's for nearly 14 years, Robbin Morgan said Hancock may have struggled with others to gain their acceptance, but he made a good impression on her from the start.
The two met in 1989 when Morgan and Hancock worked at Tuomey Hospital in Sumter, South Carolina. She said she was struck by his professionalism and obvious passion for the job.
"It was hard for some of his coworkers to accept the fact that he could do the job and that he was good at what he did," Morgan said. "He never let the fact that he has disabilities keep him from what he loves doing best ƒ being a paramedic."
The two became fast friends and Morgan even introduced Hancock to his future wife. In 1990, the partners helped start a Christmas fund for local families that continues today.
That year Morgan, Hancock and their coworkers used $25 gift cards given to them by the hospital where they worked to buy presents for two small children whose family had lost everything they owned in a fire.
Years later, they used the money from the fund ƒ coupled with money and donations from local businesses ƒ to buy presents for nine children who were being cared for by their grandmother. Some of that money was also used to pay for some repairs to their house.
By the late 1990s, Hancock had been promoted to a shift supervisor, but continued to go out on calls. It wasn't just a matter of enjoying the action, Hancock said. He couldn't imagine how he'd be able to evaluate the employees he supervised without seeing them in the field.
Not long after, however, Hancock began to feel the toll of years of tending to patients and lifting stretchers on one leg. His back began hurting.
By 2000, he assumed the role of training officer, remaining in the role until November of 2002. After years of strenuous work, the smallest movement ended his career. One Sunday morning, his back gave out while doing little more than sitting at his desk.
"I reached down to the bottom of my drawer and that was it," he said. "I still think it's ironic. After all the calls, that did it."
Getting hurt has been a real eye-opener, Hancock says. For once in his life, someone was telling him he couldn't do something.
"When I first got hurt it was a first for me in so many ways," he said. "It was a slap in the face. The bottom line is the fact that I couldn't do EMS anymore. Nobody had ever told me that."
Hancock said he's considered part-time teaching but worries that he'll miss being out and active on the streets. He said he hopes that, one day, paramedics injured as a result of their jobs, like himself, will get more support. In the meantime, he'd like to find other paramedics who are amputees to share experiences with.
"Leaving the field has been a hard pill to swallow," Hancock says. "Even today I still hear sirens and want to go."
Contact Chris Hancock atEMSGCH@FTC-i.net.