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Tenn. Paramedic Lives Out His Dream

CLINTON, Tenn. -- Derrick Phillips' world turned upside down inside a burning mobile home. Exactly what happened there that day remains a blank to the 39-year-old Andersonville resident, a volunteer firefighter then in that Anderson County community.

"It's better sometimes not to remember traumatic events," he said of that day in March 2007.

What happened, Anderson County Emergency Medical Services Director Nathan Sweet says, is that Phillips' mask was somehow knocked off, he lost his source of oxygen, and he collapsed.

Fellow firefighters dragged him from the burning trailer, but not before Phillips had inhaled what Sweet calls "superheated toxic gases."

Phillips' lungs were seared, his brain robbed of oxygen for precious minutes.

The incident derailed for years what had been an upward arc in Phillips' life.

He had become an Anderson County paramedic, a job he said he'd quickly grown to love after earlier stints in the military and as a mechanic.

Flown by medical helicopter to the University of Tennessee Medical Center after the accident, Phillips spent a week in a medically induced coma.

When he regained consciousness, his battle was just beginning. It would take years to recoup what he lost.

In addition to severe lung damage, Phillips had sustained memory loss, Sweet said. Recovery involved hours spent on a treadmill to regain lung capacity and stamina and sessions to relearn math and other mental skills.

All the time, Phillips said, his goal was to win back his paramedic status.

"I had worked so hard to get where I was," he said. "It was very hard to have all that jerked out from under me."

Said Sweet of Phillips: "He committed himself to not give up."

Phillips came back, Sweet said, "through great strength of mind and body and perseverance."

Phillips returned to Anderson County Emergency Medical Services in August 2007, but first as a supply officer at headquarters.

There were concerns about his ability to resume paramedic duties, he said. "They (medical personnel) tested me every year to see how much recovery I had made.

"The memory stuff, the neurologists wanted to make sure that since people's lives would depend on me, they wanted to make sure I could perform under pressure."

"I had to go through a lot of retraining," Phillips said of his goal to regain his paramedic's badge. "They didn't allow me to just jump on a truck. I was being evaluated while on calls."

He returned to work as a paramedic last year. He is now "living out his dream and serving as an inspiration to others to never give up," according to a resolution approved Tuesday by Anderson County commissioners.

Phillips, commissioners learned then, recently won Paramedic of the Year honors in the 16-county Region II of the EMS Directors Association.

He also received a volunteer service award from the military in recognition of his comeback.

"There's not a day goes by that I don't thank God that I get to do this," Phillips said of his job as a paramedic. "It's a miracle when God allows you to save somebody's life or otherwise make a difference."



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