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Paramedic, Life Partner Had a Knack for Helping

 

BRANDON - Woody Harris and Janet Taylor met more than 30 years ago, when both were in training as emergency workers for Hillsborough County.

She remembers the exact September day in 1981.

"The first time our eyes met, I just kind of knew that he was the one," said Janet Harris, 61. She liked his quiet confidence and his looks.

They worked as partners before anyone at Hillsborough Emergency Medical Services knew they were married: car wrecks, plane crashes, shootings and stabbings. An arsonist's attack on a Winn-Dixie that killed five and injured 13. Digging survivors from the rubble of a collapsed building.

On a kitchen floor in Ybor City, they even delivered a baby together.

He taught her two sons how to hunt, how to dig for worms to use fishing and how to plunge into Florida's icy springs.

For nearly two years, they kept their relationship a secret from even their closest co-workers.

They married April 9, 1983. A few months later, with Janet wanting to change her last name to Harris, they spoke to their supervisor. Officials mulled it over.

They left the partnership intact another four years. During their 48-hour stretches off work, between every 24 hours on, the family stayed outdoors, traveling around Florida.

Mr. Harris, an amateur herpetologist since boyhood, kept more than two dozen snakes at home, many of them venomous. They were an object of lifelong fascination and an aid to Boy Scouts seeking merit badges.
William Lynwood Harris Jr. was born in Orlando in 1956, the son of a pharmacist. By 10, he was catching rattlesnakes with his bare hands and bringing them home.

"His mother was extremely alarmed that he was doing this," his wife said.

His parents brought the boy to Ross Allen, hoping the famed herpetologist who milked deadly snakes for a living could talk some sense to their son.

Allen talked with him for a half hour, then told the parents that they had better get used to it. "He said, 'The boy loves them and he's not going to stop,'?" his wife said.

The family moved to Brandon when Mr. Harris was 13. A train wreck near his home influenced him profoundly. A Boy Scout at the time, he was able to help stabilize injured passengers until help arrived. That experience propelled him to join the Navy, where he stayed four years and became a corpsman.

Mr. Harris earned paramedic's status in 1986. He was also a certified firefighter, but preferred the excitement of "the box," the emergency workers' term for ambulance.

"Everything is so chaotic," his wife said. "You have to be the one to step in and be the calm, level-headed person while everybody else is running in circles screaming, and he was excellent at that."

After more than 25 years of service, Mr. Harris retired in 2007 as a captain of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. Janet Harris, also a paramedic, retired in 2011.

She bought a camper with a queen-sized bed. They took it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park last fall, and had planned to haul it out west, where they had already taken three trips.

But first, the couple wanted to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.

So they towed their camper to Tavernier, in Key Largo, arriving April 14. They ate yellowtail snapper at a local restaurant and talked of snorkeling at John Penne­kamp Coral Reef State Park.

Early April 17, Mr. Harris lay on the bed watching Miss Congeniality with his wife. Suddenly, his wife said, "He sat bolt upright and said, 'Call the emergency rescue squad' - and collapsed."

Janet Harris called 911 and started giving her husband CPR. He was pronounced dead at Mariners Hospital. He was 57.

Multiple pulmonary emboli originating from a blood clot had caused his death, his wife said.

Former colleagues have stepped up. "As the firefighters always say, 'We'll take it from here,'?" she said.

His former co-workers are saddened, but they know more than anyone that death can come at any time.
"Sometimes we think that as caregivers we are given an extension because we're caring for others and somehow we're scoring points," said Bill Ratliff, 54, a former colleague at Hillsborough Fire Rescue. "But it doesn't work that way."

Janet Harris knows this much: In his last moments, her husband had the absolute best care.

"From the moment he stopped breathing, I was breathing for him," she said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.   

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