Elderly Virginia EMT Still Responding to Calls

REEDVILLE – When his family decided to throw Bill Henderson a surprise 60th birthday party 28 years ago, they had to coordinate with the local emergency dispatcher to ensure he’d show up.

The dispatcher sent Henderson, a volunteer EMT, on a fake call to the local country club, where he was ambushed by family and friends. Otherwise, he never would have stopped responding to calls.

“I almost walked out,” Henderson said with a laugh, recalling his entrance.

Now, at age 88, Henderson still is an active member of the Northumberland County Rescue Squad. He’s been a volunteer EMT since 1963 and formally instructed for about 37 years.

But it’s the lessons he’s taught and the compassion he’s shown during his EMT career that have made him so well-known across the Northern Neck.

“Bill’s in a class by himself,” said Paul Carey, a member of the Northumberland squad and a former student of Henderson.

Henderson has always been a teacher, but he’s not an academic.

“What’s unusual about Bill as an instructor and as a leader is he focuses on his associates in the rescue squad with compassion,” Carey said.

“He’s always watchful. He’ll allow you to make a few non-critical mistakes where he thinks it will help reinforce the lesson. You don’t have a lot of instructors nowadays who have that kind of restraint and experience.”

Sometimes, students didn’t realize the lessons they’d taken away from Henderson until later, said Elsie Tomlin, president of the Northumberland squad and another former student of Henderson.

“He taught you a lot of times to broaden your mind and be open,” she said. “Look at all of your vitals and actually assess the patient.”

And occasionally, that involved rubber snakes.

To keep his students aware of their surroundings, Henderson would place rubber snakes, rubber mice or other demonstration items hidden in the classroom. Instruction like that helped Carey, a former student of Henderson, spot a gun at one scene and notify police.

Henderson no longer is a formal EMT instructor; he gave that up about three years ago. Teaching the courses required too much time, and students were using their cellphones during the class instead of learning, he said.

However, he’s still teaching.

When Henderson goes out on a call, “it makes a difference,” said Trish Newsome, a paramedic and member of the rescue squad who had Henderson as an instructor. Not only can he improve the outcome, but he can teach younger responders on the job.

“He’s forgotten more EMS knowledge than most people have ever known,” Newsome said.

With 53 years of experience, that’s no surprise. Before giving up instructing formally, he was the most senior EMT instructor in Virginia.

“I’ve never gone to Bill with a question that he doesn’t have an answer for,” Tomlin said.

When Tomlin needed someone to help her train to become a more experienced EMT, Henderson went on “lots of calls” to get her the wisdom she needed. His composure helps, too.

“The one thing I’ve always admired about Bill is, he’s calm,” Tomlin said. “Even if everyone else in the house is screaming, he’s thoughtful and methodical.”

Henderson still can recall stories from his early days as an EMT in Charlottesville. He came to the Northumberland Rescue Squad in 1994 and has served only as a volunteer – maintenance, clerical and lab jobs paid the bills.

And there is no shortage of accolades in his honor. He was named EMT of the year in 2000 by Rappahannock General Hospital; the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad named its training room after him; and in 2003, he was recognized with the Governor’s Award for outstanding pre-hospital provider.

But Henderson is humble and said he’s “no more important than anyone else.”

Henderson doesn’t go on as many calls now. The scanner never is far away, but he’s taken on more administrative duties – handling quality assurance and being the “legal mind” while also serving on the rescue squad’s board of directors.

Henderson’s wife died a few years ago – something that was hard for all squad members. But to Henderson, the Northumberland Rescue Squad is his family.

“The people you run with, you have to rely on them. And they have to rely on you,” he said.

“It draws a camaraderie and friendship that you don’t get in a lot of places.”

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com(804) 649-6243Twitter: @jmattingly306

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